Teachable Moments: Alamo Drafthouse, Cinefamily & the Future of Repertory Cinema

So I think its time to have a little conversation about value, worth and intersectionality.

Things are pretty weird right now. I was talking with a girlfriend the other day and both of us have been in the film community for a really long time. Long enough to remember when internet-based film writing/promotion and communities didn’t rule the scene. Imagine that! But internet/no Internet, there has always been misogyny. Always been racism. The homophobia has been lesser to an extent, but…that’s entertainment. It’s still there. We all know that transphobia is awful no matter where you go so…end scene.

gender neutral robot

 

Let’s set the stage. Current events: if you’re a straight white male celebrity who sexually assaults women, you might want to start getting scared. James Woods found this out the hard way when Amber Tamblyn called him out on Twitter last week. She wrote two brilliant pieces on Teen Vogue and the NYT, in response to him calling her a liar after she recounted his ill-fated pick-up attempt when she was just 16. Tig Notaro’s recent season of One Mississippi dedicates 2 episodes to addressing sexual assault, which is a direct shout out to Louis CK. Tig has spoken widely about CK’s refusal to address his problem, as have other female comedians.

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Real talk: this shit has been shoved under the rug in the entertainment world since the casting couch was invented and studio heads invited women in for “lunchtime interviews,” promising them the “role of a lifetime.” But women are finally breaking their silence. Which is great. This should be supported and encouraged, especially by powerful men in the media world. But there’s a big chance it won’t be. Why not? Because making a “bold move” such as that might mean outing their friends or losing their buddies. And that’s scary and uncomfortable.

Dudes, I’m calling you out. It’s time. It’s not brave for you to step forward and join us in talking about what’s actually going on. If anyone tells you you’re “brave” or thanks you, tells you how “amazing” you are for standing up, that’s straight up bullshit. You should have always been doing this. You just finally smelled what The Rock was cooking, ok? No back pats, no OMG YOU’RE SO AWESOME!

Make a decision. Look at what’s going on and be on the right side of history. Because history does not wait and it certainly has no sympathy.

Over the last week, some straight white men in the film community have had a few real HOLY FUCKING SHIT moments. These were all heavily tied into the fact that they have absolutely zero comprehension of what VALUE means or what or who might, in fact, be VALUABLE.

It is important to note that most of the recent conversations being had in the film world have been incredibly white and privileged conversations. We have not stopped for one second to address women/people of color, trans bodies, or any communities that might have felt equally bludgeoned by what has been happening in the repertory theater scene. And by that I mean the recent scandals at the Alamo Drafthouse and the Cinefamily.

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LA Weekly, September 13, 2017

I want to approach this discussion of VALUE on an intersectional level and include every body that has ever felt assaulted by today’s straight white male dominated film culture. It is a structure designed specifically to celebrate all that is white, male, moneyed and heterosexual and oppress all that are not. All marginalized groups-defined as women (women of color especially), people of color, queer folx; trans and non-binary identifying individuals- are considered outsiders from this Primary Group and ostracized. We may try to affiliate ourselves with those in this Clique, but the very nature of its construction denies us entry. We haven’t gotten good seats in the movie theater for quite some time.

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I have been in the world of cinema and media studies for most of my adult life. The world has changed a lot in the last twenty years, and I’ve changed with it. The one thing that has not changed is the way that marginalized groups have been treated. This is absolutely a question of VALUE. We are simply not considered to have worth.

Structures of value and worth are why women are spoken over on newscasts and televised political arenas. It’s the reason so few brown faces are protagonists in feature films, there are currently no Asian superhero movies and why black bodies have rarely been lit correctly on film and television until work like Insecure (creators: Issa Rae & Larry Wilmore, 2016) or Selma (Ava DuVernay, 2014).

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Issa and Molly, Insecure, Photo: HBO

The incidents I will be discussing- the sexual assault troubles at LA repertory movie theater Cinefamily and the sexual assault/employment cover-up/what-have-you at the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse- are not ones that I plan to give space to here. Please feel free to Google them at your leisure; there are tons of articles available on both subjects. I will be using them and specific details/ experiences in context that I believe to be important to this piece but I don’t believe that I need to link any articles.

Moving forward then- value has been an issue for hundreds of years in marginalized communities. Consider the following: a body’s worth measured in economics (slavery) or a body’s worth measured in marriage and reproduction (a son is good, the family name/legacy continues, a daughter is bad except for marrying off/childbearing). What about a slave body that can reproduce another slave body (a woman of color)? Think on these things. These evaluations are not done by the bodies themselves but by an outside force; an oppressor. Whether it is White Supremacy or Patriarchal Heteronormativity, dominating another body because of your self-created value structures is just fucked up.

One of the primary topics of this article is sexual assault, an act that involves our physical selves. Our bodies. Our bodies are a big part of our worth. Our bodies are physical containers but they are also reflections of our PERSONAL worth. We value ourselves and we value our bodies. So what do we do when our bodies are violated? Worse than that, what do we do when those whom we value enact violence upon our valuable, worthwhile bodies? Who do we turn to when we are viewed as so invaluable that we cannot even be consulted about intimacy? That’s a fucked up feeling.

