WILLSBORO - When four friends started the Champlain Valley Film Society more than six years ago, screening 100 films to local audiences may have seemed difficult to fathom.
The organization will celebrate that milestone Saturday, Dec. 5 at 8 p.m. with a screening of the classic romantic-comedy "The African Queen" at Willsboro Central School.
This Academy Award-winning film stars Humphrey Bogart as the captain of a broken-down riverboat who teams up with Katharine Hepburn to take on a German gunboat during the early days of World War II.
The film represents the 100th movie shown by CVFS, and to thank the audience for its years of support, admission to "The African Queen" is free.
In the spring of 2003, Larry Barns, Thurston Clarke, Bill James and David Reuther joined forces to show Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" at the theater in the Willsboro School, and the Champlain Valley Film Society was born.
Their focus was on showing high-quality films that may not be shown in commercial theaters and other award-winning films that aren't often shown on television.
"Our mission is to show movies as they were meant to be seen; on a big screen and with an audience," said James. "It's so much better than watching a film by yourself on your television."
Five more films followed that first summer but audiences were slim. In 2004, they moved the movies outdoors to the garden behind Essex Inn where crowds were larger, but conflicts with the weather and other summertime events made it difficult to put on successful showings.
In 2006, the society began to show movies indoors during the winter, and word of their critically-acclaimed film screenings spread further. When Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven came later that fall to introduce his movie, "Disappearances," the show drew an audience of more than 300.
Today, CVFS has a working board of 15 and a 30-member advisory board that selects the films. They show 20 to 25 films each year, drawing viewers from Keene Valley, Plattsburgh, Jay, Moriah, and even Vermont.
"The audiences for those first films were mostly the founders and their families," said Barns. "Now, with the help of community input, we select films that draw 100 or more people, and each showing seems to bring first-timers from further afield."
CVFS has also made a point to feature the work of local and regional filmmakers, such as "Frozen River," directed by Courtney Hunt, and "Affliction," which was based on a book by Russell Banks.
"Sometimes our patrons are not sure what we are screening that night but they come anyway knowing that we will provide them with an entertaining or intriguing film," said CVFS president Kathryn Reinhardt. "We are grateful that audiences have come to trust us for a great film experience."
In the future, CVFS board members are looking for more ways to expand and allow more people to view films in the area.
"The Willsboro school, Whallonsburg Grange, and Depot Theatre are all great places for movies," David Reuther said, "but right now we can only show two movies a month and only on Saturday nights."
Some patrons have requested multiple showings of each film, including matinees for those who may not like to drive at night in the winter, said Reuther, and so the society is starting to look for a more permanent home.
"In the 1940s and 50s, the towns of Essex, Westport, and Willsboro all had movie theaters," said Reinhardt, "and with the support we have from the community, the Champlain Valley Film Society would love to open a new theater here someday soon."
For more information about upcoming CVFS shows, visit their Web site at www.cvfilms.org.