What Price Hollywood?: The Finale of a Family-Run Movie House

***PLEASE NOTE: ALL OPINIONS IN THIS PIECE ARE MY OWN & NOT THOSE OF MY EMPLOYER OR ANY ORGANIZATIONS WITH WHICH I AM AFFILIATED***

I remember the first time I went to the New Beverly Cinema. I was 15 years old, I was a few months off from leaving the country to go to high school in Israel, and I was smack-dab in the middle of a “party-all-the-time” summer with my best friend Nanette and her two older sisters.

I felt nervous because we were sneaking snacks in and…YOU DIDN’T DO THATNOT EVEN CARROT STICKS. Which, by the way, is exactly what we snuck in.

We were watching Reservoir Dogs at midnight.  I remember bits and pieces of the experience: where we sat, that there were guys in the theater, that they were…”t-shirt guys.” You know, the kind of sloppy dudes who were older than me but might listen to the kind of music that I had been slowly getting into, now that my hair metal and grunge days were petering out- The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Mary’s Danish….T-SHIRT GUYS. I remember the dimly lit lobby. The sticky floor of the theater. The film itself.

That was 21 years ago.

In that 2 decades of my life, I have gotten 3 degrees & 1 special certificate in cinema studies from 4 different Universities. I have studied critical theory, feminist film theory, US film history and all different kind of film preservation and moving image archive studies. I am currently the Nancy Mysel Legacy Project recipient for the Film Noir Foundation in training (hopefully) to be their official preservationist when the time comes. I work almost exclusively with 35mm film. Digital was not very popular in the 1940s, I’m afraid.

Movies are my boyfriend.

I love film more than almost anything on earth. I have spent most of my adult life studying it, sitting in dark theaters, orgasmically grinning at that dark screen, feeling goddamn lucky that I, Ariel Schudson, get to see moving images on a big screen!!!!

But if it was not for the New Beverly Cinema I would not have had the inkling of a desire to become a film archivist. The fact that I have assisted on two restorations this year makes my toes curl with joy. These films are saved for the future. I owe this to the HOURS I have spent with the beautiful people in the dark on Beverly Blvd.

I knew Sherman Torgan.  He was the man who took the New Beverly Cinema and made it the welcoming cozy movie house that I fell in love with. I grew so attached to the theater that I got into a GIANT screaming match with my step-dad about why I thought Blade Runner was totally appropriate for my 9-yr-old brother. That argument was NUTS. Sherman was the greatest guy. I got to the theater after that fight, my face puffy with tears. Sherman just let the sniffling teen girl in.

Sherman Torgan, relaxing on the New Bev stairs

Sherman Torgan, relaxing on the New Bev stairs

I wish I had a picture to show you of what he looked like during the time that I knew him, but he was really the first guy that I remember understanding the idea of film community. When I moved into the New Bev area after college, he only charged me student prices (I was no student). One night we had a blissfully wonderful discussion about the audience that came for his Billy Wilder double feature.

“Sherman,” I told him, “I came alone to this double. Like I do to most films here.” I was probably 23 at the time.

He nodded, ok, so?

“I felt like I was FAMILY  with every single person IN there. Wall to wall people! That was genuinely the best movie experience I have ever had!” (I was overemphatic and excited as I still am about everything)

Sherman was a man of few words. But he said something to the effect of, “Well, they’re good movies. They’ll do that!”

I was so high off cinema that I practically flew home.

When Sherman died, it was crushing. But I watched Michael build the theater into something special. He worked hard. EVERY DAY. He never took vacations. The New Beverly was his life. Except for occasional post-screening dinners with regulars. Those were always fun. His cat passed away which (as many pet-owners know) is devastating but Michael took very little time off and dove right back into the New Beverly. He is his father’s son. Being a New Beverly Regular meant I got to see that Michael Torgan’s blood, sweat and tears were the things that drove the very organs of the New Beverly Cinema.

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Old School New Bev Regulars from 2009, RIP Jen Roach

That cinema could not run without him.

He slept there to wait for prints. He stayed until 2am to change the marquee. All the things that you do as a theater owner. Except…he didn’t own the theater. Quentin Tarantino does. So fast-forward to now. Houston, we have a problem. Houston, we have a lot of problems.

OK. One quick step back and some background- when Sherman died, the theater was in danger of closing. Tarantino stepped in and bought the land, becoming, in effect, the landlord. This was FANTASTIC!! Let’s be 100% clear about this: in no way, shape or form was this a bad thing. In fact, this was wonderful. Without Tarantino’s immense generosity, we would have lost our brilliant New Beverly Cinema 7 years ago and countless screenings, historical Q&As, and nights of 35mm brilliance. Thanks to him we have had Edgar Wright’s festivals, Patton Oswalt’s programming, festivals by Diablo Cody, Eli Roth, and Joe Dante,in addition to a film series I programmed that raised $3000 for Moving Image Archiving Students. Make no mistake about it, Quentin Tarantino’s purchase of this land was, as they say in the Fairfax ‘hood, a mitzvah!

