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At a corporate-owned multiplex, you can enjoy a comfy seat, state-of-the-art picture and sound, and an entertaining spy film.

At St. Helena’s Cameo Cinema, you can get all that. Plus even better picture and sound quality. Plus an actual spy.

After 11 years under Cathy Buck’s ownership, the Cameo is still alive thanks to a mix of films that appeal to St. Helena’s demographic, community programming, and special perks like the recent screening of “The Catcher is a Spy,” where former CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson talked about her own experience as a covert operative who infamously had her cover blown by members of the George W. Bush administration.

Tickets to that show sold out well in advance. A rare showing of a restored version of “The Cotton Club,” featuring a Q&A with director Francis Ford Coppola, sold out even more quickly in November.

Last year also saw hits like “A Star is Born,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and a pair of well-attended documentaries, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “RBG.” “Green Book,” which ended its run earlier this month, was a runaway hit and Buck’s favorite movie of the year.

The rise of streaming content has taken its toll on the Cameo and the movie theater business in general, and 2018 had its share of movies that underperformed at the Cameo, like “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” and “The 15:17 to Paris.” But those were exceptions.

“It’s always a struggle, and I don’t know if a single-screen will ever be out of the woods,” Buck said. “But the community is very generous in its support.”

Notwithstanding the occasional bomb, Buck said she feels like she’s hitting her stride in terms of choosing movies that will appeal to St. Helenans: period pieces, director-driven films, anything that involves food or wine, and nothing too scary or bloody.

This was a strong year for the studios, which produced some innovative original films and relied a little less on retreads, Buck said.

“I think there’s been more year-round programming that appeals to our demographic,” Buck said.

In 2019 Buck wants to keep building in-roads with Netflix, perhaps becoming one of the limited number of theaters where the streaming giant screens its movies. Netflix’s “Roma” played at the Cameo in December.

The Cameo’s community programming will continue in 2019, including Science on Screen, NapaShakes, CinemaBites, and the Family Film Festival, which will celebrate its 10th year in May.

The Cameo is planning a series of events in conjunction with National Science Week March 20-26, including a hands-on space exhibit at the Masonic building. To support programs like that, Buck is thinking about offering naming rights to local sponsors.

Technology-wise, the Cameo is in great shape. Buck was planning to mount a capital campaign to buy a 4K laser projector last April when anonymous donors stepped up and donated the entire cost of $228,000. Only about 100 theaters have that projector, and the Cameo combines it with a Dolby Atmos sound system.

She’s also proud of how the Cameo – with social media help from Janet Costner – has built relationships with organizations like NapaLearns, Mentis and local schools.

“Our outreach to different organizations in the valley has expanded,” she said. “There have been some new faces coming to the movie theater, which is exciting.”

Buck also wants to continue the Cameo’s partnership with the Napa Valley Film Festival, which planning more events year-round, she said.

But for the most part, Cameo patrons shouldn’t expect any drastic changes. Ticket prices aren’t going up, and the 2:00/5:00/7:45 schedule won’t change.

“I want to thank everybody for another year,” Buck said.

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St. Helena Reporter

Jesse has been a reporter for the St. Helena Star since 2006.