This was something many women faced at Cinefamily and have faced for years in the film community. Who would believe that so-and-so did THAT? “He’s so coooool Are you sure you remember right? You weren’t just a little drunk?” Because then he’s off the hook. If you’re drunk, the incident didn’t happen. And if he’s got some kind of high-level rep or if he’s famous then it definitely didn’t happen.

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IndieWire Headline, Aug 22, 2017 11:21 pm

Intimate violence is visited upon our bodies and we can do nothing about it. We are not believed because we have women’s voices. Or queer voices. Or black voices. Or trans voices. While white women like Amber Tamblyn can reveal their stories and talk back to James Woods, do you think anyone would’ve believed a black trans woman who wasn’t famous?

Let’s look at social structures of VALUE. White people don’t value POC. If we did, black bodies wouldn’t be strewn lifeless throughout American streets, while the white bodies that violated them are legally allowed to move on without repercussions. Women/women-identifying folx are not valued. If we were, there would be no such term as “mansplaining.” White women are valued more than Women of Color but that in and of itself makes me cringe. And let’s be honest: trans and non-binary identifying individuals get the worst of it. It’s not just that people don’t value them. People pretend they don’t exist. Value and worth. If society, structured exclusively by White Rich Straight Older Men sees no value in you, you play no part and you are worthless.

Having attended the Cinefamily for a long time, I always noticed that there were many female employees and volunteers. Like an overt amount. I knew a few of them. I also saw a huge turnover rate. I stopped going a few years ago except to certain screenings. I saw brilliant and painfully talented people get treated poorly and that left a bad taste in my mouth.

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Film School Rejects, AUGUST 25, 2017

There were a few men employed there, but for the most part, it was women and not in an “empowering women” way. Looking back, the presence of so many women employees had a display case feel. Which I thought was strange. I chalked it up to Cinefamily being an “extreme hipster” theater but that was definitely not it. Sometimes we tend to compartmentalize when we don’t want to see things that are staring us right in the face. This was one of those things.

To Hadrian (Cinefamily founder), cultivating the look and molding the culture around that theater was part of its cachet. He did a masterful job in many ways. On the other hand, other people who never received the credit did much of the work attributed to him. What is critical here is that he created an environment where the only value system at play was his own. In any other work setting, this would have been seen as abusive. In any other work setting there would’ve been a HR person to assist his employees. But his male-dominated upper management structure (which includes the board) was in charge of the entire feel and social landscape of Cinefamily, from screen to popcorn maker.

So the regular floor employees were intimidated as fuck. The value of the women had been as objects, the men as continuing the promoting of the world/culture that had been created. Sounds a little bit culty. Which has been mentioned before. But I really read this as a lot of fear and sadness and a deterioration of personal worth as you continue to be abused by a workplace situation that you used to adore.

Here’s the even shittier part: this is what the world of repertory theaters and film festivals has been like forever. So the fact that Cinefamily exploded when it did made me roll my eyes a little. I couldn’t help but think: OH FUCK. Here we go. So who’s next? And let me stress right now that I have a lot of love for a lot of people working in the film festival and repertory worlds. My archivist/preservationist world is 100% not without its horror stories. In fact, we are probably due for some explosions too. But we’ll deal with those when they happen.

 

Guerrilla Girls' Pop Quiz 1990 by Guerrilla Girls

 

As for theaters and festivals and their dreadfully loosey goosey culture…These white, straight and male-dominated events and networks have always had Questionable Incidents. In the past, they were sighed at, and “Oh, that’s just so-and-so”-ed at. It really was like Mad Men. Whispers and secret confrontations swept under the rug. It was expected and built in. But when the ladies talk behind closed doors, we’re not fucking happy about it. And we haven’t been happy about it for years.

Did you know that, guys? Or did you think things were ok? Because a lot of you had to know about a lot of the heinous shit that has happened over the last 20 years. Whether I am in academia, the film festival world, entertainment journalism or my current archiving/preservation community, I want some answers. If my girlfriends and I know, if we’ve been frustrated and angry because we couldn’t call someone out because they were Too Big Time, then you guys must know the stories too. You probably know worse stories and have laughed or just rolled your eyes about it. Every time you didn’t warn us or stop those guys or call them out or do something, you let the women in your life and in the film community know that they were not valued.

Friends. WE JUST HAD TWO NUCLEAR MOVIE HOUSE EXPLOSIONS IN LESS THAN TWO MONTHS. Think there’s something rotten in the state of theatrical? Cuz I fuckin’ do.

So let’s update. It’s 2017. Less rep houses, mostly due to the analog/digital changeover. So we’re down a lotta movie houses and up a hellovalot more film festivals. What did that do? Well, it gave us the white, straight male-dominated film culture that focuses on the White Male Film Geek as Lord King God. It is literally White Geek-Bro Supremacy. This is something that has been planted, cultivated and grown over the years, carefully and intentionally. Fed with social media and entertainment journalism, it is so large that it IS VALUE and considered something OF WORTH. Basically, these geeks bring in the bucks. But at what cost?

