DOWNERS GROVE – When 40 films buffs showed up to the first After Hours Film Society screening 25 years ago, it was by all measures a success, recalls founder Debbie Venezia.
Filling that many seats at 9:30 on a Thursday night, without any advertising except a poster, seemed to confirm Venezia's hunch that she wasn't the only one who wanted to see foreign and art house fair without driving into Chicago.
As the society celebrates its 25th birthday this year, its growth proves how right her hunch was, even when hard-to-find films are now more accessible than ever.
A June screening of the documentary "Finding Vivian Maier" filled every one of the 1,000 seats at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove, and 200 more viewers had to be turned away. The next month, the black-and-white Polish drama "Ida" drew 865.
"If you didn't know any better, you would have sworn ['Ida'] was made in 1962," Venezia, of Naperville, said. "They did such an excellent job, each frame of that movie was like a Vermeer painting. I don't know if you would be able to capture that on a smaller screen in your home."
It's not just the big screen that draws people to the theater in the era of video-on-demand, hi-definition home theaters and surround-sound audio.
There's also "the shared experience of seeing a movie with other people who love it as much as you do, with the benefit of having a discussion after," she said. "It's more of an event I think. You can watch a movie by yourself and say 'It's really nice,' and then you go to bed. But with this, the movie lives on.
"A lot of the films we show are challenging. They make you think, or they touch your soul. It's in my head for days after I see it."
Showing films in the striking Tivoli Theatre also doesn't hurt, she said. The club moved to its screenings to the theatre, where it shows films twice a month, in 1999 after the Hinsdale Theatre closed.
In fact, the advent of digital technology has actually been a boon to the club. No longer does Venezia have to wait weeks or months for a 35 mm print of a limited-run film to be available. Now the distributor can just send the digital file.
"If I want to see a movie, I'll just book it," she said.
Sometimes suggestions come from club members like Lou Kaufman, who joined after she moved to Downers Grove more than 10 years ago.
"They were showing interesting movies that … were something to really intrigue you," Kaufman said. "They weren't something super violent with special effects and what not. They had a story."
When Kaufman reads a review of a film that might fit the bill, she'll usually bring the clipping to Venezia.
"Sometimes she's already ordered something I've given her, and sometimes she says 'Oh good,'" she said.
The 82-year-old said she grew up watching films her father would bring home on loan from Kodak, where he worked in Rochester, NY, and project in the basement. Her set-up now is nearly as convenient – she lives about a block from the Tivoli.
"I think more and more people are learning about (the society) and realizing we have a gem here," she said.
WHAT: After Hours Film Society's 25th anniversary screening of The Beatles in “A Hard Day’s Night” at the Tivoli Theatre
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Monday
HOW: Tickets are $8 for After Hours Film Society members and students and $12 for non-members. Proceeds from this special show help fund the annual AHFS Student Film Festival prizes.