Monday, December 17, 2012

Why Doesn't Downtown Have A Movie Theater?

I spent as much of what turned out to be a very busy weekend as I could tuning in to the live stream of epically awesome non-profit movie lover temple Cinefamily's eclectic 24 hour telethon. If you're unfamiliar with Cinefamily, they're a cinematheque with a fantastically diverse programming schedule that has featured everything from a John Cassavetes retrospective to obscure Czech New Wave gems to Muppet movie sing-alongs, not to mention a good dose of midnight cult movies that draw out drunken crowds whooping and hollering as Patrick Swayze tears out the throats of of evil red necks.

This year's telethon launched with superstar and all around awesome dude Robert Downey Jr. pledging to cover the cost of a new digital projector and sound system, ended with a potluck lunch hosted by Jason Schwartzman where head Cinefamily guru and the Rushmore star discussed movies that scared them as children, and featured interviews with Devo frontman/ film composer Mark Mothersbaugh, Parks and Recreation's invaluable Nick Offerman, and the creators of cult kid's show The Adventures of Pete and Pete, as well as a live scoring session by indie darlings Yacht, comedy from meta-insult slinger Neil Hamburger, and a spoon-bending class hosted by Hadrian's mom at 4:30 in the morning. The telethon brought in tens of thousands of dollars in donations that will go to much needed and richly deserved upgrades for the place, located in the historic Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax. The wide-ranging list of guests who dropped in to the theater gives you an idea of just how insanely eclectic and ambitious their programming is week in and week out, and the fundraiser willl help them continue to do what they're doing. The telethon is over, but they're continuing to raise money through a Kickstarter campaign, to which you can still make a donation until Jan. 2.

All of this got me thinking about the movie-going experience in Las Vegas, and specifically in Downtown Las Vegas. Currently, the neighborhood is pretty much void of theaters in general. For people looking to see The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, it's an easy trip to The Strip or The Palms, both of which feature conventional multiplexes. But the Las Vegas audience for indie cinema is a bit under-served, which is something that probably should be rectified if plans for Downtown Las Vegas to evolve into a smart, creative, and young population are to come true.

There isn't really an arthouse theater of any kind to speak of in the area. Theater 7 is a small and awesome little art gallery and performance space that also does screenings of cult movies and anime, but they don't really have the space or capacity to run a deep retrospective (like the epic Passolini festival  unfolding at MOMA in NY at the moment) or to show newer art films like Leos Carax's thrillingly beautiful, sad, hilarious, and wholly mysterious Holy Motors (one of my absolute favorite films of 2012). The question is, has Dowtown's population grown enough to support a theater that would show such films?

Currently, enough young professionals with spending money are pouring into Downtown that a theater showing current Hollywood hits and mainstream "mindie" films like Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult, or (basically any Jason Reitman movie) could absolutely thrive. But could a theater such as Cinefamily or Austin's legendary Alamo Drafthouse (currently expanding its reach to New York and San Francisco, with plans to set up shop in LA as soon as they can find the right venue), which both mix in plenty of more esoteric fare (such as foreign, cult, and more challenging than the work of Jason Reitman indie flicks) find its footing in DTLV? I think the answer is a "maybe," but it would take an enthusiastic curator to pull it off.

Indie film is struggling lately, even in markets where people theoretically love film. The Laemmle Sunset 5, a cornerstone of my indie movie viewing when I moved to LA for film school, recently shut down (but was replaced by a new Sundance Cinemas, which fully renovated the place), which led to a controversial LA Weekly cover story about the "state of the art-house" the city. It was a decent article that railed against the fact that people in a town where the movies are made wouldn't go see more challenging fare that played at The Sunset 5 such as the Greek incest-ridden dark comedy psychodrama, Dogtooth, while pointing out that the movie did very good business in New York. But then the article went on to note that Dogtooth did quite well when it was screened at Cinefamily. And I think that's precisely where Longworth kind of missed the point.

Cinefamily has done a magnificent job of helping audiences find strange and wonderful films such as Dogtooth or Holy Motors discover enthusiastic audiences through their robust web and social media presence, which goes a long way to explaining why a movie they choose to screen is worth seeing for people who don't know much about it initially. They also do an excellent job at their screenings of convincing people why they should come back to see upcoming films, with Cinefamily's head nerd Belove often on hand to introduce the movies and talk about future shows personally. They also cut their own trailers and promos for their eclectic programming, such as their homemade spots for the effervescent Czech New Wave film Daisies and First Blood (the very first and decidedly darker Rambo movie, which they'll be showing for a week to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its release). If watching those two trailers doesn't give you an idea of just how eclectic Cinefamily's programming is, I don't know what will.

