Mar 28, 2017
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Gary Meyer: Adventures in Exhibitionism
by Doniphan Blair
Gary Meyer, film impresario-par excellence, at his Telluride Film Festival office in North Berkeley. photo: CineSource
Gary Meyer has come a long way from being one of the few liberal and/or Jewish kids at Napa High, but he's still doing what he started then: searching out and showing fantastic films
Gary Meyer is not your average film exhibitor. "That guy is very cerebral for a film booker," a filmmaker commented to me recently, a little acerbically - probably because Meyer not only didn't show his film but explained why in articulate detail. Although Gary is sweet, gracious and thoroughly Californian, he's been around the block when it comes to film and he knows what it takes to get film watchers to wait on lines around the block.
Born and raised in the Napa Valley, Meyer started making films as a child and showing them as a teen. Since then, he has built with his own hands - literally - various theaters and, in part, a theater chain - Landmark Theaters, now headquartered in LA (how 'bout that for SF indies giving back a little commercial action?). Meyer currently manages the Balboa Theatre, a sometimes eclectic showcase out in the San Francisco avenues, and co-directs the Telluride Film Festival, one of the top ten in the world.
I wasn't too familiar with Telluride until I happened to be camping around Colorado four summers ago. After too much aluminum pot coffee, I dropped down into the nearest ski resort town to see if I could score a cappuccino. Noticing that the streets were full of people and banners - something about a film festival? - I dispensed with my morning wakeup to race to the ticket office, catching five films that day, including "Babel." I even chatted with its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, whom I idolize for "Amores Perros" (2000). Little did I know that the town was full of folks from the Bay Area, not only in attendance but running the show.
En Plein Air Cinema One of the many free showings at the Telluride Film Festival. photo: courtesy Telluride Film Festival
The Telluride Festival started in 1974. Bill and Stella Pence, theater owners from Denver, fell in love with the picturesque mining town and its rococo opera house, and reached out to Jim Card, a film historian "so flamboyant he didn't seem like an archivist," according to a colleague at Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Card founded and ran their film library and had an "addiction," "a fierce passion" for silent films, according to his "Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film'' (1994). "We loved its silence. When dialogue arrived... some of us were so infuriated that we actually refused, for many months, to even look at a talkie.''
Tech changes rocking the aesthetics of film? Nothing new.
Card was also a close friend of my father, Vachel Lindsay Blair, who grew up with him in Cleveland and joined in his "addiction." Indeed, Blair became a cinematographer himself, preceded Card at Eastman, and helped him found the local film society. Dad liked to regale us with anecdotes about Card's involvement with stars like Marlene Dietrich and Louise Brooks, whom Card considered an artist, brought out of obscurity and even to live near him in Rochester.
Although I digress (to get la familia into print), Card's involvement emphasizes the Pence's fierce advocacy of artistic filmmaking. "Sundance has swag, Cannes has yachts ... Telluride has class," according to John Horn of the LA Times. Held on Labor Day weekend, Telluride radiates a high-octane brew of raw Rocky Mountain beauty, high art, and high money, that - like it or not - is critical to the cinema arts. But the regular shows are only $20, there are many free shows, and festival passes start at $390, see
, which has a "Festival on a Budget" section. It's the travel and hotel that'll kill you, so drive and camp out - a great way to go!
Telluride's fourth co-founder was Bay Area fixture Tom Luddy. As a producer at Zoetrope, where he handled the more esoteric projects like "Napolean" (1927/Restored 1981), and "Kagemusha" (1980). Luddy also produced for many art cinema greats: Jean-Luc Godard, Godfrey Reggio, Barbet Schroeder, Agnieszka Holland. He helped Paul Schrader make "Mishima" (1985) and Berkeley's Les Blank "Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe" (1980). He also co-directed the SF International Film Festival and ran the Pacific Film Archive in the '70s.
Meyer was one of the few Bay Area film royalty to respond to CineSource's early outreach as a fledgling magazine, notably weighing in on whether we should run film reviews. He recommended not doing so, because of the "taste" can-of-worms it opens and the passions it arouses (as he knows too well - he's often obliged to give it to a filmmaker straight).
