Films at the Whitney builds on a half-century long tradition of film screenings at Yale. The Yale Film Society began to screen experimental and foreign films in 1958, and today it still organizes special screenings and invites filmmakers to campus. In 1966, experimental filmmaker Standish Lawder taught Yale’s first film course. The number of Yale film societies and courses expanded throughout the 1970s, but in the 1980s, the rise of home video technology led to a decline in the number of film societies and screenings. In the 1990s, the Whitney Humanities Center emerged as a new center for film culture on campus, when it became the home of the Film Study Center and the primary venue for 35mm film screenings at Yale.
The transformation of the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium began in 1994 when the Film Study Center relocated its 35mm Century projector from the Yale University Art Gallery to the WHC. A new 19.5’ wide screen, Dolby Stereo SurroundSound, and window drapes were also installed. The new screening space was immediately put to use by Film Studies professor Charles Musser, who screened films for his classes, and the Film Study Center (under the direction of Michael Kerbel), which hosted visits by directors such as Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962) and sponsored film premieres, including Don Juan DeMarco (1994) with director Jeremy Leven.
The space improved in the summer of 2002, when the Whitney installed more comfortable seating, updated the light and sound systems, and made other structural improvements. The university added air conditioning in 2004, and in the following year, the single Century projector was replaced by two Kinoton projectors, one 35mm and one 35mm/16mm. In 2009, with the generous support of Paul Joskow (Yale ’72 PhD), a sound processor and three new front speakers were added to enhance sound quality and the old screen was replaced.
From 2005 to 2009, WHC director María Rosa Menocal funded Cinema at the Whitney, an undergraduate and graduate film society. Every Friday night, Cinema at the Whitney offered 35mm, double-feature screenings of a wide range of foreign, Hollywood, independent, and experimental films. Cinema at the Whitney started each academic year with a popular gala event featuring a screening of a classical film such as Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963). The Cinema also sponsored visits by renowned directors, including Olivier Assayas and Charles Burnett.
Along with Cinema at the Whitney, the Whitney Humanities Center cosponsored film festivals and conferences, such as “Food! A Film Festival” (2005), “Europe at the Crossroads: Cinema Circa 1956” (2006, conference organized by the European Studies Council), and “Opening Bazin” (2008, conference organized by Dudley Andrew, Film and Media Studies Program). The Whitney also hosted special pre-release screenings of films, including All the King’s Men (2006) with director Steven Zaillian and producers David Thwaites and Mike Medavoy and Milk (2008) with producer Bruce Cohen.
In 2009, the Whitney Humanities Center established a new entity, Films at the Whitney, in order to expand its collaboration with Yale departments, programs, and student groups interested in significant film events on campus. In addition to cosponsoring conferences and film festivals, Films at the Whitney continues to organize special screenings and visits by filmmakers.