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Galaxy Wall at St. Helena's Cameo Cinema

Bronze stars on the Cameo Cinema's Galaxy Wall honor the theater's donors.

The Cameo Cinema has been around in one form or another for 106 years, and it’s never served St. Helena better than it does today.

However, proprietor Cathy Buck and boardmembers of the Cameo’s nonprofit arm are warning that the theater can’t stick around forever without a concerted community effort to support it. That means not just going to more movies but, most important, donating to the Cameo Cinema Foundation.

Attendance is down 40% over the last three months, and not all of that can be attributed to power shutoffs and the Kincade Fire. There are an average of 33 people at each screening, out of a total of 140 seats. The Cameo needs 50 to break even.

Buck said she’s still optimistic, and the Cameo won’t close this year or next year. But the theater’s unique for-profit/nonprofit business model is clearly not sustainable without a broader donor base.

The Cameo’s plea is especially resonant given the closing of Main Street Books, another downtown institution that had to confront new technology, consumer habits and local demographics.

Losing the bookstore is bad enough, but Main Street without the Cameo is almost unthinkable.

There would be serious economic ripple effects, especially for restaurants who benefit from dinner-and-a-movie date nights. But the cultural loss of an institution that offers quality entertainment and education to families and individuals of all ages would be devastating.

St. Helena without the Cameo wouldn’t be the St. Helena we’ve come to love.

Buck is taking some sensible steps to balance her books. Starting Dec. 1, ticket prices will rise from $8 to $9. Come 2020, she’ll probably eliminate two lightly attended matinee screenings a week to reduce payroll and overhead.

Yet with movie studios pocketing 50-70% of every ticket price, that still won’t right the ship. Buck and Cameo Cinema Foundation boardmembers Piper Cole and Kevin Coleman say the 7-year-old foundation (formerly known as the Friends of the Cameo) has become vital to the Cameo’s success in the new era of on-demand streaming.

They say switching to a completely nonprofit business model wouldn’t do much to boost donations, while severely harming the theater’s relationship with studios. Buck’s ability to book movies during the first week or two of their theatrical runs would vanish, leaving a schedule more akin to the nonprofit Sebastiani Theatre in Sonoma (which, by the way, charges $11 for an adult ticket).

The Cameo has obvious historical value to St. Helena, as you can see in a video posted at cameocinemafoundation.org. But it’s not just a curio. Even in the age of streaming and peak TV, the Cameo has tremendous value.

A viewer with a Netflix subscription can access a plethora of quality programming, but not even the best home entertainment system can match the Cameo’s ultra-high-end digital laser projector and Dolby Atmos sound system.

Nor does the comfiest living room match the experience of watching a movie on a big screen, wolfing down buttery popcorn, and feeling emotions and visceral thrills wash over a roomful of viewers who are, for a few precious hours, caught up in the same rapture as you.

No streaming service can match the Cameo’s community programming and in-person appearances by filmmakers, chefs and scientists during events like Lunafest, CinemaBites, Science on Screen, and the Napa Valley Film Festival.

When it comes to concessions, it’s tough to beat cookies from Annie the Baker, hyper-local wines, and Mad Fritz beer.

And for the kids, Youtube can’t compete with the Cameo’s annual Family Film Festival of the Napa Valley or the Science on Screen Week that pairs fun and educational films with hands-on activities.

So donate whatever you can, even if it’s not much, to the Cameo Cinema Foundation. And a few times a month, trade an evening of binge-watching for a trip to one of the last – and by far the most technologically advanced – single-screen theaters in the U.S.

Let’s all go to the movies while we still can.

The Star editorial board consists of editors David Stoneberg and Sean Scully and community volunteers Norma Ferriz, Christopher Hill, Shannon Kuleto, Bonnie Long, Peter McCrea, Gail Showley and Dave Yewell.

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