Great Films About Film
Missing the cinema? Spend some time on your couch with this double feature.
I read a lot of film news. I like to nerd out on casting announcements, release dates, and streaming pickups. However, to get to all that, sometimes you have to filter through bad opinion pieces, like the ones I write. About every week or so, I stumble upon yet another article saying yet the same thing again: movie theaters are dying. These writers try to predict the future of cinema, they mourn, they gossip about how much cash a certain theater chain has on hand. This opinion is not a new one. We blamed it on home video, then on HBO, then on streaming; now we blame it on Coronavirus.
I don’t like reading these articles. I tend to avoid them, but you can’t miss the headlines. The cinema, a movie theater, has been an important place for me for a long time. Some of my earliest memories are at the movies. I can remember which adult took me to which movie. My very first job was at an independent four-screen theater. I’ve seen a movie in a movie theater with basically every single person I love. I don’t want them to go anywhere.
For many, it’s impossible to go to the movies right now and for many others, it’s unsafe. Stuck at home and missing the big screen? I have a double feature you can watch safely at home and relive the magic of the movies.
Before the movie starts, pop some popcorn. It’s fine if it’s in the microwave, do what you can. I recommend Orville Redenbacher’s with Movie Theater Butter. Coat it, mix, and coat again with Winona Pure Popcorn Seasoning Spray. This combination is the closest I’ve come to real cinema popcorn. Obviously it’s not as good as your favorite theater’s corn, but it blows many megaplexes out of the water. Grab your Cherry Coke and your Twizzlers. Now you’re set.
The two movies you’re going to watch tonight pair really well together. Both documentaries are under 90 minutes so a back-to-back showing is really accessible and easy breezy for many. Both cover just one movie theater, focusing on how they still project 35mm film and each screen double features almost exclusively. Both theaters have seen better days financially (at the time of the documentaries) but are kept alive by a loyal cast of owners and employees who vow its best days are ahead.
First, watch At the Drive-In from 2017. The Mahoning Drive-In, located in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, had a decision to make in 2014: raise the $60,000 to buy a new digital film projector, effectively keeping up with Hollywood standards and giving themselves the ability to show first-run summer blockbusters. The other option is a lot more risky: keep with the 35mm projector, screen exclusively classic movies still available on film and fully lean in to the retro atmosphere. The Mahoning has been screening 35mm since 1949 and they decided to not stop in 2014. They chose the route of every celluloid fan’s dream, but it’s not all sunshines and rainbows for film lovers. Rain seems bountiful and on some nights they spend more on electricity than they make back in ticket sales. Money is tight, employees are volunteers (and many travel from so far they sleep on cots or air mattresses Thursday-Sunday). Their love and passion for the theater is contagious and they don’t want to see anything happen to the film haven they love so dearly.
Your second film is 2014’s Out of Print. This one is about LA’s New Beverly Cinema. Former employee and filmmaker Julia Marchese started work on this documentary while working as the general manager there. The New Bev is a unique, repertory theater that still shows 35mm double features, which for many years were curated by long time owner Sherman Torgan. The theater has long been a staple in Los Angeles. Knives Out and Star Wars Episode VIII:The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson says in the doc:
“I picked my first apartment based on proximity to the New Beverly.”
He’s not the only filmmaker who loves it there: Kevin Smith, Joe Dante, John Landis, and Lloyd Kaufman are all interviewed and beam their appreciation. Comedian Patton Oswalt wrote his 2015 book Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film about his late 90s compulsion to watch classic movies, primarily at and thanks to the New Bev.
Both documentaries cover similar ground. They talk about the superiority of 35mm film over digital and why they’ll never change the format. They talk about the art of being a true film projectionist and how that knowledge is passed down over time. They tout their great ticket prices ($10 and $8 respectively, both for double features) and their affordable concessions. They reminisce on great double bills: the Mahoning opens every season with The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), while I look forward to my own at-home, personal screening of Patton Oswalt’s first trip to the New Beverly, Sunset Boulevard (1950) and filmmaker Billy Wilder’s follow-up Ace in the Hole (1951). Both docs also have great segments on the irregular regulars who pass through, or as Oswalt calls them in Silver Screen Fiend:
“the movie freaks, sprocket fiends, celluloid junkies, single star satellites and garden variety misanthropes, loners and sun haters.”
The New Beverly has a great cast of regular inhabitants that includes the aptly named Well Dressed Man who always comes dressed to the nines and a projectionist who quacks like a duck on occasion — even he can’t remember how it started.
A note here: I especially loved this part. In my brief time as an indie theater employee, we had our own Island of Misfit Toys. There was The Professor, who came on Friday openings and was never told about the uptick in concession prices, so we just rang up quarter candies until it equaled the old price of a small Sprite. There was the guy who asked us to put his Junior Mints in the freezer and would come back for them halfway through the movie. My favorite was the hippie who would religiously come in on our usually otherwise dead Sunday evenings. He would come early just so we could chat and he would try and get me to watch some detective show on PBS I always felt bad for never watching. He brought his wife on her birthday and I gave her a free brownie. She cried. They were such kind people.
The New Beverly is now owned by filmmaker and cinephile Quentin Tarantino who also curates a majority of the lineup. Although documentarion Marchese left her job on uncertain terms, she had this to say about its future in the Omaha World-Herald,
“I hope that when people see “Out of Print” they will want to go to the New Beverly and see a film on 35mm. It’s an amazing theater. And it plays amazing films. They just have to realize that the New Bev in the film is not what the New Bev is now. And, to be honest, it’s quite painful for me to watch the film now. It breaks my heart to watch the place I loved and know that I am never going to be welcomed back there. I don’t even know if Quentin has seen the film, but I hope it brings new patrons to his theater, and I am forever indebted to him for saving the New Beverly, and for his staunch support of 35mm and 70mm. He is an astounding filmmaker and just my kind of movie geek.”
The Mahoning Drive-In still operates today. They’ve had a number of sold out weekends this summer and some events include celebrity appearances and VHS marathons.
My girlfriend and I had the pleasure of visiting the Mahoning on October 3rd, known to many as Mean Girls Day, for a double bill of the 2004 teen comedy classic, preceded by a similar film and my personal favorite of the two, 1995’s Clueless. We snacked on a specialty menu item of popcorn mixed with Hot Cheetos and washed it down with some Glen Coco(a). Folks around us dressed up, sang and quoted along, and a good time was had by all. We look forward to going back again next season.
Watching these films at home won’t be the same as visiting the theater, but you’ll spend an evening with fellow film geeks, reliving the glory days of 35mm and planning future trips to both cinema havens.