I’m here to tell you fuck White Geek-Bro Supremacy. There is nothing valuable that can be created by this system. It does not create communities of worth. It gives NOTHING back.  The Cinefamily, Alamo Drafthouse, Fantastic Fest are examples of this dynamic in action and each one of these has either imploded completely or fractured under the weight of its toxic masculinity.

Communities established under this structure do not value women of color who love to read comic books or cosplay because it is joyful. In fact, the communities developed by White Geek-Bro Supremacy do not center joy at all. White Geek-Bro Supremacy centers competition, bullying, and one-upsmanship instead of goodwill, respect and an infectious love for cinema. The cradle of this system is binary viewpoints (best/worst) and list-dependency (top ten most ___). It was heavily nurtured with the idea that some media was indubitably to be valued and some not to be valued, based upon a knowledgeable hierarchy that rose to the top of the message board/chat group communities and eventually published blogs and articles. Incidentally, this is how men ended up dominating authorship of Internet movie sites.

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from Katie Kilkenny’s article, “Why Are So Few Film Critics Female?” in The Atlantic, Dec 27, 2015

White Geek-Bro Supremacy is what was working overtime during the Alamo Drafthouse turmoil this week.

Many thought the mess was about a sexual assault(s) committed by a former writer for an Alamo Drafthouse publication. It was about more than that. It was about a severe lack of transparency, the preferential treatment for a pal and the willingness to risk an entire company’s reputation and national operations on an individual relationship. This speaks of a special kind of blindness: Privilege Blindness. As my friend John Wildman eloquently wrote, a large problem in the Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League’s “crisis management” was that he never stopped to listen to those who should have been listened to.

This is a recurring theme with privilege. Those with White Privilege, Male Privilege, and Heterosexual Privilege have the idea that their privilege affords them earplugs & blinders. The definition of Privilege Blindness is “I will not make the space to listen to you because of xxxx reasons.” Guess what, honey? Not one of those xxxx reasons is valid. Grab a beer. Pop the top. Just get uncomfortable with this.

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When you do not take the time to listen to another person, you are telling them, “You are not valuable. You are not worth anything. You have nothing to tell me of any value. I do not see you as someone who could add value to my life. Your experiences/thoughts/feelings mean nothing to me.” When you do that to someone in a marginalized group, it can be both achingly familiar (we’ve lived our whole lives not being listened to) and possibly life threatening. While the aforementioned former writer for Drafthouse certainly did lousy things, he wrote one good thing on his now-deleted Medium post: “Believe women. Especially when they are talking about you.”

What is it going to take to destroy these systems of oppression? What is it going to take to break down years of abuse? The men and women who have spoken out against the ongoing practices at the Drafthouse are mirror images of those at Cinefamily. They feel ignored, stepped on, devalued and left in the cold. They were not hip enough. Not in the cool kids club. Stories of floor staff at the Drafthouse being treated as “lesser than” because they were not within the upper echelon of the Who’s Who. And I get it: it’s largely impossible in a company that size to have some utopian vision where people are all partying together. But it is possible to have people feel appreciated and like they are part of an institution that is doing something amazing for the cinema community, which is the image that the Drafthouse outwardly projects. Bottom line: the party should never end up being more important than the people who decorated the room for the celebration.

As for Fantastic Fest… Tim League’s gotta be a little sad about that right now. His actions have put him in that funky little zone where moral values have impacted his Financial Value. Fox Searchlight pulled their film from Fantastic Fest. That’s kind of a big deal. While FF usually goes for more unusual fare, it could always use a big studio film for a bump, especially after recently launching new distribution shingle, Neon. Get rid of the testosterone-fueled boxing-matches, limit the VIP-only bashes that create such clear hierarchies and go back to what made the festival unique- its content.

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Boxing match from Fantastic Fest 2014, Photo: Alamo Drafthouse, September 21, 2014

 

So this may have been a lot to get through for many of you. And it may not have made sense or connected to the Cinefamily and Drafthouse situations for some. But please trust me- it all does. Obviously right now I don’t give a shit about TL;DR. Some will read this, others won’t. I’m really pissed off. I hate that it’s taken the devastation of two cinematic institutions and one film festival in order to knock some sense into dudes’ heads and make them remember that women are people too, with feelings and needs and all kinds of INSANE THINGS.

And please know- I never wanted Cinefamily to die. However, in the form that it was in, with that board of directors (some of whom are still very active in the LA rep theater scene), it was impossible. There were amazing people at Cinefamily and amazing people are suffering unemployment now due to its closure. I also do not advocate skipping Fantastic Fest (unless you feel you need to). I think that taking the discussion to the source and holding people accountable is key. But don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.

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An interesting ad from an anti-rape campaign in Missoula, MT.

I don’t want to see Drafthouse go down in flames but I would like to see its encouragement of White Geek Bro Supremacy stop. This will take more than a few professional sessions with a “crisis management” team. This will mean letting real people – women, POC, queer folx, trans/non-binary film lovers- talk to you, Tim League. And you need to shut up and listen.