Once again, Meyer responded quickly and cordially to our request for an interview, despite being eyeball-deep in Telluride - can you imagine watching up to seven films a day, sometimes for weeks? We found him hard at work in his north Berkeley mini-office building, incongruously located on a shaded side street.
CineSource: So you work in Berkeley, live in Oakland, have a theater in San Francisco, and run a festival in Telluride?
Gary Meyer: [laugh] Yes.
How did you get involved at Telluride?
I actually went the second year, at the encouragement of Tom [Luddy] and Mel Novikoff - Mel ran the Surf Theater, then took over the Castro and restored it. He was a mentor of mine and Tom's. My Landmark partner, Steve Gilula, and I went together. We actually formed the partnership that became Landmark Theaters at the second Telluride festival in 1975.
How did the festival's films come to be a secret?
In that second year, one of the tributees, Jeanne Moreau [the fabulous French actress], had to cancel at the last minute. The festival directors were devastated. People were coming from far away to meet Moreau. Well, you can't get in the way of illnesses, or sudden film jobs - the only way is to make it a secret.
You never say who's going to show 'til opening day?
A total secret. There are two things we reveal: One is the poster artist - this year, it's Ralph Eggleston from Pixar. We just got the poster from the press, I'll show you. And - what we are announcing today - our guest director: Michael Ondaatje, the author [of the 'English Patient' and more; he's also a film director].
The guest director will choose six films to present: films they saw once and loved - we'll track down an archival print - or a new film. There are no restrictions. We have had Salman Rushdie, Alexander Payne [director of 'Sideways,' the 2004 art house blockbuster], Laurie Anderson, Don DeLillo, B. Ruby Rich, and Edith Kramer [director of Canyon Cinema and PFA] to name a few. They introduce the films and lead discussions afterward in the theater, or move outside for extended sessions. Some return each year. We have kind of built this family.
I can't take responsibility. It is what the original founders put into place. I have been lucky enough for 13 years to be part of the programming team. This is the fourth year that Julie [Huntsinger, who worked at Zoetrope with Luddy, and was a talented production supervisor] and I are co-directors with Tom. James Card passed away some years ago , and then Bill and Stella decided to retire.
[The Pences] had started it in Telluride, but when their daughters came of age, they wanted them to go to good schools and Bill [Pence] got a job at Dartmouth [New Hampshire]. The main operation went on there and in Telluride, where we have a year-round operation. By Labor Day, there are 700 paid staff and volunteers, a pretty high counselor-to-camper-ratio considering we sell only 2200 passes, although many more buy individual tickets.
What do you think about trying to help Bay Area filmmakers? You would be in a good position to give some critiques, to help indies, to give them insight into the bigger picture.
We appear on panels when asked. Over the years, Tom and I have given filmmakers a lot of feedback on the films they have shown us in various cuts. For 20 years, I was at Saul Zaentz Center [Berkeley's old Fantasy Building]. That place is filled with filmmakers, mostly documentary. I was always looking at their stuff.
It was sort of a relief when we moved. I would leave the door open, because I don't want to be in this cubbyhole, and people would walk in and start talking, expecting that I'd give them all sorts of advice. They were not even saying, 'Excuse me, can I set up an appointment?' [laugh] I know lots of filmmakers and am always happy give them some advice - unless they ask if they can 'pick my brain.' Visualize that. It is easier this way, people seek me out - and look at this beautiful space we got.
Yeah, and you have Rob Nilsson next door. If you threw a rock, you'd hit his studios.
I didn't know that. Rob and his partners on 'Northern Lights' taught me a whole lot of what I know about guerilla marketing. There is also Deann Borshay, across the street. Her film, 'First Person Singular,' will be on P.O.V.
You've got quite a little film sector here.
It is always hard when people have been to Telluride [with a film] or are a friend. Like with 'Most Dangerous Man [in America,' 2009], the Daniel Ellsberg film. Judith Ehrlich, the co-director, and I have known each other since the fourth grade - she grew up going to the movies in my barn in Napa [a theatre he started when he was 12]. The first cut was terrific, but it wasn't what it t wasn't 'there.' So we turned it down. By the time they finished it, post-Telluride, she and Rick [Goldsmith] had made a knockout that was Oscar-nominated.
