Locally owned movie theaters are a struggling breed.
It takes a lot to get people to leave their homes, to look up from their screens and check out something that’s under-the-radar. So perhaps Hadrian Belove was onto something when he cofounded Cinefamily, a nonprofit organization devoted to creating community around quirky films. In 2007 they set up shop in Los Angeles’s defunct Silent Movie Theater. They’ve been attracting movie lovers and movie stars alike since.
Four hundred members regularly support the 184-seat theater’s ongoing festivals of obscure, rarely seen fare (Sean Penn in The Beaver Trilogy, anyone?), panel discussions, surprise celebrity performances (Robert Downey Jr.! Michael Cera!), wacked out events (a fashion show of religious garb for a retrospective of films on cults) and pop-up restaurants in the backyard garden.
Here, as a companion to Fast Company’s look at innovation in movie theaters, author, actor, woodworker and Cinefamily regular Nick Offerman explains why he returns to the Fairfax Ave. haven again and again.
Offerman has a way of talking that makes everything seem to drip with irony. But when he talks about Cinefamily, he seems utterly sincere. “I think that if you want people to leave their house, if you want people to leave the screens inside of which they’re living, one must create much more of a sense of festival around a movie theater and have a greater working knowledge of what it is people will come out to see.” And Cinefamily has that. “It’s a combination of new fresh original voices combined with legit, classic films, combined with the most delightfully cheesy, classic B-movies.
“It feels great,” he says of being in front of Cinefamily’s audience, as he was with a microphone and a guitar at last December’s holiday-themed “telethon,” held to upgrade the theater’s projection system. “As a classically trained theater actor, that’s my first training ground: communing with people in real theaters full of seats. So to have a place where I can go commune with my audience directly is possibly the most valuable attribute of Cinefamily for me, of many.”
He wasn’t the only name helping out that night. “It stands to reason that If you can get Robert Downey, Jr., to come up on stage, then I will come and admire his biceps,” says Offerman. “I think he and the estimable Jason Schwartzman were the main attractions [at the telethon].”
Downey surprised the crowd by springing the entire amount needed for a digital projector. “I was like, what? Do we still need to come out? Do I still need to do my thing? Can we just get drunk and throw some shit?”
Offerman has spent time at theaters in Austin and Chicago (notably the Music Box) where, he says, the administrators act like they’re putting on a film festival year-round. “But no one has remotely approached what Cinefamily does, perhaps due to its proximity to the vaults of celluloid in Hollywood.” Or proximity to the homes of celluloid stars, like Offerman.
But the appeal of the crowd is about much more than just actors. Offerman has attended quite a few of the theater’s found footage nights, where he’s discovered the joy of Dan Harmon. The creator of Community is, in Offerman’s estimation, “the funniest guy I’ve ever seen. of course I know that Dan is an incredible hilarious genius because of Community but I had no idea what a champion of improvisation and of blistering social commentary he is.
“For every Dan Harmon there are three more guys lighting a tuba on fire. This is a cut above your average neighborhood talent.”
In March of this year, Offerman made appearances at Cinefamily with his Parks and Recreation co-star Chris Pratt in support of the independent film, Somebody Up There Likes Me, which Offerman stars in. “For this theater, which is frequented by the cognoscenti of Hollywood moviegoing professionals, as well as actual luminaries in the business, to give a small film like mine a run of a week and then some, I can’t begin to describe how valuable that is. I’m thankful that I have a bit of a fanbase, but I’m not really on anybody’s list in terms of A- or B-list, so generally any movie theater is not going to book you. For Hadrian and Co. to value our film and understand that people would come see it, to take a chance on a challenging new intelligent comedic voice out of Austin (writer-director Bob Byington) it made us feel we’re on the right track and there’s someone to indeed smell what it is we’re cooking.”
And it’s an interactive experience. “They don’t just book you and say, ‘Okay, be here at 7 and the movie starts at 7:15.’ They craft much more of an entertainment. The film is perhaps the entrée but they give you an appetizer, they give you a dessert course. They’ll come on stage if you like and juggle, light themselves on fire if that’s what it takes to make people pay attention.”
“I’m astonished by Hadrian and his crowd’s ability to create enticement in a town full of movie theaters. They’re incredibly good at knowing their audience and knowing what kind of fare to display to keep people filling the seats seven nights a week. That place has morphed from the Silent Movie Theater into this Event Space Movie Club Fun Time Playhouse. I realized at one point, ‘Oh, they’ve turned it into a the grown-up version of McDonald’s Playspace for those of us who love movies.”
As for how they accomplish that, Offerman pleads ignorance. “It’s something that I am terrible at,” he says. “I come from Chicago, little theater companies, and all we had to do was create our fare, create offerings as best we could. We had great production values and great entertainment but we didn’t have anyone around who was clever enough to say, ‘Now, how do we get people to come see our wonderful little show?’ So I’m grateful and impressed by the people at Cinefamily who are very good at that. It takes tireless work. One of the reasons we were bad at it in Chicago was we were too busy making the work to be promoting ourselves. We needed some Hadrians in the mix.”