Filmescent Phoenix

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3 Reasons Why Alternative Cinemas Don’t Last in the Valley

Phoenix: a place where artists and local businesses can perish under the competition from big business. The local and alternative movie theater is one of those victims.

In the past three years, three locally-owned cinemas have closed their doors.

The first was Chandler Cinemas, which closed in June 2009 because another business (which I can’t track down the name of) offered to pay higher rent at the same location.

Andrea Beesley-Brown, better known as the Midnight Movie Mamacita then started a campaign to open another alternative cinema. It worked, and the Royale opened in July 2011.

But after five months of cult cinema screenings and grindhouse awesomeness, Brown said the Royale closed in late December 2011 because of financial reasons.

Amidst the Royale’s entrance into community cinema, the West Wind Scottsdale 6 closed down in August 2011. Though the West Wind didn’t show cult cinema, it was a drive-in theater with historic community roots.

These places are gone, kaput. Why? I discussed the issue with Cult Classics programmer Victor Moreno and I realized 3 Reasons Why Alternative Cinemas Don’t Last in the Valley:

#1 Chain theaters

While Harkins runs 19 theaters in the Valley and AMC runs 8, only two alternative theaters are still in business in the Phoenix metro-area area: MADCAP Theaters and FilmBar (if I’m missing any, please let me know!).

Victor Moreno explained that when a local theater wants to license a new, independently-filmed movie, only a few distribution slots are available. So if a local theater wants to screen the Academy Award-nominated Tree of Life, they have to request to license it.

eHow presenter Jared Drake says, “You’re gonna have to convince them somehow that what you’re gonna do for the movie will help drive sales for them.” Chances are, the movie studio will allow a more well-known theater like Harkins Camelview to screen their movie, because they think more people will watch it.

How we can fix it:

Promote local cinema! If we get the word out about CULT CLASSICS screenings at MADCAP and showings of independent films at FilmBar, we can get more people to attend these movies, thus making the theaters more popular. Then the companies that license the bigger independent films will know about the local theaters and perhaps provide them with more films to license. Power in numbers!

#2 Phoenix is big

We are not a city of skyscrapers and high-rises. The citizens of the Valley live in suburban, spread-out environments. This city structure makes traveling to a “local” theater an hour drive on the Loop 101. We already commute to work, so why commute to a theater across town when there’s a chain-owned theater right up the street? I have no criticism of this tendency—it’s logical, cheaper and more convenient. BUT . . .

How we can fix it:

Local theaters often screen movies that viewers can’t see anywhere else in the city. Going to a movie at an alternative theater is not just buying popcorn and tickets—it’s an event.

“If you don’t make something an event, people won’t really come out to it. You have to really promote it or people just aren’t aware of it,” Moreno says.

A movie becomes an event when the theater offers activities besides just watching the movie.

For example, at the recent Back to the Future screening that I posted about, the Arizona DeLorean club presented a DeLorean in front of MADCAP theaters. A DeLorean is the car that Doc and Max used as a time-machine in the movie. This addition provided moviegoers a chance to connect with the movie they were about to watch.

It may not be the best picture, but it's proof that the DeLorean was there! Photo by Victor Moreno

#3 Money

I don’t even know if this needs explanation. We’re in a recession– people are careful about where they spend their discretionary income. Local businesses close because they don’t get enough customers.

How we can fix it:

Alternative theaters need to keep showing cult classics. How is that a solution? Gathering customers is a step-by-step process; it takes time to build a group of loyal consumers. But they will pay the theater’s bills. Over time, more and more people will find the theater and talk about it.

Until then, theaters must find imaginative ways to keep afloat.

One person cannot spearhead a theater—the work is exhausting and sometimes overwhelming. Local theaters will only stay open with dedication, teamwork and community spirit.

Whether through fundraisers, coverage by local news media, social networking or interesting events, you have to stay innovative to stay alive as a business.

On a side note, local Phoenix culture blogger Lightning Octopus just wrote a post about his optimism that geek culture will stay alive in the Phoenix area. I’m very excited about his musings and possible contributions to the cinema community.

Local screening of cult classics

Phoenix can be a lonely place for the moviegoer. Or at least the moviegoer who still watches things from before 1990.

The Cult Classics program brings nostalgic cult films to the big screen for those who may never have seen them in theaters.

Designed by Victor Moreno and included with his permission.

