Cinema Director Mary Fessenden Says Farewell

Cornell Cinema wrapped its Spring ’22 season on May 5 with a screening of a beautiful 35mm print of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), introduced by author David Lehman, who signed copies of his new book, The Mysterious Romance of Murder: Crime, Detection, and the Spirit of Noir, published by Cornell University Press, after the show. An appreciative audience of over 60 students and community members clapped at the end, and brought our total admissions for the year to over 12,000 (an average of 75 people/title shown), not bad at all, considering the challenges we faced this year as COVID continued to upend our lives. We owe a HUGE THANKS to this academic year’s patrons, donors, and other supporters, who helped us weather the year and return to in-person screenings!
Last week also marked our Director’s 35th anniversary of starting work at Cornell Cinema. Mary Fessenden writes:

“Dear Fans of Cornell Cinema,

“I became Cornell Cinema’s manager on May 4, 1987 and served eight years in that role before becoming the director. Now, 27 years later, I am ready to turn things over to a new director who will steer the organization through its sixth decade and next chapter as one of country’s leading campus film exhibition programs. A new director will be announced soon in advance of my retirement in July.

 “Needless to say, it’s been an amazing ride! I feel incredibly lucky to have spent my career involved with such a transformative organization that has had an impact on tens of thousands of students and community members over the years.

”I’ve ushered the program through the most seismic shift in cinematic history, the transition from analog to digital projection, and through the introduction of a cascade of competing film viewing technologies, from VHS tapes to virtual cinema. Precarious funding required continuous attention to attendance and the bottom line, and prompted innovative ways to address both. The constant throughout my tenure as director was to offer a diverse slate of high-quality moving image experiences—7500+ films/programs over the course of 130 calendars—that engaged as broad an audience as possible.

“Along the way I got to organize visits by and meet so many extraordinary filmmakers and other guest speakers & artists, and present special events including live music, screenings on the Willard Straight Terrace and in Sage Chapel, and coordinate and host dozens of themed parties and screenings. Even though I had to orchestrate periodic contractions of the program over the years to reflect changing audience trends and financial realities, I believe the program has remained robust and vital on campus and in the greater Ithaca community, and, with your help, will continue to flourish.

“I will be forever grateful to all the students, staff members, faculty, administrators and community members who have supported our efforts and events for the past three and a half decades I have been involved with Cornell Cinema, an organization I love dearly for myriad reasons, among them how much it has enriched my own life. Film is such a powerful medium: as art, as social conscience activator, as historical corrective, as cultural and socio-economic class educator. I can’t imagine a world without it.  I hope Cornell will always provide a home for it on campus via Cornell Cinema, an organization so well-equipped to present it in all its glory and manifestations.

“Finally, having grown up not too far from Ithaca, I still remember the day I was home from college on a break and picked up a newspaper listing Cornell Cinema screenings and thought, “Wow! I’ll have to check this place out." Little did I know at the time that several years later I would become part of Cornell Cinema, and over the years, it, part of me. 

With extreme gratitude,

Meanwhile, we invite you to take a look at Cornell Cinema events from 2000–2020.

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Mary Fessenden