There’s no denying the fun of watching an action-packed blockbuster on opening night, and “Harry Potter” fans likely won’t forget standing in long lines for the midnight premiere of the beloved wizard’s final adventure on the big screen.
But another thrill awaits moviegoers in Sonoma County — something lesser-known but widely appealing: free and low-cost movies at local libraries, colleges, theaters and halls.
While Rohnert Park’s Green Music Center and several cities and organizations offer popular outdoor movie series during the summer months, there are options to see free and discounted films during the colder seasons, and in the comfort of heated venues.
You may have to forgo luxury seats and cup holders, in some cases, but it’s an even trade to watch recent titles, vintage movies, family films or horror classics at affordable prices or, better yet, for free. Some hosts even provide complimentary popcorn.
Sonoma County Library rolls the projectors year-round, with everything from kids’ favorites to documentaries to treasured holiday classics. Each branch schedules its own programming; some are occasional, while others, like the Central Santa Rosa Library, have monthly series.
Earlier this month, the forum room at the central branch was darkened for a Día de Los Muertos screening of “Coco,” the Academy Award-winning Disney-Pixar animated film about a young boy’s adventures in the bright and beautiful Land of the Dead. Petaluma Regional Library hosted the film the same day, with children invited to decorate large boxes as cars and trucks for a pint-sized, drive-in movie experience.
Mercedes, a Santa Rosa grandmother of 11 who preferred not to give her last name, was among those watching “Coco” at the central branch. She was succinct about what brought her out for the movie: “It’s free.”
Mercedes, 59, usually attends the Central Santa Rosa Library’s Third Friday Family Movie Night series, sometimes with grandchildren in tow. With free popcorn, pretzels and juice boxes, it’s a special treat for the family.
Kim Dargeou, a children’s services librarian at the branch, said the series is ideal for youngsters, including toddlers “who may not be ready for a movie theater.” She sets up seating with adult- and kid-sized chairs and a carpet in front for children who might prefer to stretch out during the movie.
“It’s a chance for them to get to know other kids,” Dargeou said. “If they get chatty a bit, it’s not a problem.”
She said part of the fun is watching children’s reactions to the big-screen adventures. When one cheers or boos, other kids often join along. Adults are understanding. As she explains before each screening, “It’s a kids’ event.”
Other library screenings cater to various audiences. Upcoming events include teen movie nights in Cloverdale; documentaries observing Native American History Month; a fall documentary film series; and a North Bay movie classics presentation of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The Sonoma Film Institute at Sonoma State University, as well as the Petaluma Film Alliance at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma campus, provide free and low-cost movies in a variety of genres.
There’s a half-price night at Sonoma 9 Cinemas in Boyes Hot Springs, and in Santa Rosa two theaters host discount days and Third Street Cinema offers several deals for budget-conscious moviegoers. Santa Rosa’s Schulz Museum schedules various Peanuts movies every month, and hosts its First Friday Film Series from February to May that screens feature films favored by the beloved cartoonist, Charles M. Schulz.