We take every film seriously. They all get screened by multiple members of the team. The directors must all be in agreement on the final choices. There are no quotas of films made by women, blacks, gypsies, etc. It is simply 22 to 24 new features we think are the best and most interesting way to look at filmmaking today - plus our tributes and retrospectives. I guess that is why people blindly return for 37 years.
If I had an angel who wanted to underwrite the Balboa [Theater in SF], I have always thought of turning one screen into a 100% Bay Area filmmaker's showcase. I'd love to do that. It is not going to happen, but I throw it out there on occasion. I would hire some young marketing students out of San Francisco State to come learn the business and create new ways to market films. Traditional marketing is done by rote. It takes a lot of work to keep up with social media and new ways of reaching audiences.
The distributors of most art films have small budgets and publicize them as they have for years. That doesn't result in strong attendance. After years of refusing to dirty their hands doing publicity, independent filmmakers are becoming more savvy. Take the 'Mumblecore' people [out of Austin]; they created this interest online, and when enough people said they would support the film if it played in San Francisco, they found a theater. Great! 300 people showed up and everyone was happy.
Speaking of publicity, how about this poster? It's beautiful.
That is a 'Seven Samurai' [poster] signed by both [Toshiro] Mifune and [Akira] Kurosawa. When Kurosawa came to negotiate the deal for 'Kagemusha' with Coppola and Lucas, which Tom [Luddy] was responsible for, I went over with this poster that I got in Japan. I was told Kurosawa didn't sign posters, [but] he looked and said 'I haven't seen the original since the film came out.' Years later, Landmark bought the rights to 'Seven Samurai' and released the uncut Japanese version and we brought Mifune to San Francisco to do some press.
A funny side story: I called the hotel and said, 'I will come to the hotel, but we will use your rental car to go to the screening.' The guy from Toho [Japanese producers] asked 'What type of car do you have?' 'Honda Accord, two door.' I heard a Japanese conversation. 'Mr Mifune would rather go in your car, he trusts Japanese cars more than American.' So I had Mifune - and he is a big man - in my car! We took him to Cost Plus. It was scene, people going 'The samurai guy!' In those days, samurai films played at the Surf Theater and at the Kokusai near the Japan Center. I asked Mifune if he would sign this [poster] and he took the felt pen like it was a samurai sword. He swirls the pen around, does all that swirly stuff; then carefully writes 'T. Mifune, 1982.' [laugh]
Theaters are having a lot of trouble, but you can't watch 'Lawrence of Arabia' on an iPod.
I don't think the theater business is going to go away. I do feel the number of screens will be greatly reduced. We are sitting with 40,000 screens in the United States - a lot of screens. But the studios are reducing the home release windows, like Disney just did, and insist their films show on VOD [video on demand] closer to the opening night; within a few years it will be the same day. It already happens on some Magnolia and IFC releases - their films open in the theater and VOD on the same day.
Why do they do that?
Well, it is an interesting experiment. I should be completely against it because I am an exhibitor - a suffering exhibitor -- but I have looked at an alternate side to it. They both have been pretty aggressive about acquiring foreign and independent films that would otherwise not get picked up because otherwise they don't have enough of an upside - especially with the DVD market disappearing.
Here's what happens: A film opens in NY, it gets reviewed in the 'Village Voice' and the 'New York Times'. Say I'm Joe So-and-so, who lives in Idaho and reads reviews online. I say: 'That film is never coming to my town, it won't even come to my video store. I can put it on my Netflix queue but who knows when I will get it. Oh, for six dollars I can watch it tonight at home, the same time as the people in New York!'
I see that as a boon for specialized film. Filmmakers tell me they're getting royalties. Some revenue is being generated, it is not huge, but it wasn't going to be anyway. That system allows those companies to put some money into marketing the films. If they release them in a minimum of twenty cities theatrically and if the film catches on, it will feed DVD and VOD.
By making it available, they are able to get the bounce from the reviews? The theory used to be that a film would build through word of mouth and six months later you'd get a bounce on DVD?
Right. These are not yet on your computer, although it is starting but mainly through your cable or satellite system.
