A crowd gathered at the Whitney Humanities Center on Friday to eat, drink and celebrate the Cinema at the Whitney’s third season.

Dozens of students along with visitors from the surrounding community filled the auditorium to near capacity for a screening of Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard.” The classic Italian film marked the beginning of the Cinema’s fall season, which offers weekly film screenings from a variety of genres. Focusing on film as both art and entertainment, the Cinema was founded in 2005 under the auspices of the WHC and is run by students.

Cinema Graduate Chair Michael Cramer GRD ’11 said he thinks the Whitney is poised to continue its growth throughout its third season, building on a core group of audience members established over the past two years.

“We’ve built up a group of regular attendees who come to all our screenings,” Cramer said. “And we’re constantly gaining new ones, especially among the student population.”

There is a large demand for this type of film series in the Yale and New Haven community, Cramer said, so the challenge for the program will be to keep the quality of the programming at a high level.

“The audience is there,” Cramer said. “It’s just a question … of the organization in the future maintaining the kind of standards that we’ve set for ourselves.”

Norma Thompson, associate director of the Whitney Humanities Center, said she agrees with Cramer’s assessment of the program’s present and future. Although Thompson did not attend the screening of “The Leopard,” she has attended the Cinema’s past galas and said she recognizes the need for a variety of programming to reach different audiences.

“Even on those weekends with small turnout, the films in question have been experimental, and we’re happy to reach different audiences even if it sometimes means small numbers,” Thompson said.

The well-attended event, which offered catered refreshments, combined discussion, Italian food and classic cinema. Most attendees were students, but a few professors and local families could be spotted in attendance. After the dinner, the Cinema screened a 185-minute version of “The Leopard,” an Italian classic from the 1960s. The film has been released in several different lengths, from 151 minutes to 205 minutes. Starring Burt Lancaster as the Prince of Salina — the leopard referred to in the title — the film chronicles the fall of the aristocracy on the way to a united Italy.

Jessica Carballo ’10, who was attending the Whitney for the first time, said she came to Friday’s gala because her professor recommended it.

“I’ve never been to one of the screenings at the Whitney,” Carballo said. “I think this is really cool.”

As it enters its third season, the Cinema is expanding, both in the number of films shown per semester and in the range of films scheduled. Cramer said the fall season’s program is the largest and most diverse to date.

The fall’s biggest event is an Oct. 19 visit and Q&A session with Charles Burnett, director of “Killer of Sheep,” a 1977 classic recently re-released to incredible critical acclaim. Other high-profile screenings will include the Thai film “Syndromes and a Century” on Oct. 4 and Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy on Nov. 2 and 3. On Nov. 9, Oscar-winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker will introduce her husband’s “The Edge of the World”, a drama about the demise of an island community.