When people think of cities with vibrant film cultures, only two places tend to come to mind: Los Angeles and New York. Which, to be fair, is expected.
There’s Los Angeles — the home of Disney, Warner Brothers Studios and almost all other major studios. It’s arguably the entertainment capital of the world and the location of the world’s largest dream factory — a film hub that’s unrivaled anywhere else.
“There’s so much more opportunity to see classic, international and indie films here than in many other communities.”
—Eileen Jones, assistant visiting professor
New York is similar, yet slightly different, in its main focus being on mainstream television. Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, HBO, not to mention legendary film directors such as Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, make New York the de facto runner up to Hollywood.
Yet, little would anyone expect that the Bay Area — and in particular, the East Bay and Berkeley — has carved its own way into the conversation of having a thriving, unique film experience for filmgoers, film programmers, directors, producers and even students.
As far as production companies go, the Bay Area has two of the largest right in its own backyard. Just look at how Pixar — with its most recent hit “Finding Dory” smashing all kinds of box office records — is a short hop away from Berkeley in Emeryville. Then there’s another film empire that just struck back: Lucasfilms, which is responsible for that little franchise by the name of “Star Wars,” is based right out of San Francisco.
But the Bay — and especially Berkeley — has found its own calling card, not just in fueling the mainstream with making blockbuster films, but showing and embracing the local, the international, the weird, the diverse, the challenging and the small in its theaters, all while keeping the Hollywood or New York-based films as its fodder.
Walk down the street and you might run into Orlando Bagwell, a 2016 Emmy nominee and director of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism (which recently nabbed 27 News and Documentary Emmy nominations total). Or within three short blocks, pick a theater that has its own unique filmgoing experience, some favoring the mainstream (such as United Artists) or the indie (everything else). California Theatre, BAMPFA, Shattuck Cinemas and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood are all within easy walking distance, and all offer something fun, scary and weird for those willing to venture.
Ky Boyd, proprietor and programmer of Rialto Cinemas Elmwood — which opened in 2000 — contends that the distinction and inherent uniqueness of Berkeley versus the two film giants is something that shapes his own choices as a programmer.
“Berkeley has a very socioeconomically diverse population with a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and experiences,” Boyd said. “One of the major differences is that while we do have a large filmmaking and film arts community in the East Bay, we are not an ‘industry town.’ ”
As a result, stale Hollywood blockbusters might be eaten up all over the country, but a look at the films being played in Berkeley would show a different story. Films that push boundaries and may just be too edgy for the average filmgoer — films like “Swiss Army Man” — do enormously well here.
Take, for example, how Rialto Cinemas can successfully show the Korean cinema verite documentary “My Love, Don’t Cross That River,” which observes an aging couple for 15 months of their life, right next to the fun, frantic Hollywood production “The Secret Life of Pets.” Boyd says this counter-programming represents “the spirit of Berkeley” in all of its “eclecticness.”
Counter-programming is even apparent in UC Berkeley’s film major. While most college film programs, such as at the USCs, the NYUs and the UCLAs of the world, focus on the production aspect of film, Berkeley is more interested in its history and theory. Without understanding what goes into a film and how films speak to us, why try to make a film, or write about a film, or watch a film, Berkeley argues.
“One of the major differences is that while we do have a large filmmaking and film arts community in the East Bay, we are not an ‘industry town.’”
— Ky Boyd, proprietor and programmer of Rialto Cinemas Elmwood
“Berkeley has such a rich history of commitment to art, avant-garde, international and independent cinema that the sense of a longstanding community of sophisticated, habitual filmgoing is quite powerful,” said assistant visiting professor Eileen Jones in an interview with The Daily Californian.
Jones, who lectures in UC Berkeley’s Film and Media department, explains the differences between her time in Southern California and the Bay Area. Starting at the Orange County-based Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, Jones says the program there tended to focus on “mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.” Thus, the ambitions of the students and surrounding audiences only catered toward those aspirations.
“There’s so much more opportunity to see classic, international and indie films here than in many other communities. The PFA alone is a cinematic goldmine to locals, whether they’re UC Berkeley students or not,” Jones said.
Since finishing construction in 1970, BAMPFA has been known for showing off its deep archive of revitalized classics, experimental avant-garde and socially important documentary films. Because of this, the museum/theater has been pulling in local and international cinephiles and bringing all sorts of filmmakers to the city to discuss their work. Add in the new modernized building, 4K digital restoration ready screening rooms and beautiful art installations, and BAMPFA is a haven for art connoisseurs.
BAMPFA even plays co-host to the San Francisco International Film Festival. While the festival has been around for 59 years, with the increase of early screenings of high profile films (“Boyhood”, “Love & Friendship”) and visiting filmmakers (Oscar winning director of “Spotlight” Tom McCarthy) at the Alamo Drafthouse, Castro Theatre or BAMPFA, the festival continues to grow in stature. It helps that the festival is not only affordable, but open to the public.
Still, BAMPFA is one of the only places where the Oscar-winning filmmaker Charles Ferguson is on hand to discuss his 2010 financial collapse documentary “Inside Job” and the importance of his film in relation to the seemingly endless hoopla and corruption within modern American politics this year. On another evening, you might find English professor Stephen Best interview director Isaac Julien about the intersections of queer and Black identity within the United States and abroad after a screening of avant-garde classic “Looking for Langston.”
Which, in a nutshell, encapsulates Berkeley’s film scene. Berkeley sees films not just as entertainment, but as an artistic medium that can be heavily politicized, historicized and sensualized. If it weren’t for the community of Berkeley and the Bay, there wouldn’t be this uniqueness and this openness for films that go against the grain.
That intellectual curiosity that many Berkeley students and residents bring to their classes and lives every day isn’t forgotten. The possibilities are endless — whether making a short documentary about People’s Park or spending a Friday evening studying the shot structures of a new film at the Shattuck. Berkeley’s film culture is uniquely its own and only growing in stature as time progresses.
Berkeley isn’t L.A. or N.Y., but it doesn’t need to be. And aren’t we’re all grateful for that?
Levi Hill covers film. Contact him at [email protected].