This past spring, Columbia's Nickelodeon Theatre, commonly referred to as the Nick, temporarily suspended public screenings in order to reorganize its infrastructure in the wake of a difficult period caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The city's most prominent indie theater reopened in April with big leadership changes that soon followed. Mark Cooper, a USC film and media studies professor, became the new president of the board of directors.
At the same time, the Nick was also searching for a new executive director and went through a lengthy interview process, with applications being reviewed as early as January.
"We were very aware of some culture issues in the organization and wanted a good manager," Cooper said. "Somebody who was committed to the Nick's longstanding mission of community engagement and showing excellent films."
The person who fit the bill was Sumner Bender, the board officially announced late April. Bender has been a member of the Trustus Theatre's board since 2011 and is a former theater teacher at Spring Hill High School in Chapin.
In her first month as director, Bender returned the theater to its pre-COVID-19 schedule by adding back Wednesday and Thursday screenings.
"We really want to spend the first year of my tenure here, getting back to the mission, which is not just to show films, but to connect with the community and give the community a voice through film," she said.
The Nick hosted a double-feature in July of South Carolina documentary filmmakers Emily Harrold's films "In the Bubble With Jaime" and "Meltdown in Dixie." Both films featured stories about recent political events, Jaime Harrison's 2020 Senate run and controversy surrounding a confederate flag outside an ice cream shop in Orangeburg, respectively.
"Not only is it part of our mission to be a center for critical dialogue, we want to make it a priority to share new and innovative works and that is why this evening of cinema is so exciting," Bender said in a statement about the event.
For Bender, another part of giving the community a voice is giving opportunities to student and indie filmmakers.
Bender has meetings set up to potentially bring the Doko Film Festival back for summer 2023. The Doko Film Festival is an event for high school filmmakers to develop skills and show their work to the public.
"I would love to see a USC film fest," Bender said. "I think it is definitely an opportunity there ... because what better way to connect to the community than showcasing the artworks of the community."
In addition to showcasing local artists, the Nick will continue to show first-run indie films, which Cooper said is the theater's "bread and butter." In addition, he wants to bring back repertory programming of older films, focusing on a theme or particular filmmakers.
Another goal for the Nick in its first year of new leadership is to reach markets that the theater previously was not serving.
"If I could (find new markets) right now, then my job would be really easy, but it's figuring out who those groups are," Bender said. "It's really an outreach position in the first year."
Bender said Benedict College is a Columbia community the Nick could grow its connection with.
Allie Stubbs, an administrative coordinator at the Nick, is enthusiastic about what Bender's leadership will bring to the non-profit organization.
"I think Sumner has really great ideas about some of the educational things that we're doing," Stubbs said. "We used to do things like that back in the day, but I'm excited to get back to that."
Despite all this excitement, the reopening also comes with challenges.
"It's a kind of rebuilding year, so we need to develop our staff, reactivate our community engagement networks, our partnerships with various organizations around town," Cooper said. "All of this needs to be built back up, so that's (Bender's) first-year challenge."
Bender said her background in non-profits made her realize she was qualified for the position, and she was immediately very excited about the prospect of working for the Nick. She has been a member of the community since it was a one-screen theater in a converted bank building.
"All of those things kind of aligned to make this the perfect opportunity," she said.
When asked to recall her favorite screening over the years, she couldn't pick just one.
"I feel like I remember every movie I've ever seen at the Nick, and that's just crazy," Bender said.