Turn a new page. It’s possible, but it’s going to take work. It’s going to take a lot of listening and a lot of people are going to have to get really uncomfortable. A lot of people are going to have to do some major self-reflection. But as Amber Tamblyn wrote to James Woods, “What you are experiencing is called a teachable moment. It is called a gift.”

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Women and other marginalized groups are done being quiet. We know our value and our worth, even if rich straight white dudes don’t. For many of us, discovering intersectionalism has helped. Working together we can be more powerful than by focusing on just our own separate issues. Many of us have discovered new definitions of value and worth in community organizing. But that also means that structures of white supremacy and patriarchy are in serious danger. We’re only going to get louder and more powerful.

So White Male Geek Squad? Y’all should get your shit together and clean up your act. We’re coming for you. And that’s a promise.

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Why We Watch: Theatrical Attendance, Archiving and Individualism

It has been a whirlwind last few weeks. Things have been moving so quickly that I haven’t slowed down enough to be able to put both feet on the ground! Either that or I’ve been so thrilled by all the fantastic things that have been happening that I am in a permanent state of 5 feet above the pavement. I’ll let you know which one it is when I know. Which may (fingers crossed) be never…

Exciting things? A life-changing AMIA Conference in Savannah, GA which included meeting Ian Mackaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi. Participating in a truly kick-ass small gauge workshop where I learned so much. Attending a fabulous Home Movie Day recently, and a new archiving/metadata project that I’ve been busting my ass on. I’m loving EVERY MINUTE. The latter of these things was yet another case of a colleague in the archiving community reaching out, too. I swear to reels and sprockets if it wasn’t for film preservation and the folks I know and have met in the last few years? I would be lost. L-O-S-T.

Admittedly, something has been bothering me. I have tried not to let it get to me too much because I have all these other things going on but… I can’t stop thinking about it. So here is me. Talking about some things. And I’m not going to bullshit. And I’m not going to beat around the bush. But I am also not here to trash-talk, get personal or nasty. This is not a gossip piece. With that said, let’s get the initial stuff out of the way so we can talk about the REAL issues.

By now many people have probably seen the blog written by Julia Marchese, former employee of the New Beverly Cinema. You may recognize the name of this theater as the one that I have written about several times . Without getting into details or reposting the blog (go ahead and find it yourself if you need to) her article discusses how she felt that she got the raw end of the deal in her recent “dismissal.” While I found her article problematic from a working professional’s standpoint, I think I found the public response even more disturbing. Much of the blind support and anti-theater sentiment came from people who had never met her and/or had never even visited the New Beverly. This felt weird to me.

Do I feel bad that someone, anyone lost their job? Absolutely. But did I think that it was news in the same time period that Home Movie Day was happening (a great film preservation event) or when such fascinating pieces are being written about Christopher Nolan and INTERSTELLAR‘s exhibition changes? Not really. So I was ready to just blow it off. But then it happened. Not once, not twice but over and over. Within the few articles that I read, Julia was referred to as the “heart and soul” and “public face” of the New Beverly Cinema, either by the author or within the comments. How an employee of 6 years could be either of those things for a theater that is 36 years old made me feel even more uneasy.

These phrases and this structure of characterization is what I REALLY wish to explore. I wish to center my discussion on what I see as a kind of posturing, and let me reiterate: it is not endemic to this situation nor to this person. I have seen it before in other situations. I’m sure we all have. But my issue is as follows: anytime someone is built up with their own personal importance emphasized before that of their institution’s or what their institution does, there is a major problem. Especially if that person is not considered to be a major figure within said institution. Not only can this cause unrest and poor work relations in a given work environment, it’s not a healthy way to present any company or team atmosphere. I can only speak from where I sit and this is why sharing credit and community recognition has always been one of the greatest assets to the moving image archiving community. It tends to prevent situations like this. But….not 100% of the time. As Billy Wilder wrote, “Nobody’s perfect.”

From my experience, it is antithetical to our primary goal as a film preservation community to peacock, especially if you have a significant attachment to a company- be it educational institution, regional archive, studio or movie theater. What I have seen within my own community (and yes, Virginia, there are politics in the most altruistic of film preservation worlds) is that those folks who see themselves as an archivist/preservationist first and then an individual are generally far more successful and usually become the central touchstones of this magical world I am part of. That has said worlds to me as I train to become the woman I want to become. Thus I get awfully suspicious when I begin to see any kind of cult of personality being built around someone who has stated that they are tirelessly working for the betterment of the film community on their own.