In sum, it is going to be hard but we will muddle through?
A lot of theaters will have to close. Circuits will look at their profile in a given market: 'This is our hot new multiplex, but the one three miles down the road is older, let's just consolidate.' Independently run theaters will be especially endangered unless they come up with a clever way to outfox their competition - not just other theaters, but all the alternatives tempting us. Maybe a medical marijuana movie house is the solution. [laughs]
As theatres start to equip with digital, which costs about $150,000 - how many screens can you justify doing that to? The studios plan to eliminate celluloid, that is their master plan and it is not very far off. The faster they can make it happen, the happier they will be. They are going to save, collectively, in excess of a billion dollars a year - not having to make prints, ship them or store them.
Will there be a marked degradation of the visual image on the screen?
I think it is pretty well confirmed by everyone that the digital image is highly acceptable, even to many purists. Now the public is buying into the hype that digital is better then film despite [Roger] Ebert's intriguing adaptation of [Marshall] McLuhan's thoughts about film being an active medium and video being passive.
Originally, the studios thought they would finance the switch to digital. But the greed of the exhibitors - to be part of the 3D world - meant they started buying the equipment themselves, so the studios stood back. It was hilarious. I went to this thing that [Jeffrey] Katzenberg [CEO of Dreamworks Studios] did in San Francisco about two years ago promoting 'Monsters vs Aliens.' He was just trashing exhibition: 'Exhibitors are not putting in these screens fast enough, so we can't have maximum rollout. If we can't have maximum rollout, we can't continue to make them.'
But it will take so long for digital to get out to Mongolia.
Mongolia will not have that equipment.
So Mongolia will still be seeing prints?
Mongolia probably will be seeing theaters closing, it will go to VOD. There will be many ways for people to see a film immediately if small towns can't afford the equipment and close their theaters. If you are in a populated area, there will always be some venues. We all have our priorities, what we want to see in a theater versus on a big screen TV versus on a little computer. The public makes a decision, 'This I want to see on the big screen, that I can wait on.'
They are never going to see 'Avatar' on their iPod.
Some will. Flying to the Berlin Film Festival almost every tiny TV screen on the plane was on 'Avatar.' 300 people were watching it flat - not 3D and with terrible sound. I would venture to say as many people have seen 'Avatar' in a non-theatrical experience as in theaters.
It seems like film festivals could take over showing cool stuff.
Yes, many believe film festivals are the new art houses.
And there are so many film festivals.
It's nuts around here. There are almost 100 film festivals in Bay Area [laughs].
Is that stupid or the wave of the future?
I think it is part of the process, the evolution of the way things work. A film festival can create an excitement around an event and draw people to it. If you go back to core film festivals, San Francisco, Telluride, San Francisco Jewish, Mill Valley, Silent, there was something unique, drawing like-minded people to a common experience, connecting them to other people.
I was on the board of the Jewish Film Festival. One of things we heard often: 'I don't belong to a temple, I am not religious, but my high holidays are the Jewish Film Festival. That is where I go to meet other Jews and engage in conversation. It excites me and gives me a connection to something - whatever it is about being a Jew.'
The Silent Film Festival is one of the great film events in this country because it brings people together for that silent film experience with live music. There are now people coming from all over the world to that festival. Go this year - they have some great and rare offerings. Most people have never seen a silent film with live music - they have seen a speeded-up clip on television. All it takes is one visit to a silent film properly presented - we do it at the Balboa a couple of times a year and Telluride shows two or three programs. People come away so turned on they want to get as much as they can.
Festivals have a lot of reasons to exist but there so many of them fighting for the same limited sponsorship dollars and films. But, here in the Bay Area, they cover so many different themes, it is hard to be critical of them.
They are a thing of civic pride, a celebrity thing, and so much more then watching a film.
Right. You have the destination festivals [like Telluride]; there are really just a handful of those. You have the special interest festivals like Hole in the Head (for horror), Italian, animation, Arab, Indie, Asian and then you have the local festivals, like Sonoma, Tiburon, Orinda, that someone decided they should create for the town to enjoy. They get a few filmmakers, a few stars, but they can't get someone with every single film. That is a requirement at Telluride, because we are asking people to spend a lot of time and money and not know what they are going to see. We want to make sure the experience will be as full as it can possibly be.