Similarly, the wonderful New Beverly Cinema, a rep-house where double features of classic films still only costs $7 to attend (which was recently saved from extinction by Quentin Tarantino) draws decent crowds to movies from decades past with good use of Twitter, their website, and old fashioned calendar print-outs that inform film-lovers of their upcoming slates. The American Cinematheque at The Egyptian in Hollywood and Aero in Santa Monica has a very ambitious slate every month of retrospectives, major new films, and documentaries, and more, and they also do good business by keeping audiences informed through email lists, their website, social media, and calendars that can be picked up at many venues all over the city. A recent screening of Barry Lyndon at LACMA (which has an incredibly in-depth Stanley Kubrick exhibit running through June 2013 and has shown his entire filmography in conjunction) sold out despite the fact that it's a period piece made in the 70's and is often considered Kubrick's "slowest" film (which is pure balderdash, as the movie is secretly a hilarious comedy that clips along at a nice pace despite its over 3 hour length, which includes an intermission, and also happens to be one of the most purely beautiful films ever committed to celluloid), something they achieved through similar means of getting their message out to the people.

My point is that, even in LA, where people make films, there needs to be helpful curation to coax audiences out of their homes and get their butts into theater seats. To me, Cinefamily is the greatest example of how to successfully pull audiences in to adventurous cinematic programming, but The New Bev, American Cinematheque, and LACMA are all proving it can be done as well. And Laemmle, the company that had to shut down the historic West Hollywood Sunset 5, is doing just fine in other parts of the city. They recently opened a new theater in North Hollywood and are reopening their renovated Laemmle Royal this week in West LA. And the Sundance Cinemas, which replaced the Sunset 5, are doing decent business after the old and out of date theater it replaced was upgraded. So while getting audiences to see indie, foreign, cult, documentary, and generally esoteric cinema isn't easy in an age of constant distractions from the internet and television shows that are nearly as good as most movies, there is an audience for those works that can be drawn out out their hovels for a unique cinematic experience. It's not that the audience isn't there for these films, it's that someone needs to guide their seats into the butts better than the owners of the defunct version of The Sunset 5 were doing by its last days.

All of which does not answer the question whether a place like Cinefamily can thrive in a city like Las Vegas. because it's unclear whether the audience is there... yet. But as Tony Hsieh's master-plan continues to gain steam, with a recent splashy NYTimes profile that argues he's bringing "Brooklyn to Vegas" adding to the mounting evidence that his crazy goal of turning Downtown into a livable and creative playground for smart entrepreneurs is actually working, then if the audience isn't quite there yet, they will be soon. Hseih recently gave $1 million to Venture for America, which places young and creative college graduates in under-served communities like Las Vegas to encourage entrepreneurship. This is the kind of thing that will keep driving the young, creative, talented, and curious to continue moving into the area... and that audience will be hungry for cool and interesting things to do in their new city beyond Sin City's most famous pastimes, gambling and drinking. Which means a cool and adventurous Cinematheque might have an enthusiastic audience sooner than later... particularly if the audience is informed and drawn in by an even more enthusiastic curator who mixes the programming just right with the kind of midnight cult stuff everybody enjoys along with more adventurous fare people might not have checked out otherwise. Imagine screenings at the theater that end with gatherings at Commonwealth or The Downtown Cocktail Room, where like-minded cinephiles can discuss Fellini or Bergman films over delicious themed cocktails, or argue passionately about the latest controversial works from provocateurs like Von Trier or Haneke. It's the kind of thing that works in cities like LA, New York, Austin, San Francisco, or Portland... but if Las Vegas, and particularly the Downtown neighborhood truly hopes to grow into a city comparable to those hip metropolises, then an eclectic Cinematheque can and should thrive there.

This was a long, rambling article, but it's something I'm passionate about. Tony Hseih is looking to create a real community people can be proud to call home in Downtown Las Vegas, and there are very few communal events that can be more magical than a truly special film screening. Perhaps Mr. Hseih and I should talk about opening a Cinematheque (or a SinCitymatheque) in the Fremont East District? Because Las Vegans should be able to see Holy Motors just as easily as The Hobbit.

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