Now let’s get into wording and some basic reality. Here is a cold, hard fact: the heart and soul of a movie theater will always be the films it shows. It will never solely be a person. What a theater shows creates its personality, its individual culture, its ambience. A programmer is a good portion of that, which is why people like Michael and Sherman Torgan’s development and creation OF the New Beverly is SO VITAL TO BE RECOGNIZED. In addition, Phil Blankenship’s Saturday Midnight series at the New Beverly was a major part of its personality. Brian Quinn and Eric Caiden’s Grindhouse Series. The guest programmers. Hell, even my series added a little bit (I like to think). My point is: content creates character

When I go to the Heavy Midnights series at the Cinefamily, I’m not going specifically to hang with the programmer (sorry, Phil!). I go to see the incredible and rare off-beat movies shown. When I go to the American Cinematheque, I don’t attend the films because I want to chat with the folks I know that work there. It’s a nice perk, but I go to see the movies. There are some incredible programmers in this town. The film events going on are really unbeatable. But am I switching my schedule around and looking at bus plans so I can get to the Echo Park Film Center to be hip? Not even close. I’m doing it because that place is an amazing and dynamic part of LA Film Culture. I get to see cool shit. Really, isn’t it all about seeing cool shit?

Archives work in the same manner. What we collect, how we process and care for the collections, our rules and regulations and our interactions with other professional organizations (including locations of exhibition) help to define us. While we may all have our own individual identities as archivists, projectionists, exhibition specialists, I firmly believe that we are also part of larger systems. Not only are we part of the businesses or organizations that employ us, but we are also tied in through an umbilical-cord-like-network, an over-arching community called FILM. We answer to it as our primary boss. If Mama Film wasn’t there…neither would we be.

What we are not is regimes. If you’re curious, my stance on the New Beverly format issue has not changed. I’m not going to alter my researched and valid personal position that a theater should be equipped with everything from digital to 16mm. And I’m not going to change my opinion about the way in which the New Beverly transition was conducted. I don’t think it was professionally done nor was it respectful. But I highly object to the repeated use of the word REGIME, in reference to either the Torgan family or Tarantino.

Neither of them are tyrannical rulers or fascists. Let’s get real, people. This is a damn movie theater, not the Third Reich. Regime?? Just stop.

 

I would like very much for us to think about why we go to the movies at all. During the Depression, people went to get a sliver of happiness from the horrors of the world. As Hollywood legend Norman Lloyd notes, “They were a wonderful escape. People would go into the theater, in this darkened cavern, and it took them out of themselves. They could fantasize about what happened on the screen, about those beautiful stars that existed then.” I like to think that we still do that. I know that I do. It’s why I went into preservation work. So that the little babies that my friends are having right now can experience what I experience. Big screen magic of beautiful (or beautifully told) stories.

Yes, I returned to the NEW New Beverly last night. I went to go see the two George C. Scott pictures. And I had a great time.

I spent some time soul-searching this week. Clearly. I deeply explored ideas of self-promotion and individuality, love for the medium and exhibition landscape, ideas of preservation. I had major thoughts about the evolution of Los Angeles film spaces, too, since many of the theaters I attended as a little girl are now gone. Even the Egyptian Theater is itself a new iteration- it’s the American Cinematheque. At some point I got all Emma Goldman up in my head, angry at anyone who would try to personally claim ownership for a media environment when it should belong to us all…but that passed. I just put on some punk rock and remembered that DIY archiving is totally a thing and that calmed me down. I just started working on a database. It’s the Ariel Zen.

I had thought that boycotting the New Beverly was going to be my answer but it’s a really stupid answer. Here is where I stand. As someone who puts film above almost everything else in life (including many human relationships), I feel much more comfortable going back there now that I know that I will be able to be in a climate that is more film-centered than personality-centered. My biggest concern? What’re you playing, man? What’s on the marquee? Last night was pretty nice. I was able to breathe easy, enjoy the films, laugh too loud at the damn cartoon that no one else was laughing at (it’s a cartoon, guys!!), got to see some people who I genuinely adore, and watch some rarely screened pictures.

Also, as I was saying to someone in the lobby, one of my favorite things about being in the archiving/preservation field is that I get to learn about new media elements or historical facts on a regular basis. This also happens in exhibition. And that’s just a joy and a pleasure. I saw some trailers last night for films that I have NEVER heard of before. I must see MOVIE/MOVIE. That film looks awesome!!! 

The print for the first film, RAGE, was pretty gnarly, but as someone who’s familiar with 35mm, I know that watching them in this condition is important for me to do so I may learn more about analog and see what I can suss out myself. Is that discoloration due to film stock? Is that a base scratch? Is that due to bad printing? To be honest, this is great practice for me! RAGE does exist on Warner Archives and I’ll bet that their DVD is in better condition but….I’ll take big screen over DVD any day.  The audience reaction alone was worth the price of admission!!!!!!!!! And I’ve seen FAR worse prints. Definitely worth a watch so hey- there’s my plug for Warner Archives! Baby Martin Sheen! OMGZ!! The second print, THE SAVAGE IS LOOSE was simply gorgeous (and a much better film, I might add). I cannot stop thinking about it. Such an incredible, bizarre and eerie film. Absolutely loved it.