The Telluride Programming Team: (left-right) Gary Meyer, Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger in 2009. photo courtesy J. Bradshaw
Is Telluride the only festival that doesn't reveal what you are going to see?
As far as I know.
You have a fantastic window on film tastes. I know it is tough question, but are you seeing any trends? There's 3D, but on a more personal level, were films better in the '60s or even the silent era, or are we seeing something new?
I don't think that we will have the burn-out that 3D had in the '50s and in the '70s, where a few movies came out and made a lot of noise and every one tried to exploit it. They killed it with bad movies. I think there will be a certain amount of that happening, where stinkers come out in 3D and audiences feel burned. They are not going to pay premium prices for a bad movie, especially if studios are trying to convert things at the last minute, like 'The Last Airbender,' by M. Night Shyamalan. Six weeks before it came out, the studio said, 'Let's make it 3D with digital conversion.' That was done with 'Clash of the Titans' and the results were terrible, hard on the audience.
Nobody is going to say 'We are going to make all great 3D movies,' because the industry has never made all great movies, in any format. They make mostly bad movies. I don't think anyone sets out to make a bad movie [laugh]. It is what winds up happening.
In terms of one decade against another - every period of time has great movies, great literature, great athletes. I don't think it is fair to measure one group versus another. It is a progression, and tastes change. I might try to get to some young people here to watch an old film. Although they tend to be film lovers, they may watch a '30s classic and not like it. Why do I think that a Preston Sturges or Frank Capra movie is great fun? And I might watch something that is really 'hot' today and not quite get it, even though I am pretty adventurous. Different audiences respond in different ways.
There are probably more films being made now than ever in the history of the business because of digital. That means there may be the next Orson Welles out there who could not have made a movie except that they can make it inexpensively now. But for every Orson Welles, god knows how many Edward Woods there are - way too many I fear [laughs].
We know! We charge an entry fee to cover the processing and screening process but also to make filmmakers stop and think, 'Wait a minute, there are lots of festivals out there and most charge an entry fee. Is this festival right for my film? What are my chances of getting into Telluride?' That should stop all the truly terrible slasher films, faux-documentaries, and how-I-made-my-first-movie comedies that we see every year, but it doesn't.
[whispers] And they are so-ooo bad, and there are so-ooo many of them - you can't believe it! They don't know how to direct; the script might as well not have been written; there is no lighting; the music is horrible; the actors are friends who never acted before. The only thing you can do with that DVD is turn it over and use it as a coaster. It's sad. [whispering again] And some of the very worst call and are irate that we turned them down - even though we send out a very nice [rejection] letter. Look, we only show 24 new films - we have to make careful choices. These guys will yell and scream at us. Maybe they are too close to what they have created.
Sometimes I just want to come out and say: 'Your film is a piece of crap! No one should let you near a camera ever again.' We don't, of course, we are very, very nice. We get 500 features and 500 shorts. Think of what Sundance has to go through [laughs] - they get 3000 features. So there are a lot of really bad movies being made. We are hoping for the gems that rise up and we find them or someone else finds them and because of film festivals they have a chance to find a broader audience.
Films are constantly pushing the envelope, like 'Antichrist,' but does that produce a better film than 'His Girl Friday' ? There is a progression, we are opening up. 'Antichirst' had full frontal male nudity, and was damn well made.
But was it good? Disturbing is not a problem for me. I did not even see 'Antichrist.' I have very mixed feelings about [Lars] Von Trier and I could tell by the press kit he was going for shock value. There was another shocker there that I expected not to like it, but it surprised me: 'Enter the Void' by Gaspar Noé [who made 'Irreversible,' 2002]. It was outrageous but had something special - needed editing, though.
We often split up. My partners might go to the 8:30 a.m. press screening and I would see something else. If they said, 'You have to see this,' I would see it at a repeat showing. The [opinion] trend was negative, [although] it had its supporters, definitively. But when I am trying to see as many movies as I can in those 12 days [at Cannes] - out of the 700 movies, I figure I can see 50-55 films - I am not going to see a film that is generally felt is not right for our festival.
