Over the past decade, the burgeoning world of VOD, streaming sites and day-and-date digital release strategies have radically altered how we consume our movies—particularly for independent, international and art house films, which continue to struggle for big screen real estate alongside big budget Hollywood blockbusters.
This home-viewing Renaissance has run concurrent with the decline of the movie-going experience in general. And no, I’m not one of these sad grandpas shaking my fist in the air and complaining about “kids today.” People are the same as they’ve always been—we just have cell phones now.
But happily, the modern American theater-going experience is far from dead. Even as the suburban mega-multiplex continues its incremental transformation into Dante’s Inferno, film lovers nationwide are discovering (or re-discovering) the joys of the IRL art house—local, independent, brick-and-mortar theaters with their own unique quirks and personality.
This week on The Must-List (to check out last week’s inaugural column, click here) we asked our movie-hungry Film Independent staffers to let us know their favorite local art house theaters from around the country, from college-town hangouts, to cinema-pubs, to upscale mini-chains.
So put down the iPad and dig your big boy pants out from the laundry pile. It’s time to venture outside and support your friendly neighborhood film exhibitors:
THE LOFT (Tucson, AZ)
The Loft is everything you want in a truly independent house. They have solid programming and the place feels lived-in, but the floors aren’t sticky and the people taking tickets are always so much cooler than you. I have so many amazing memories from the theater—from hearing Philip Seymour Hoffman speak after a screening of The Talented Mr. Ripley, to seeing short films by my peers at a student film festival. But my first experience there was by far the most memorable. I was 10 or 11, and a friend’s mom took us to see Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Animation Festival. I’d never seen anything like it! My friend’s mom also let me watch a French World War II film about abortion when I was 11—I wish I remembered the name. In my youthful wisdom, I did not tell my own mother about either of these viewing experiences.
–Kate Walker D’Angelo, Director of Institutional Giving
THE LAEMMLE THEATERS (Los Angeles, CA)
I don’t know if this is cheating or not, but my favorite art house theater in Los Angeles is actually—lucky for LA!—a chain of them. The Laemmle Theaters are scattered around Los Angeles and consistently show the little indies that other theaters won’t put on the big screen. Plus it’s well priced, with specially priced tickets for certain days of the week. The audience tends to be older and you’ll rarely get a chatty Cathy in your theater, because these folks know how to watch movies.
–Jasmine Terán, Online Community Manager
RAGTAG CINEMAS (Columbia, MO)
Any film lover that happens to find him- or herself in mid-Missouri needs to go to Ragtag Cinema in Columbia. Home of the University of Missouri and my own alma mater, Stephens College, Ragtag was my gateway into the world of independent film. The first film I saw there was I Heart Huckabees. In their current location, there’s a full service bar and bakery. The projectionists introduce every film and highlight upcoming events. They’re also very pro-community, which is amplified with their documentary film festival True/False and I was lucky enough to end up working for both the cinema and the festival. While attending Sundance in 2016, I was in awe of how many of my past coworkers and roommates from the Columbia film community had projects at the festival. Ragtag Cinema is like a beacon in the Midwest for movie magic.
–Lex McNaughton, Film Education Coordinator
THE TOWER THEATRE (Salt Lake City, UT)
Upon visiting on a recent trip back to Salt Lake, I was both surprise and delighted at how little my favorite college movie hangout spot, the Tower Theatre, had changed from its (my) early-‘aughts glory days: the oddly-sloping entryway, the decaying art deco marquee, the racks and racks of rental DVDs organized by director, the frayed theater seats in the cramped tinderbox mezzanine. It was—as always—gloriously shabby—still the same theater where I’d seen Mulholland Dr., Requiem for a Dream and Dancer in the Dark lo those many years ago and decided that this was my life now. But the best part, as my wife and I sat down to watch Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas, was our surprise movie-watching companion, Gary Moonshine—the Tower’s resident theater cat, who roams the Tower grounds with impunity, hopping on unsuspecting audience members’ laps at whichever intervals he sees fit, pet allergies and aversions be damned. What more could you want for your $6.75 matinee ticket?
–Matt Warren, Digital Content Manager
GRAND ILLUSION (Seattle, WA)
Seattle’s Grand Illusion Cinema—located in the U-District near the University of Washington—is the city’s longest running independent movie theater; an intimate space that shows everything from silent film to modern independent hits. Entering under the theater’s distinctively retro hand-painted sign, visitors entering the “charming confines” (per its website) of the theater, which in 2008 was named by Paste Magazine as one of the best movie houses in America. Weekend “late nights” programming includes and eclectic mix of horror, sci-fi and exploitation films, and over the years the cinema has hosted events with filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino, Don Hertzfeldt, Stuart Gordon, Takashi Miiki and lots more.
–Cooper Hopkins, Website and Database Manager
So then—if you live anywhere near LA, Seattle, Salt Lake, Columbus or Tucson you have your marching orders. For anyone else, we want your recommendations for the best art house theaters in America or elsewhere.