I can only speak for myself. But from what I have gleaned, I get the sense that the one thing that Michael Torgan and Quentin Tarantino share is the fact that they want films to keep playing at the New Beverly. They may have differing ideas on methodology, but I think that this mutual drive for exhibition and the strong desire for films to be seen is something that needs to be recognized in both men. This is something to be respected. I see this in my own field in the people who fight tooth and nail to keep their archives afloat. It’s not easy. And things are changing all the time. I don’t want to be prescriptive here. I’ve just come to some resolutions over the last week that may make me less than popular with friends but make me feel ethically better with my field of choice and with my self.

I’m not going to be an apologist for anyone or their actions. In fact, I’m staying wholly clear of that. But I also want to examine the idea that maybe we should be deciding for ourselves the ways in which we consume moving image media. And I do believe that it is important to support local theaters, and 35mm and 16mm exhibition. What I am absolutely sure of is that I would not go to a movie theater simply because it is owned by someone famous. I would not go there simply because it is run by a friend or one of the most amazing folks I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, although I admittedly did do that on more than one occasion so….yeah.  Point being, I WOULD go there because it has movies I want to see. I know my reason for attending the theaters I attend.

But at the end of the day, I guess it really is a personal question to be answered: why do you watch?

Of Silver Screens and Family Dreams: Michael Torgan and the New Beverly Cinema

In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story.

-Walter Cronkite

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There has been a bit of a shake-up in the Los Angeles repertory cinema scene recently. As detailed in a previous article on this blog, the beloved New Beverly Cinema, a LA institution and a treasured touchstone for cinephiles everywhere, has had a rather surprising change of management. According to reports from Deadline, the LA Weekly and others, the Torgan Family, owners of the New Beverly Cinema since 1978, will no longer be running the show. In their place, Quentin Tarantino, landlord since 2007, will be taking control of the theater as his own.

In looking at all of the press surrounding this, the one thing that has been conspicuously absent is the voice and perspective of the owner of the New Beverly Cinema: Michael Torgan. While the more eagle-eyed readers of these articles may have noticed that Michael reached out in order to correct comment inaccuracies, he was previously hesitant to speak to anyone or discuss some of the major issues that the film community seems to be most concerned about in this transitory time.

As readers of my blog may know, the New Beverly has been a significant feature in my film education and career path. Without this theater, it is unlikely that I would be so passionate about the two things I work the most with: 35mm film and classic cinema.  As a result, I tracked Michael Torgan down and begged him to sit with me and discuss some of the issues that are being confused in the press and get a handle on what being the owner of the New Beverly Cinema has really been about for him.

If you have ever been to the New Beverly, you will know that Michael may not be the most outspoken person but he is unquestionably knowledgable and above all, kind and inviting. What Michael and I agreed upon for this article was that it would consist of two things: written statement and approved transcribed interview. When you see the italicized words, those are from the written statement that I received from him. It summarized many of his thoughts on the theater’s changeover in a way that he preferred. I will actively say that the difference between the words that I took on my recorder in answer to each question and those which he sent me were minimally different if at all.  So with that, I would like to state once again, this article was my idea and any words written by me are mine and do not reflect my employer’s or any organization that I happen to be involved with.

Thank you for reading.



So, Michael. There seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding about the way in which the New Beverly Cinema works as a business entity in relation to Quentin Tarantino as a landlord. I think many people may think that owning the building means owning the business as well. Could you explain this a little bit?

 

Well, it’s a concept that gets confused often. And it gets frustrating for me because I can’t go out there and yell, “No! That’s not how it is!” because it is more complicated than a simple landlord/tenant relationship. But basically just like your apartment, you don’t actually own the building that you are renting your apartment from but you do own your apartment. In a sense, you are the tenant of your apartment and that’s the way it was with the theater. There was no co-mingling of our funds; there was no sale of the business at all. The ownership of the theater didn’t change at all; the only change was that the president of the corporation who ran it passed away [referring to his father, Sherman Torgan, who passed away in 2007] and his son assumed that position as the president. But nothing changed. We always had a landlord. We had a landlord in 1978 and that landlord changed in 2007 but the business didn’t change hands.

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There has been discussion about how the entrance of Tarantino as the new landlord in 2007 may have had an effect on the financials of the New Beverly and your ability to support yourself as an independent repertory house. Can you discuss this a bit?

Sometime in 2006, maybe 10 months before my dad died, Quentin got word that the New Beverly was struggling.  Business really had dropped considerably around 2002 as DVDs and home theaters became more and more common.  Back in the mid 90s, business was actually very good. Attendance typically hovered in the 85 to 200 people-a-night range, and it was pretty easy to get over a 100 people a night.  By 2006, we could still pack the theater with the right film, but so many other films that used to be sure things were suddenly getting audiences of under 50 people, often dipping into the very troubling 25 range.  It seemed that audience tastes and viewing habits had definitely changed, seemingly overnight.  This was the same time that record stores and book stores saw precipitous dips in their business and started closing in record numbers.  The digital age had changed things. 