50 films in 12 days, that's over four a day!
Well, you walk out on a few. I try to be really selective. They put out these trade magazines that have the schedules. At any given time there are 40 films playing, so we go through it every morning over breakfast and circle what we are going to see. After 20 minutes, if a movie is clearly not doing it, I have no compunction about walking out. Why should I suffer through two hours of something that is not going to make it? I have had people say, 'The last 20 minutes were fantastic!' I am sorry. An audience should not have to put up with 90 minutes of trash to see 20 minutes of greatness. The film has to work as a whole, as far as I am concerned.
How about the 'Sacrifice' by Tarkovsky?
I have mixed feelings about it, but a lot of people consider it to be a true masterpiece, and I love many of his other films.
I had a friend who adored Tarkovsky but walked out on it. When I told him about the last 20 minutes, he almost strangled me.
He was a great filmmaker; he was at Telluride.
Basically, there are always good films and there are bad films?
There always are. As people watch films on different platforms, the basis on which we judge a film is going to have a variety of qualifications. It could be that a film that plays well on an iPhone doesn't play so well on the big screen or vice versa. There is an interesting example: Sofia Coppola's 'Lost in Translation' was a big art house hit and crossed over to a general audience. When it came out on DVD, I was listening to Ronn Owens on KGO and they were reviewing the new movies on DVD. Owens said, 'I hated it, why was it a hit?' and people were agreeing, they couldn't stand it; they watched on DVD. But other people were calling and saying, 'I watched it in the theater and it was fantastic.'
I got a theory about that. When you go to theater, you've driven there, you've paid to park, arranged a babysitter, bought tickets and, dammit, you are going to give that film a chance. Maybe it takes a little while to pull you into its world [but] it gives you a really terrific experience by the time it is over. But when you watch that same film at home, if it doesn't immediately engage you, any excuse to get up and stop the film - if the phone rings - encourages you to do that. A film involves a commitment.
I understand some films won't hook you immediately. They weave their way into your system, as was the case with 'Lost in Translation.' What is interesting is, rarely does someone who wrote a film review when it came out in the theater write a different review of the DVD experience. John Hartl, a longtime critic in Seattle, always re-watches the film in video and writes a new review. Generally they reprint the original theatrical review. The irony is that many reviewers refuse to attend a proper press screening and insist on being sent DVDs. Studios are worried about piracy, so they are less likely to do that, but with independent films that may be the only was to get reviewed! So [the reviewer] is not watching it in the theater [laughs] the way he expects his audience to go see it - he's watching it at home!
Sound is as strong on the little screen as the big, so that would predispose the little screen to be more emotional then visual, no? But, then, at home we lose the church thing.
Absolutely. We can create a small version of the church thing with our friends around us but there is something about going into that darkened room with some people you don't know and finding a commonality. That is mystical and crucial - but, unfortunately, not essential in the minds of many people.
What led you to focus on showing rather the making films yourself?
When I was seven, I went to see 'Lady and the Tramp' [Disney,1955]. My parents report that I said, 'I watch Saturday morning cartoons but this is different - how do they do cartoons?' Typical of my parents, they took me to the library and we checked out a book on animation. My dad had an 8 mm camera with a single frame [function] and I started doing stop motion animation, and then live action. When I was 12, they gave me the hayloft of our barn. I made a monster movie and decided to show it to the kids in the neighborhood. I put up a sheet. It was so much fun.
Article on Meyer Opening his Fourth Season of showing movies in his barn with Truffaut's 'Shoot the Piano Player.' He was 16. image: courtesy of G. Meyer
About that time, I found out the great silent classics I'd read about could be rented on 8mm from Cooper Films in Chicago. It was like $2.00 for a full-length feature - including postage! I could afford that and open it up to anyone who wanted to drive six miles from Napa into the country. I started my own theater and published a film newsletter - I got a mimeograph machine from a printer for $25. We did film workshops, live theater, music and many experiments.
All this while you are still only 12?
I started at 12 and continued through my teens. Somewhere along the line, a church called: they had a 16mm projector they never used. That same week, the library called. They said, 'We are going to buy a collection of films. Each library in nine counties will have a 16mm sound projector and the film packages will rotate every two months from library to library. We'd like you to be on the selection committee.'
