A Letter by Gary Meyer
Do you remember your first Art Film Experience?
Mine was an accident. I was about eleven years old. Our family was in San Francisco and it was my turn to decide what we would do that evening. I loved movies and 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 named Wild Strawberries. My introduction to Ingmar Bergman and the films were no doubt torture for my sisters and 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 at the local library. This hooked me on foreign films that could transport this viewer to worlds I never knew existed.
I soon learned about the Surf Theatre in San Francisco. A long and 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 and new works by Fellini, Truffaut, Malle, Varda, Kurosawa, Ray, Pasolini, Bergman, Godard, Ozu, Marker---you name them and they played at the Surf, often as part of the annual “Janus Festival.”
It was not just the intelligent programming 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. Films often were introduced and Mel was there to chat with people, inviting them for an espresso 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.
Inspired by the Surf, I turned my parents’ hayloft into the Above-the-Ground Theatre (naming it in response to the emerging popularity of “underground cinema”). We showed international classics and short films 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 I thought I wanted to make movies, the pattern was set that I should show movies.
There were others doing innovative exhibition including, in New York, Dan and Toby Talbot’s New Yorker, Ben Barenholz’s Elgin and Don Rugoff’s multiple venues; the Pedas Brothers’ Circle Theatre and David Levy’s Key in Washington DC; Pauline Kael’s Studio/Guild in Berkeley; the Laemmles in Los Angeles; Bill and Stella Pence in Colorado; Bruce Trinz’s Clark Theatre and Chuck Teiltel’s World Playhouse Theater in Chicago; the Brattle and Orson Welles in Cambridge, and Lou Sher’s national Art Theater Guild (where Mike Getz’s Midnight Movies packaged adventurous experimental and underground movies in enticing programs marketed for their frequent sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll content).
In the 1970s an Art House movement grew. Mel Novikoff uncovered the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and restoring the movie palace in 1976 he redefined what an Art House could be. With my partners Steve Gilula and Kim Jorgensen we took over the 1917 U.C. Theatre in Berkeley and inspired by the mavericks before us, we broke a lot of rules to create our own version of a repertory cinema. That was the start of Landmark Theatres and we tried to provide a unique experience for our audiences and visiting filmmakers as we grew. Other entrepreneurs started independent cinemas around the country, many still operating and part of the Art House Convergence.
Art Houses have always taken chances by showing exciting works by new filmmakers----directors who became Hollywood’s success stories like the Coen Brothers….
When exhibitor/distributors Ben Barenholtz and Ted Pedas decided to produce their first movie, BLOOD SIMPLE, it was Mel Novikoff in San Francisco who enthusiastically embraced the movie and made it a hit. In appreciation, the Coens named an INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS character after Novikoff.
As if to complete a circle, the annual Mel Novikoff Award (at the San Francisco International Film Festival in late April) will be given to Janus Films/Criterion Collection and presented by Ethan and Joel as part of a screening of the new restoration of their first feature.
The Art House movement threatened to slow down for a while but in the past ten years the screen count has grown with enthusiasm and showmanship bringing our numbers to an all-time high.
During that fallow period other specialized businesses were threatened but a commitment of youthful excitement joining with industry veterans is bringing many of them back too. Many of them have banded together to raise awareness of the unique products they offer.
This year’s editions of the now established Record Store Day on April 16, Independent Book Store Day, April 30 and Free Comic Book Day on May 7 each generate national publicity, offer special premiums and bring new customers to see what they are all about.
And for the first time there will be Art House Theater Day on September 24, 2016 to bring attention to what you do so well. The Art House Convergence and numerous exhibitors are working on some fun exclusives for Art Houses and we hope that everyone will participate.
There is no cost to you but we think the benefits will be terrific.
If you have signed up we “thank you.”
If not we urge you to do so immediately.