When did you see your first foreign or classic film?
I did not know that when my parents took a ten year-old to see Around the World in 80 Days, starring David Niven and an international cast, I would accidentally be introduced to French cinema, silent films, and George Méliès. That road show presentation started with television newsman Edward R. Murrow discussing the connection between Jules Verne and the movies followed by the showing of the 1902's "A Trip to the Moon."
What was this magical short film and who made it? We went to the library and I learned a little about Méliès’ work and did my best to see other silent films, especially work by this special effects wizard of early cinema.
Our family’s regular visits from Napa to San Francisco concluded with one of the three kids deciding what our evening activity would be. It was my turn. I was about eleven. My passion for movies had grown----and I was an amateur magician. The decision was easy when I looked at the movie guide in the San Francisco Chronicle. A film called The Magician was playing at the Esquire Theatre on a double bill with something called Wild Strawberries. It was not what I expected, and my introduction to Ingmar Bergman and his films was no doubt torture for my sisters. I probably didn’t understand much of what was happening, but what I saw was powerful. I wanted to know more and found some reviews to help me understand. This hooked me on foreign films that could transport this viewer to worlds I never knew existed.
The Esquire was a Market Street theater playing mostly commercial movies, and it was a fluke that they had been screening foreign films that day. I learned there were theaters that played these films full time. The Surf Theatre did it best. A long, narrow, 1926 neighborhood cinema located in the fog-shrouded Sunset neighborhood near the ocean, it was a major trek to get out there. Film lovers flocked anyway to this place showing both classics by the likes of Keaton, Welles, Griffith, Chaplin, Ozu, Lubitsch, Hawks, Murnau, Lang, Ford, Hitchcock, Mizoguchi, Bresson, Renoir and new works by Fellini, Truffaut, Malle, Varda, Kurosawa, Ray, Pasolini, Bergman, Godard, Marker - you name them and they played at the Surf, often as part of the annual “Janus Festival,” a survey of world cinema.
It was not just the intelligent programming that drew audiences, but also the entire atmosphere owner Mel Novikoff created. The brochures were beautifully designed with intriguing notes. Local artists’ works were found on the lobby walls. Emerging filmmakers often introduced their movies. You might meet Bertrand Tavernier, Barbara Loden, Charles Burnett, Wayne Wang, Rob Nilsson, or John Korty premiering their first feature.
James Broughton, Jordan Belson, Gunvor Nelson, or Bruce Conner could be presenting new experimental works. And Mel was there to chat with people, inviting them for an espresso and wonderful pastries in his adjacent Cine Café, long before other movie theaters served fine coffee and locally made snacks. Nobody wanted to go home after the show because the discussions were so stimulating. At first I had to convince my friends to join me in the one-hour drive from home, but soon we needed more than one car to bring these new converts.
My experience with silent films had been either with no music or a random recorded accompaniment, but at the Surf there was a live pianist or organist. Seeing Metropolis there was a revelation. I had first seen Citizen Kane on TV and then at a 16mm showing at the nearby college. But when I saw it in 35mm at the Surf I realized that I never really had seen Welles’ classic until then. King Kong was another favorite from TV and 16mm; it became a different, truly terrifying experience when the Surf screened it in 35mm with censored scenes of Kong peeling off Fay Wray’s clothes, plus monsters biting and chewing people.
Inspired by the Surf, I turned the hayloft of our barn into the Above-the-Ground Theatre (naming it in response to the emerging popularity of “underground cinema”). We showed silent movies, international classics, genre films, and shorts- always with introductions; published a newsletter; had art shows, live music, plays, and filmmaking workshops - all in the countryside six miles from the conservative town of Napa. Though making movies was my dream, the pattern was set that I should show movies. We tried out ideas, many of them becoming the foundation for my career as an art house owner.
Historically, people joke with the phrase, “We must suffer for our art.” Applied to art cinemas this often meant audiences had to travel to out-of-the-way neighborhoods where they sat in small, musty auditoriums with bad sightlines. But patrons were willing to make these sacrifices because that might be the only place to experience adventurous cinema. And the operators usually did special things to compensate and augment great movies with small amenities not offered in traditional movie theaters.
A true art house movement blossomed in the 1970s. In 1976, Mel Novikoff uncovered the nearly forgotten Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Through his efforts, architect Timothy L. Pflueger's magnificent movie palace was restored along with its mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. Novikoff offered a carefully chosen concession menu and hand-selected his staff with two important requirements--- an understanding that the customers are to be treated like royalty, and that each staff member have a passion for movies. And of course, an exciting and intelligently curated program that made every night at the Castro a special visit. The theater became an instant success locally, and an internationally renowned destination for cineastes. I think it is fair to say, with the Castro Novikoff redefined what an “art house” could be, throwing out a challenge to other exhibitors.