Quentin didn’t want the New Beverly to close, so he approached my dad with an offer to help us meet the shortfall.  My dad determined that the theater was potentially losing around $5,000 a month under the current circumstances, and Quentin very heroically and generously offered to make up this difference behind the scenes.  This is not to say my dad was by any means broke.  The theater had provided him a nice living for over 20 years, my mom worked full-time all those years, and my parents had a house, and savings in the bank. Quentin gave the theater a new lease on life, and his $5,000 monthly contribution was enough for us to pay the theater’s rent and a little bit of its additional expenses, say, the electric bill, which averages $1,000 a month.

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When my dad died suddenly, I quit my job and decided to keep the theater going.  Within a few weeks of my dad’s death, our landlord of 29 years received an offer from a real estate investor to purchase the building.  By the time my landlord informed me of this, the building was already in escrow.  Sensing that the new buyer had eyes to redevelop the property into retail space once my lease was up, my mom and I informed Quentin’s office of what was happening, and, without going into specifics, Quentin was willing and able to buy the building to save both my business and the building’s use as a movie theater.

I inherited my dad’s arrangement with Quentin, and Quentin continued to supplement the business with $5,000 checks every month.  I essentially used that money in the same way as it was being used before, except now the rent money was going to Quentin, so basically he was letting us occupy his building rent free, which of course took a huge load off of the business and allowed it to operate without losing large sums of money.  We were extremely lucky.

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Without in any way trivializing Quentin’s very substantial financial contribution to the theater ($5,000 a month over the course of 7 or 8 years is a HUGE amount of money for a single person to donate to any cause, and I actually felt very guilty and funny accepting it), I do want to make clear that the theater was still substantially surviving on its own.  It costs at least $30,000 to keep the theater open, probably closer to $35,000 or more (film rental fees, film shipping, employee payroll, taxes and fees, permits, costs of goods, and all kinds of miscellaneous expenses), and, short of Quentin’s considerable donation, I was footing that monthly expense entirely on my own as the business owner.  I was not relying on any other funding like membership fees, membership donations, corporate or government grants or anything else.  The theater still very much was an independent family business, very much reliant on its nightly box office grosses.

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And the box office prices have pretty much stayed consistent over the years, right?

 

Yes. I raised the prices maybe once in the last seven years but they’ve stayed the same: $8 for a double feature, which is kind of crazy. It’s unheard of really. What people may not understand is that the cost to rent repertory titles has gone up so tremendously in the last 7 years. So a double feature can cost, at the low-end, $250, but more likely is that the double-feature that you’re seeing costs somewhere between $5-900 and that doesn’t include shipping. It’s a very expensive proposition. Having the subsidy from Quentin Tarantino probably partially allowed me to keep the prices low, but not by much.

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So let’s talk a little bit about what seems to be ruffling some feathers. The idea that since there had been digital equipment bought, the New Beverly Cinema was going digital as a preferred method of projection. First of all, how was the digital equipment financed? It’s not cheap to buy that kind of stuff.

 

I paid for it myself. I basically had cleared a very huge portion of my personal savings and I bought it. I didn’t have the energy to go through Kickstarter like a lot of theaters have…similar theaters in our same position have raised large sums of money through Kickstarter but I didn’t have the energy and I just felt funny about doing it so I just did it. I just bit the bullet. I figured that over 5 years it would pay for itself through rentals. A lot of people want to rent the theater for private screenings of their independent films so that combined with what it opened up the theater for just in terms of general programming? I figured that it would make sense over the long-term. It was a very substantial amount of money to spend at once.

Can you expand a little bit on what your intentions were in regards to bringing it in for general programming needs? I think there has been some confusion about that.

 

In April of this year, I came to the conclusion that to in order to survive I had to add a digital projector to my booth alongside the 35mm projectors.  More and more, I was finding that the kinds of newer films the New Beverly always played alongside the usual mix of repertory titles simply were no longer being released in 35mm.  Distributors like Magnolia, IFC, Rialto, etc., etc., stopped making 35mm prints for their new releases last year.  Magnolia told me that TO THE WONDER would be their final 35mm release; IFC told me that FRANCES HA would be theirs; the restoration of ALPHAVILLE was digital-only; Paramount was the first major studio to announce it had stopped making 35mm prints for major new releases; and so on and so on.  I was also constantly getting requests from filmmakers and film festivals to rent the theater, and I was having to rent a digital projector at $500 a night to accommodate these rentals, and repeatedly having to help lug a very heavy piece of equipment up and down those booth stairs. 

I was tired of doing that, and I determined that it would just make sense to finally bite the bullet and purchase a digital projector of my own.  Every single repertory venue in the entire country had already done it, and I didn’t see why the New Beverly should be any different.  So I made the tough decision to take a major portion of my life savings out of the bank, and I purchased a Christie 4K digital projector, server, and the required digital cinema sound processor.  The projector was installed on May 5th, coincidently the theater’s 36th birthday.  The cost of the projector was a huge sum of money, way more than I’ve ever spent on anything in my life.

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In no way was this digital projector meant to replace 35mm exhibition at the New Beverly.  I love and prefer 35mm, most of the repertory titles we screen only exist in 35mm and probably never will exist in DCPs, and I was going to continue to run primarily 35mm for as long as it was possible to do so.  Without 35mm, in fact, the New Beverly wouldn’t be able to exist and would really have no reason to exist.  Why and how would a repertory cinema exist without 35mm?

