Pickford Film Center

When the Pickford Film Center opened in 1998, the 80-seat theatre didn’t even have risers in the back. The back rows were level with the front rows and one had to hope a human giraffe didn’t sit in front of them.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the Pickford has risers now—but its transformation over the years is much more than structural.

The center hosts annual film festivals such as Bleedingham, an indie horror film festival now in its seventh year, as well as the Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival that celebrates films directed by women from around the world.

There’s also Doctober, a month-long showing of more than 50 diverse documentaries from human rights issues to artistic visionaries that shed light on matters that don’t regularly get exposure.

It shows Oscar nominations every year as well, including an Academy Awards viewing party where guests, many dressed in formal-wear, enter via red carpet.

“Seeing films is one of the only ways you can fully immerse yourself in the experience of somebody else,” said Lindsey Gerhard, marketing manager for the Pickford. “As far as enriching the human experience, it’s crucial. Every town should have an independent movie theatre. We try hard to partner with the community to give people a voice.”

From now until Dec. 24, the Pickford is celebrating its anniversary by playing 20 of its most popular films from the more than 10,000 it has shown over the years.

Before the Pickford, the best Bellingham had to offer film-wise was the now-defunct Regal Sehome Cinemas 3. Regal didn’t offer documentaries, foreign, or independent movies, so residents were left seeking independent films elsewhere, said program director Michael Falter. So two decades ago, local film fans banded together to create something special.

Named for Mary Pickford, the Hollywood producer and actress from a century ago, the film center began as The Pickford Cinema where the Pickford’s Limelight Cinema now sits.

Community volunteers started the Whatcom Film Association in spring 1998, then showed outdoor screenings in Fairhaven and sold memberships to raise money.

They reached their mark by fall and opened at 1416 Cornwall Ave. “The initial excitement was to give this pretty large community the chance to see, listen, and talk about these great films,” Falter says.

After five successful years, they knew they needed to expand. There was a surplus of movies they wouldn’t be able to show without a second and third screen. “People liked what we were doing, but they wanted to see a new theatre,” Falter says.

They purchased the building at 1318 Bay St. in 2005 and raised $3 million over the next seven years through fundraising and grassroots efforts. When it opened at its current location in 2011, it was renamed the Pickford Film Center and the old theatre was rechristened as the Limelight Cinema.

The Pickford Film Center now boasts three screens and is run mostly by a team of 156 volunteers and 15 paid staff members. The people who scoop your popcorn, sweep the floors, and sell you tickets are mainly volunteers.

It is the only independent theatre between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. that shows films 365 days a year and has built up an individual membership base of 5,748. More than 87,000 tickets were sold for the 364 films shown in 2017.

The Pickford has grown to become an intrinsic piece of the film community. It partners with local businesses for screenings, offers subtitle screenings for those with hearing loss, and all outdoor-rooftop movies are free. The center stands in contrast to Bellingham’s only other movie theatre—Regal Barkley Village Stadium 16, the national chain multiplex with 16 screens located miles from downtown.

Those running the Pickford are also devoted to connecting with students. In the fall they invite every middle school student in Whatcom County, more than 5,000 of them from public and private schools, to watch a documentary for free.

And many films screened at the Pickford are often found nowhere else in the Pacific Northwest, says Lorraine Wilde, public relations manager for Bellingham Film.

“Many documentary films about vital social issues don’t screen in communities of our size, because they can’t draw blockbuster audiences or aren’t big enough to be shown by online carriers like Netflix,” Wilde said. “They deserve screen time because they educate us about the world outside our bubble. Our community is more informed and
worldly because of the variety and quality of films Pickford shares.”

Pickford Film Center
1318 Bay St., Bellingham
360.738.0735 | pickfordfilmcenter.org
Limelight Cinema
1416 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham
360.738.0735 | pickfordfilmcenter.org

For more content like this, check out our Frightful Film Festival article here.

"From now until Dec. 24, the Pickford is celebrating its anniversary by playing 20 of its most popular films from the more than 10,000 it has shown over the years."