SMALLSCREEN: Cinema Outside the City

Since 1988, the Appalachian Media Institute has provided opportunities for young people from across Central Appalachia to explore their home communities, address local issues, and become thoughtful, engaged citizens through the process of place-based media making. This Appalshop program has trained over 1,000 young people and supported the production of over 125 youth-made media pieces.
Photo Credit: Appalachian Media Institute.
[Editor’s Note: Today we welcome Jessie Sims to Art of the Rural. Raised in the North Georgia mountains, Jessie spends her summers working on the Chattahoochee River. She has completed three years of an undergraduate degree in Philosophy at Princeton University and today launches the new Art of the Rural series SMALLSCREEN: Cinema Outside the City.
SMALLSCREEN is a multimedia project dedicated to mapping all forms of rural independent cinema exhibition and highlighting rural productions, place-based documentaries, and filmmakers who have an eye on the rural. Along the way, Jessie will develop a variety of cultural materials and contribute to the formation of an online rural film community. Most of all, Jessie is working to “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”- Robert Bresson]

SMALLSCREEN: Cinema Outside the City

By Jessica Sims

Public screenings of documentaries, local productions, and international cinema are important as cultural and communal resources. They inform and inspire. They ignite conversation. They give global perspective and create common experience. This kind of screening is wildly popular in cities, where every library and coffee bar seems to have a film series, but it is still rare in small town America. Here, opportunities to gather in front of a screen are largely limited to Hollywood multiplexes and living rooms.

As of now, no nationwide arts organization has a robust program dedicated to independent, rural cinema. And, as far as I can tell, there isn’t an association of film societies in America that could promote the formation of small town clubs. These observations were seeds for SMALLSCREEN, an Art of the Rural project dedicated to mapping rural, alternative exhibition in all its forms.

In the early planning stages of this project, I began to question if it was possible for international, amateur, or documentary screenings to thrive in a small town, if a rural community could really support a non-Hollywood film culture. I assured myself, “Anywhere that has sparse evening entertainment and enough curious people, it’s probably possible.” Then, I actually began to discover flourishing small town film venues — places that prove independent cinema can have a role in small town life. Across rural America, dedicated exhibitors are expanding the range of cinema available in their communities, providing spaces for communal gathering, and creating film culture outside the city.

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Bryson VanNostrand stands in his 40-seat microcinema in Buckhannon, West Virginia. This clipping is from a 2003 Charleston Daily Mail article by Deanna Wrenn.

The LASCAUX MICRO-THEATER in Buckhannon, West Virginia — a town of 6,000 people — screens a new-release foreign film every Friday night and has been for more than ten years. After studying film at architecture school, Bryson and Gretchen VanNostrand launched LASCAUX in the basement of their downtown Buckhannon office. The VanNostrands’ Friday night screenings attract a regular audience and the couple sends a monthly newsletter to more than 150 of the cinema’s supporters.

LASCAUX screenings are a rare opportunity in central West Virginia. They are what the VanNostrand’s aim for — “a window out to the world through international film.” And unlike large commercial multiplexes, the microcinema is able to screen local work. “Although we mostly feature foreign film,” Bryson says, “we do occasionally have the chance to feature a local filmmaker. Our audience always responds well to locally produced films.”

LASCAUX is an exemplar of the rising microcinema movement, a movement fueled by people’s desire for small, specialized cinemas and enabled by increasingly cheaper technology. Microcinema operators want to screen what they believe needs to be seen or what they know cannot be seen elsewhere. The VanNostrands, true to microcinema spirit, advise all prospective microcinema operators to keep costs as low as possible, so you can “maintain your freedom to select the films that should be screened but may not be the most profitable for the venue.”

In a 2007 article on microcinemas, titled “Cinemas of the Future,” Rebecca Alvin writes that the DIY nature of the microcinema movement is particularly exciting for smaller places. Alvin is a filmmaker and the curator of Cape Cod’s film society. In her article, she says that through low-budget cinemas like LASCAUX, “the sense of community that is essential to the theatergoing experience, distinguishing it from home entertainment, has been wonderfully rearticulated,” and “the glory of cinephilia is extended to smaller suburban and rural communities.”