It just couldn’t and I’d say shouldn’t exist without 35mm.  The price to rent 35mm prints has gone through the roof in recent years (in the case of one studio, the minimum cost to run a double feature suddenly went from $400 to $900, a just-about-impossible-amount-of-money to contend with for a 2-day run), but thankfully most of the studios were not taking any of their prints away as has often been misreported in the press.  With the exception of one studio, the same 35mm prints that were available to rent in 2009, when most theaters were still 35mm, are still available to rent to this day.  In fact, a couple of the major studios are even occasionally striking new 35mm prints of select repertory titles even though I believe there is only one lab left in the entire U.S.

 

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The New Beverly Projection Booth, credit: Robyn Von Swank

So Michael- can you address the rumors that the theater is in a somewhat rundown state or that the prints that are shown are in a less-than-decent condition?

 

Well, as for the state of the theater it is certainly not rundown. We have spent a great deal of time and energy keeping it together. It’s been a combination of Quentin and myself. He spent a good amount of money to give us a new marquee and resurfaced the ceiling. On my end, as a tenant, I put a new screen in, put new speakers behind the screen, upgraded to Dolby sound, bought new projector heads (different newer ones), and put in newer seats. In 2009, we were able to get new seats from the Mann Festival in Westwood, which was shutting down. They weren’t new seats but they were newer than the ones we had. They were being offered free of charge, I just had to pay $5000 to install them in our theater.

Quentin probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars improving the building when he bought it, but I do want to make it known that all the technical, equipment-type improvements made to the theater over the past 7 years were paid for by me as the tenant (as it should be, as those are definitely the tenant’s responsibility).  I purchased the new screen, the new stage drapes, the new carpet, the upgraded Dolby Digital sound, the new speakers behind the screen, the newer seats, brand new, top-of-the-line lenses., etc., etc.  Before the digital projector, I put tens of thousands of dollars into the place on my own. 

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And print quality at the New Beverly?

Well, we are on the trusted list; we’re a reel-to-reel venue. We run everything on 2000-ft reel changeovers, we don’t ever platter prints or build them up in any way, so we’re generally able to get the very best prints from the studios. Some of the studios (not all of them, but some) have a separate set of prints. These are prints that go to platter theaters and the other set go to theaters that will not be plattering them- the museums, the archives, and most of the repertory theaters. So we get the set of prints that run at most of the top venues in the country. I mean, I see those prints, I see the labels, and they’re the same prints. Actually, in the last 15 years, the prints have been better than ever, which is a great irony considering. You know, there’s hundreds of thousands of titles that are not available on 35mm, which has nothing to do with digital, they’re just not available anymore. But it seemed like the studios were refreshing their inventories just within the last 15 years so suddenly titles that used to only be available in faded, scratched prints were suddenly available in beautiful prints so…

What were your responsibilities as the owner of the New Beverly Cinema? Besides the obvious things people may have seen you do, like working the box office or the concession stand?

 

*Laughs a bit* Short of projecting? I guess a bit of everything really. Picking up prints. I put a lot of miles on my car picking up prints. It’s one of the ways we were able to survive is because we didn’t use a courier service. I just did a lot of things myself. So buying supplies for the concession stand, programming the calendar, payroll, changing the marquee, bills and paperwork…so it was a full-time job. I was probably there or spent about 60 hours a week at the theater.

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Thank you so much for speaking with me, Michael. The New Beverly Cinema has been a very special place for so many of us, and it wouldn’t have been without you!



There were some things that we couldn’t discuss and I didn’t press him on them. That’s the way it goes, right?

But the last thing that I want to say about Michael Torgan is that he is one of my Film Heroes. Let me tell you why.

I programmed a fundraiser film series at the New Bev during grad school that celebrated 35mm film, specifically. Michael was kind enough to make sure that my Student Film Archivist group raised a good amount of money. By allowing me to have this series and guiding me,  I was trained as a film programmer, event planner and social media “person.” I have always been very outgoing but in doing this and engaging with Michael, I learned about print availability, pricing and many other critical exhibition details.

While most people in my Archival Studies Program had internships at film and audio labs, I would argue that I interned at one of the best places in town: the New Beverly Cinema. Did I get credit in my program for it? No. I didn’t think about submitting my experience for credit. That seemed so inconsequential when I thought about how much Michael Torgan taught me about exhibition. It’s the one thing I can babble about in the morning before COFFEE and that’s saying something!

I knew Michael on a training level. While I was looking to learn about exhibition, he would instruct me. He would shake his head and smile gently, “No, Ariel, I don’t think we can get that, but that might be possible.” This was a whole different level than the movie pal that I had known up to this point and now afterwards. And yet, he was really good at counseling me in my choices and discussing the ins and outs of what it takes to run an independent movie house and why certain things were not doable.

This was one of the most valuable experiences of my life aside from actually seeing films there. Michael Torgan, once again, thank you and thank you for my New Beverly Cinema experiences. I will miss them most of all.