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So skip forward to the official news that was made known today through the LA Weekly. Mr. Tarantino has decided to rescind the terms of the contract with the Torgan family. His statement, as published in the LA Weekly reads as follows:

Sherman Torgan opened the New Beverly [in 1978] and had been running it for decades. I had been going there forever. And somewhere in the last four years of Sherman running the theater, word got to me that it might close. So I started supplementing him, started giving him about $5,000 a month, to pay his bills, and meet his expenses. He never had to pay it back. I love Los Angeles, and I love the New Beverly, and I didn’t want to see it go. But then, unfortunately, Sherman died [in June 2007]. And the people who owned the property wanted to turn it into a Super Cuts. So, working through Michael, I was able to buy the property. And Michael’s been running the theater ever since. I could say, ‘Hey, Michael, can we do this, can we show that?’ but basically it’s been Michael’s baby. He’s really done a Herculean job. But after seven years as owner, I wanted to make it mine. (italics & bold mine) – LA Weekly

The Torgans have run the New Beverly for 36 years. In a highly corporate economy and city like Los Angeles, the New Bev is a well-loved family-run-business. And Quentin has had a great deal of control up to now. Basically anything he wanted to do or have, he could do or have. It was his theater. He could program anything he wanted, and have the theater anytime he asked. Any of this talk about trying to make it his is bizarre to me. I have been to several of his 2-3 month-long programming residencies and they were wonderful! The man has good taste. So what is he actually doing?

To quote Michael Torgan himself, in response to Quentin’s article (in the comments section), he states:

An important clarification to this article: like most business owners, my family did not own the physical property from which we ran our business.  We leased it since 1978, so we did not literally own the physical theater.  However, we did own the business known as the New Beverly Cinema 100%.  In addition to being the manager/chief programmer, I was also the owner of the business entirely.  This point has often been misunderstood, so I felt a need to make this statement even if I chose not to be interviewed for this piece.

So, this means that what QT is doing is relieving the Torgan Family of the New Beverly Cinema, of which they have owned for 36 years. Does this seem right to you? I can’t swallow that. Not even a little bit. There are far more decent ways that this could have gone. Destroying a family business not being first on the list. As I’ve read the comments today, people have talked all about the programming. “We’ll see what happens to the New Bev,” they’ve said, “Maybe it’ll be fine! We have to see what the programming is like.” WAIT. GUYS. Have you been living in a bubble for the last seven years?? Where have you been when QT took the entire month of March 2011 to program his birthday month? Or in 2007 when he programmed 1-2 months up until the release of Grindhouse? *insert puzzled expression here*

In the Weekly article, Quentin continues and says, “I want the New Beverly to be a bastion for 35 millimeter films. I want it to stand for something. When you see a film on the New Beverly calendar, you don’t have to ask whether it’s going to be shown in DCP [Digital Cinema Projection] or in 35 millimeter. You know it’s playing in 35 because it’s the New Beverly.” The New Beverly already DOES stand for something. This is also what makes me uneasy about QT wanting to toss out the people who have been running the theater for 36 years and “make it his own.”

I realize that many people are getting incredibly excited about the idea of a filmhouse that will be all-35mm-all-the-time, but my question is at what costWe have been talking about the loss of projectionists and 35mm theaters due to digital, but are we going to turn around and do the same exact thing to one of our own?? Does taking out a Digital Projector that is only used when it is absolutely necessary somehow diminish what the New Beverly Cinema has stood for all these years?

To this film preservationist, this decision is not in anyone’s best interest. I realize that there are a lot of emotions around this, but within my profession, I try my best to look at things critically, not emotionally, and from that perspective (shifting gears a bit) I don’t think this is a good idea. Not for the New Beverly, not for Los Angeles cinephiles, not for the continued discussion of why 35mm film is important.  886965_10200439778213465_146334779_o

Of course, we all know what this situation is really about don’t we? Sure we do. Let’s just come out and say it: digital. Everyone has been beating about the bush and mentioning the silly Wrap article as the cause of this. Let’s stop blaming The Wrap. It’s not their fault. The facts: Quentin had already made his thoughts on 35mm known. The problem is that there is no happy medium here. And there is a high level of format fetishization over film appreciation.  Ask yourself a question: would you rather watch a 35mm print for its last time ever before it falls apart forever or be able to watch a DCP of the same film? Some people will say 35mm. Simply due to the format. This is the unhealthy landscape that we have created for 35mm appreciation. A place where people aren’t aware of why Michael Torgan bought the digital system for the New Bev and how it was being used.

So let’s clear this up. I was able to get a statement from Michael about the addition of digital to the New Beverly and I think going to the source is healthier than conjecture. Provenance, y’all.

Michael states,

I installed the digital projector on May 5 of this year, so I imagine [most people] would have seen 35mm on [their] visits. The majority of our programs remained 35mm even with the new projector, and 35mm would have remained the preferred format always….I just have to say that was NEVER my intention when I made the decision to add a digital projector to my booth. 35mm would have always been the preferred format, with the digital projector there to allow us to continue the newer films we’ve always screened (but suddenly were no longer able to) as well as the occasional digital-only restoration. As a theater that runs all 35mm prints on 2,000 ft reels via reel-to-reel projection, the New Beverly thankfully still had access to lots of repertory 35mm titles from the studios, and I intended to book those prints as long as possible.