Film societies, like the one Alvin curates on Cape Cod, offer another low-budget model for rural exhibition. They foster community around cinema and can screen in public building, businesses, or private homes. One of the most celebrated film societies in U.S. history is Amos and Marcia Vogel’s Cinema 16. The club ran in New York City from 1947 to 1963 and is often credited with introducing foreign films to the American public. At its peak, the club’s membership swelled to 7,000. Today, at least in part due to the Vogels’ efforts, there are thousands of people in the rural United States interested in alternative viewing.


Ballroom Marfa, a contemporary art museum in a desert Texas town offers film programs each season. Marfa, Texas, like many small towns, also hosts an independent film festival. This picture, Marfa Ballroom, is licensed CC 2.0 by Jack Says Relax.

SMALLSCREEN is a multimedia project dedicated to mapping all forms of rural independent cinema exhibition — from microcinemas and film societies to festivals and museum programs. The project also serves as a place to highlight rural productions, place-based documentaries, and filmmakers. See SMALLSCREEN’s homepage on the digital mapping platform, PlaceStories, to view the venues and projects we’ve found so far.

We hope you’ll aid us in the discovery process, in order to create a truly nationwide map of cinema outside the city. In addition to the mapping on Art of the Rural’s Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture, SMALLSCREEN aims to:

– Create materials, including an annual Rural Independent Cinema Listing and an online Field Guide to Cinema in Rural America, which will feature relevant film trailers, filmmaker spotlights, and resource links

– Form an online community that will

  • Promote the exhibition of independent, documentary, repertory, experimental, and international cinema in small towns.
  • Encourage the production of amateur and professional productions by rural residents.
  • Encourage exchange between small town exhibitors, filmmakers, and organizations.

“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”
– Robert Bresson

To contribute your own stories to SMALLSCREEN, create a PlaceStories profile or send them to I will map any emailed stories through my own PlaceStories account.

How to create a PlaceStories profile:
1. Visit
2. Once there, click “JOIN”. Fill in the user information.
3. Once you’ve gone on to the next page, click on “Join Some Communities” and select “Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture”
4. The navigation icon at the top left will guide your use of Placestories.
5. By clicking on “My Projects”, you’ll be able to add a project. Select the project “SMALLSCREEN.” Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to add stories.

How to create a story in the SMALLSCREEN project:
For each story, you’ll need an image, sound, or video, and 100-500 words of text about the venue, society, film, or filmmaker. You’ll also want to list the location, and/or the location of the project.
Here are some tips:
1) Image – Landscape shaped images (wider than high) generally work better in the postcard template than portrait shaped images.
2) Text– the postcard template displays around 100 words. If you would like to include more text than fits on the postcard it will display in full on the story web page.
3) Audio and Video- this is an extra option. Any filmmakers who want to share a trailer or reel, here is the place.
4) Location – every story must be given a location. The place name you type in appears on the front of the postcard. It can be as specific as a street address.
5) Publishing and Tags- your postcard will be published straight into the SMALLSCREEN project. SMALLSCREEN is part of the Atlas of Rural Arts and Culture Community. If you would like any other tags associated with your postcard, please list them in your response. Tags are a great way to expand connection.


Alvin, Rebecca. “Cinemas of the Future.” Cineaste, Vol. 32 No.3. Summer 2007. Web. 1 Sept. 2014.

Forinash, Danny. “Couple Brings Art to Buckhannon.” The State Journal. [Charleston, WV] 22 July 2005: Print.

Macdonald, Scott. Cinema 16: Documents Toward History of Film Society. Temple University Press. Philadelphia, PA. 2002.

Wrenn, Deanna. “Now Playing: The LASCAUX MICRO-THEATRE presents The Small Screen.” The Charleston Daily Mail. [Charleston, WV] 28 July 2003: Print.

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