During the first decade of the 21st century, I think a lot of the art cinema world flatlined. Standardized state-of-the-art megaplexes had been built and needed movies to show. A steady stream of specialized films was being released. Directors of foreign and American independent movies moved to making big budget Hollywood works. Films like Pulp Fiction and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon started in art houses but were discovered by broader audiences and became crossover box office hits, intriguing the commercial theater circuits to play more such movies. Top movie stars seeking critical and cultural credibility agreed to appear in independent projects that commercial exhibitors would happily play to fill a screen. And the world of “art films” got confusing for everybody, losing a lot of what had set it apart.
But in the second decade, a new art house movement has emerged where veteran exhibitors join with young enthusiastic entrepreneurs to create a new era for moviegoers seeking challenging, entertaining and unusual films presented with loving care. A mixture of non-profit and for-profit ventures has seen a new variety of cinemas where we can explore the world, learn unique insights from filmmakers, and experience multi-media presentations.
From tastefully appointed multi-screen complexes dedicated to showing a variety of fine films to handcrafted mini cinemas offering highly personalized environments, today’s audiences have the most exciting opportunities ever to be true film buffs.
Art houses are places where you will be warmly greeted by passionate staff members who often introduce the movies. More than ever, filmmakers appear live with their movies, either in person or via internet technology that brings them into the auditorium from Africa or Australia or Asia, India or Iceland or Italy. Curious fans have easy access to many reviews and interviews online offering insights about new and classic films.
People who love cinema carefully select their programming. They listen to input from audiences to balance their own ideas about how to make art houses a place where you can see the most unusual in new independent and international movies, both narrative and documentary. For years people would watch the Academy Awards and wonder how they could see the Oscar-nominated shorts. Now art houses present them on the big screen every year. Art houses support a variety of projection formats, from traditional film to the newest digital technologies. Family shows are frequently presented and special performances for new parents to catch up on movies allow them to bring their babies. Sing-a-longs to musicals bring enthusiastic voices of varied abilities for a fun time.
Art houses are about community. They gather a diverse audience for diverse explorations. Organizations host benefits and informational evenings. Outreach to schools brings young people to movies they might not otherwise discover. Local musicians and artists collaborate with film and video makers for eye-opening presentations. Lobby walls become art galleries, and an array of non-movie activities occur in common spaces. Theater staffs produce formal conversations, and informal discussions are encouraged.
And, as inspired by Mel Novikoff’s original Cine Café, art houses offer interesting food and beverage choices, often sourced from local producers. Some serve full meals with wine, beer and cocktails to enjoy either in a traditional café or inside the theater while watching the movies. At least one, Cinefamily in Los Angeles, regularly hosts a barbecue for filmmakers and the audience in their back patio.
It truly is a new era for art houses. They are back, and better than ever. Audiences return often and take chances with their selections in hopes of making discoveries.
Inspired by the resurgence of success for our friends operating independent book stores, record stores, and comic book stores who annually present a national-wide celebration of what they do, Art House Theater Day on Saturday, September 24 will be a celebration at hundreds of cinemas across the country offering very special exclusive films, local events, and unique giveaways.
For more information visit Art House Theater Day and your local art houses. I think you will be back often.
Gary Meyer started his first theater in the family barn when he was twelve years old. He directed a monster movie there and wanted to show it on the set. It became The Above-the-Ground Theatre where over 250 films were screened along with live productions, workshops and the publication of a literary/arts/satire zine, Nort! and a film newsletter, Ciné. After film school at SFSU, he calls his first job as a booker for United Artists Theatres “grad school” that prepared him to co-found Landmark Theatres in 1975. It was the first national art house chain in the U.S. focused on creative marketing strategies to build loyal audiences for non-Hollywood fare. After selling Landmark, he consulted on many projects including Sundance Cinemas and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas, created the Dockers Classically Independent Film Festival and Tube Film Festival for the X Games, and resurrected the 1926 Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. Meyer joined the Telluride Film Festival in 1998, becoming a Festival Co-Director in 2007-2014. His essay on San Francisco movie exhibition appears in the book Left in the Dark edited by Julie Lindow. He founded the online magazine EatDrinkFilms.com and is developing the EatDrinkFilms Feastival. (EatDrinkFilms.com)