The comments that are turning up on the QT article are not unexpected but they are sad-making. Much like the digital technology changeover, these comments are favoring 35mm over human experience and that weirds me out since it is analogue we are choosing in this circumstance. Are we doing this because it’s Quentin and it’s his star power? Is it really a kind of format fetishization and intense nostalgia that will relieve us of the ability to see the time and energy that a family has spent a lifetime building? What does it REALLY  mean when a fancy filmmaker says, “After 7 years as owner, I wanted to make it mine,” and yet does not know that the New Bev already stands for film community, film devotion and film education? If it wasn’t for the Grindhouse Festival that he programmed in 2007, I wouldn’t have gotten into that genre! And the IB Tech films that he programmed were truly spectacular! I was in heaven!473764_4108270061541_2000490191_o

We are headed on the wrong track here if we allow things like this to continue. There is a necessity for both 35mm and digital in the film community. Not one nor the other but both. A friend said that he believed that 35mm theaters should show only 35mm film. Well, in my experience, those theaters may end up suffering great financial loss. Unless (as Tarantino noted) they have large collections like he does. It is extremely exciting to me that he is installing a 16mm projector. I LOVE THAT. That (again) showcases the necessity for these formats and the materials that exist (possibly) ONLY in that format!! There are films that may not have been able to be saved without a 35mm blow-up of a 16mm. My Film Saying is: never say never. But looking at this situation critically, I would never choose a format over a human. It defeats the purpose of what I do as an archivist and preservationist.

The Torgan Family is what the New Beverly Cinema stands for. And I stand behind that statement.

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12 Comments

  1. I posted this at the Weekly site, apparently after you wrote this:

    I think a larger point is being lost here. What’s important is the steak, not the plate it’s served on. If I want to see a particular movie, I don’t much care what format it’s projected in (with exceptions, of course, such as films originally exhibited in 70mm). And frankly, given a choice between a crisp DCP and a beat-up, faded 35mm print, I’ll take the former any day–it does filmmakers no justice to show their films with the cyan and yellow gone, chunks of footage missing or entire reels scratched all to hell. And as surviving 35mm prints of classics get worn out and distributors choose not to replace them, the number of films that will be available to a 35mm-only venue will drop drastically. Yes, Tarantino owns the theatre and can do whatever he wants with it, but by turning it into his personal sandbox, he’s ultimately harming himself as well as the Torgans and the New Bev’s loyal customers, a great many of whom are not going to line up night after night for a steady diet of the schlocky drive-in fare he dotes on.

  2. It’s unfortunate. I truly enjoy the genre works that Tarantino plays & its rarity. I also feel that a closer programming relationship would be a lovely chance for a more interesting investigation into some of the more unusual titles in his collection to have a chance *at* restoration & preservation, things that are so massively crucial to 35 & 16mm today. But with this suggested structure & without the dedicated detailed capabilities of Michael Torgan, I just don’t see that coming to pass.

  3. Thank you for this article. It has indeed been a sad day in Hollywood when an institution like the Torgans can be tossed out of their own theater after 36 YEARS running the place.

    And, over what? Ego. That’s what.

    Michael Torgan and his family deserved better than this. Period.

  4. I’ve retweeted this and posted it on my FB. This is gospel and the truth. I am so sad to see what is happening to the New Bev. Beyond that. MT is to thank for YEARS of programming & guests and just an all around incredible experience there. Without his heart and dedication, this establishment will just be an empty bottle rolling down the aisle. The sense of family is gone. The sense of care and LOVE of film too. All these QT ass-kissing sites are a joke and should be ashamed of themselves. He’s not responsible for anything except pimping his own product.

  5. […] “What Price Hollywood?: The Finale of a Family-Run Movie House” by Sinaphile […]

  6. so sad things have to change

  7. Sherman, you have a vested interest in the cinema. You’ve loved it and lived it’s every momnt since you took over. Don’t allow your hurt to cause you to walk away. Quentin has other interests. Many of them. He’s going to need you and probably far more than either of you realise. 35mm has gone, wheter he likes it or not and audiences are’nt going to support old prints forever. They want to see new stuff as well. Stick with it and prove your love for the old place and time will (almost certainly vindicate your stand). Give it long enough and I suspect you will be back in charge. Quentin’s words (probably badly chosen and ill thought out) will only wound as much as you allow them. STICK WITH IT. Quentin and your audience needs you!!
    Very best wishes. Dave Groves (UK)

  8. Apologies Michael. Old age has it’s problems!!!

  9. […] What Price Hollywood?: The Finale of a Family-Run Movie House […]

  10. Hi Dave,
    I just posted my interview with Michael. Feel free to read it and see what you think.
    Thanks for reading.
    -Ariel

  11. […] from the get-go. Shortly after he announced the ouster of Tolson, New Beverly regular and archivist Ariel Schudson took to her blog to question the decision, blaming starstruck QT fanboys for “favoring 35mm over human […]


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