“These are all movies that just would never have been played in Phoenix otherwise,” says program curator Victor Moreno.

Major cinema-chains like Harkins and AMC don’t typically play older cult films, so it’s up to local theaters to fill the void.

The only other local theater that shows veterans of the silver screen is FilmBar, which on Wednesday screened two ‘20s-era Charlie Chaplin movies.

Cult Classics started as a monthly series at the now-closed Royale in Mesa. Moreno assisted owner Andrea Beesley-Brown (also formerly known as Midnight Movie Mamacita) in programming different movies to show at the venue.

Some of the movies shown for Cult Classics included Army of Darkness, The Life Aquatic and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Moreno at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles screening.

Cult Classics was a way to attract new customers to the fledgling theater and became one of the business’ most successful series, Moreno says.

When the Royale closed in December because Brown said owners were, “not in a position to take the business to the next-level of growth that it needs to be sustainable,” Cult Classics needed a new home.

It found MADCAP Theaters on Mill Avenue in Tempe, AZ.

Back to the Future connects to the past

Cult Classics will initiate its return with a showing of Back to the Future at MADCAP theaters on Friday.

Moreno says he chose it because, “it’s a movie that a lot of people love but didn’t get to watch on the big screen when they were kids.”

Back to the Future is also seen as a classic ’80s movie, with a mixture of sci-fi, comedy and some drama to make the perfect route for nostalgia lane.

Websites include it on their list of top cult classic films, blogs review it as one.

But attending a Cult Classic movie means more than just watching a classic in a theater—it’s an event.

Each film exhibition involves a little something extra, something to make the experience special.

For Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles it was a pizza party. For RoboCop it was an actor in a RoboCop outfit.

And for Back to the Future? One word—DeLoreans.

Or at least Moreno is hoping, his request has not yet been approved.

We’ll just have to see on Friday.

The Artistic Cinephile

Also debuting at the screening will be Moreno’s custom print based on Back to the Future. In the past, Moreno has designed content for people and TV shows such as Bon Jovi and Spongebob Squarepants.

He also commissions with local businesses, such as the Zia Records Exchange.

At the Royale, Moreno made prints to sell for each Cult Classic screening and plans to continue producing them monthly. A print typically costs $20.

Moreno's print made for the screening of The Life Aquatic.

What will Friday’s print look like? Whether a mass of parts or the simple figure of the DeLorean in front of a blue backdrop, the representation will be completely unique and collectible.

35mm film revisited

35mm film projection is dying.

The complete transition to digital projection is fast approaching.

By the end of 2015, nearly all theaters worldwide will project their movies with the push of a button. The picturesque image of a projectionist rigging the film rolls in the little glowing room above you is dying.

But a community is growing around 35mm to keep it alive.

What Happened

Valley residents and I had the rare chance to watch two movies from the ‘80s on their original 35mm rolls at MADCAP Theater in Tempe last Friday.

“As digital cinema continues to take over, this will likely be your last chance to experience the magic of repertory film here in the valley,” said local cult cinema enthusiast Zachary Jackson in his blog, Becky Bodacious.

I watched grainy, yet beautiful pictures progress through plot lines about murder, stupidity, innocence and abuse.

The first film shown was Hell High, a 1989 slasher movie that I only caught the end of—just in time to see a teen’s head gored by a freshly sharped pencil.

Then we watched Flowers in the Attic, a dark movie about a mother who abandons her children to die slowly in the attic as she starts a new life.

After the first film, Jackson invited us to head upstairs and see the projector in action.

Zachary Jackson adjusts the center of a roll of 35mm film on a plate projector.

Why It Matters

Digital transition is inevitable. I understand that. It’s lightweight, easy to use and does not scratch. It’s the reason we are progressing to 3D.

But 35mm is a part of history. It speaks to “the feel” of a movie and less to pixels and efficiency.

And to Joshua Hastings, one of the attendees at Friday’s 35mm gathering, “It’s kind of like listening to vinyl. It’s got its own texture and feel. It’s got its own soul.”

A small group of movie buffs like Becky Bodacious brought back this soul, just for one night, and it helped me understand the past.

We must keep a balance between our amazing new technology and the beauty of the past. As film projection dwindles, a small group of people attempts to sustain it through local community theaters and impassioned screenings.

These people keep history and nostalgia and grittiness alive. So maybe 35mm projection isn’t dying, but refining itself to those who truly love it.

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