Berkeley movie theaters subvert national narratives

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There’s a palpable sense of history that can be felt after one step into the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood. The theater’s atmosphere is as if one just wandered onto a set from “The Shape of Water.” It’s fitting, since the building first opened in 1914, with its Art Moderne architecture dating back to 1947. Back then, one could catch UC Berkeley alumnus Gregory Peck’s “The Macomber Affair” or “Blondie’s Big Moment.”

Seventy-one years later, the Elmwood is screening an Oscar nominee, an Oscar winner, an indie documentary and the first gay rom-com from a major studio. The Elmwood has weathered two closings, witnessed the transition to the sound era of film and existed concurrently with modern streaming services.

Still, the Elmwood’s proprietor Ky Boyd admits that the theater business isn’t the most stable enterprise. “It’s a challenging set of circumstances in the best of times. And we are persistent and we’re scrappy and we’re committed to being there — to having the Elmwood work,” Boyd said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

Boyd attributes the Elmwood’s staying power to its audience, a community of cinephiles that craves the eclectic documentaries and indie films for which the Elmwood is known. It’s a community that has included the likes of visual effects revolutionary Phil Tippett and famed critic Pauline Kael, who at one point operated a theater on Telegraph Avenue.  

“It’s rare that you have a city where you have ten screens at the Shattuck, three at (California Theatres), and then you could consider the Elmwood too. All have a very arthouse vibe to them,” Boyd said. In all, one is more likely to catch an indie film in Berkeley than a blockbuster; the UA Berkeley 7, which skews toward the mainstream, only has seven screens, compared to the 16 distributed among the arthouse theaters that Boyd named — a count that does not include those in the Pacific Film Archive.

Ultimately, Boyd is optimistic about Berkeley’s thriving film culture. After all, Boyd shared that the Elmwood had the third highest gross of any American theater that screened “Jane,” National Geographic’s critically beloved documentary crafted around never-before-seen footage of preeminent primatologist Jane Goodall. Given that the film didn’t do particularly well in the United States, its success in Berkeley indicates the film literacy of its audience.

In part, Berkeley doesn’t merely respond to the variety of films shown across the city. It responds to the very idea of theatergoing. Of course, this enthusiasm for the theater experience is further exhibited by Berkeley’s students — among them, Quinn Hanschen, who is the production co-chair and chaplain of UC Berkeley’s film fraternity, Delta Kappa Alpha.

(People) want to believe in something, even if it’s for a short amount of time. I think people just need to translate that to actually go into theaters more because otherwise I won’t really have a job in the future,” Hanschen joked.

Dale Sophiea, who managed California Theatres between 1998 and 2016, shared a similar sentiment, adding that the communal experience of theatergoing is what drew him to the business in the first place. It certainly doesn’t hurt that most theaters feature 20-foot by 50-foot screens and surround-sound systems that engulf and enrapture an audience member. “Do I want to go see ‘Blade Runner 2049’ on a phone? I’m sorry, just shoot me,” Sophiea said.

Going beyond a merely immersive experience, theaters gain an additional vitality when they become a site of community — a place of gathering, not unlike a classroom or town hall.

As an independent theater largely untethered by corporate expectations, the Elmwood is a prime example. Boyd said the Elmwood would be screening “The Rape of Recy Taylor” — a documentary that Oprah Winfrey mentioned when she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the most recent Golden Globes — as a benefit for Bay Area Women Against Rape.

“We’re trying to show a diverse array of films and to engage in the public conversation,” Boyd said. “(One) of the things that we’re doing is we’re bringing films to Berkeley, or highlighting them, or we’re saying, ‘This deserves to be seen — it deserves to be considered.’ ”

Perhaps most significantly, though, movie theaters and filmgoing have a history of surviving perceived threats. Anytime cinema is faced with a paradigm shift, there are those who would declare it “dead.” But it’s proven to be a hardy art, adapting to the talkies of the 1930s, the rise of the modern blockbuster and the proliferation of home video.

To Emily Carpenter, a lecturer in UC Berkeley’s department of film and media, it’s going to take a lot more than just streaming to do in theatergoing.

“(Each ‘new’) technological innovation is accompanied by a panic — moral panic or social panic — about that technology that very closely hues to the scripts of the last moral panic about technology,” Carpenter said. “I do not think the cinema is disintegrating. I do not think we are in a post-cinema landscape.”

Streaming services often blamed for declining box office sales can coexist with the theatergoing experience — Netflix and the Elmwood don’t have to be mutually exclusive. As a space historically privileged by gender, race and class, theaters aren’t always accessible. Streaming services, or any number of nontraditional platforms, can supplement that space without eliminating it entirely.

“(We are) saying, ‘In what ways are we falsely limiting our understanding of the media that we use?’ And every ‘new’ intervention into that medium, whether it’s streaming or whatever, actually just expands the possibilities for the thing we had all along,” Carpenter added.

In this sense, theaters aren’t going anywhere, at least for Berkeley. “(The California Theatre) is maintaining a pretty good level, but there’s no theater that gets away with it because the box office is way down,” Sophiea said. Regardless, Sophiea feels a sense of optimism. “But Berkeley’s always been a pretty good film town,” he conceded.

The city’s cinema scene has managed to exist outside the typical film industry narrative — one that constantly tolls cinema’s death knell amid the worst summer in box office history and Jimmy Kimmel’s profuse, awfully transparent thank you’s to moviegoers at the 90th Academy Awards.

But Berkeley being a tad different is nothing new.

Harrison Tunggal is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].