I thought I must have died and had gone to heaven. I now had access to a second 16mm projector. I could show sound films with 'changeover' [new reel kick in as the last ends, signaled by those mysterious dots you'll no longer see with digital].
Then a guy from the local junior college asked, 'Do you know if there is film based on Sartre's 'No Exit?' I'd like to show it to my class in your theater.' I did some research and sure enough Audio Films - that had an office in San Francisco - had the film. Viveca Lindfors was in it - I don't know why I remember these things. I called the office and a guy named Willard Morrison confirmed they had a print.
[Then I said,] 'I see in your catalog you also have 'Freaks'' - I had always wanted to see the infamous 1932 horror film about and starring carnival freaks - 'How much does that cost? '$60.' '$60!?!? Oh no, sorry, can't do that.' 'I'll tell you what,' [Morrison said], 'You go find ten movies you want to play over the year and you can have anything you want for $25 apiece.' That was a real inspiration. I easily found ten great films: 'Pather Panchali,' 'Yojimbo,' 'Seventh Seal' - what a way to launch my international selections when I was 16 years old! I have talked to so many people over the years who Willard got started.
I was still making films at that time. One high school teacher hired me to make 16mm educational films. We also did a documentary on Eleanor Roosevelt coming to San Francisco, and on the Space Bridge, a linkup between students in San Francisco and Moscow via satellite.
What were you shooting with?
Bolex and Auricon cameras, I think.
Were your family farmers, or guessing from your last name, Jewish farmers?
Yes Jewish but not farmers - that was Pauline Kael's [the lauded New Yorker film reviewer] family in Petaluma. My grandfather and father were retail jewelers. I was not interested in jewelry; only the marketing. I was expected to go into the business but they never pushed me. My parents were enthusiastic supporters of the theater in the barn and were at every show. But I remember my grandmother asking - when she was 92 and I was, maybe, 30 years old and Landmark [Theaters] was well established - "So when are you going back to work in the store?'
I used to joke that my sister and I were the only Jews in the high school of 3000. There were a few others. But we far outnumbered the blacks, of which we had only one, an exchange student from Africa.
Did you ever experience any anti-Semitism?
Not much but some. My first anti-Semitic experience was when I was 11. I went to the 4H camp and became friends with this kid. The camp had a requirement of going to a morning prayer and I went to the director and explained, 'I am not comfortable with that.' He said, 'Don't worry, there will be no religious content.' But I heard a reference to 'father, son and holy ghost' and went back to complain. By that afternoon, everyone in camp heard I was a Jew.
My new friend was freaked out because his parents had told him all about the Jews - this long litany, you know, killed our Lord, cheap, big noses, on and on. Now he was going to have to go home and tell his parents his best friend was a Jew. He was very conflicted but in the end he decided to remain my friend.
A very California story, could have turned dark but didn't. So how did your film career proceed?
When I graduated from high school, I got accepted to UCLA, USC, and San Francisco State. When I went to visit the two schools in Los Angeles, they said I would have to wait until my junior year to take film classes. I said, 'Excuse me?!?
I have been making and showing films more than half my life, I am not going to wait two years to take a film class!' But SF State said, 'You can take classes from your freshman year.' I knew Jameson Goldner [long time department director; see cinesourcemagazine.com]. He had introduced films in my barn theater. I went there and made films, but I also got a job at the media center, showing films in classrooms, cleaning films, helping teachers order films, running film societies on campus. I was having a good time.
Another guy, Mike Thomas, and I became friends. He later ran the Strand Theater for many years and co-founded Strand Releasing with Marcus Hu. We took over the Times Theater, a legendary cinema in North Beach. We ran it as a film lovers' grind house: 99 cents for a different double feature every day. That was 1969 or '70. We ran it until the lease ran out.
When I graduated from college, my wife and I spent a year van camping around Europe - including going to film festivals in Venice, Trieste for science fiction, and Zagreb for animation - which was wild. In fact, we crashed Cannes, camping in our van where the Palais [des Festivals] is today. We met Alfred Hitchcock - he drew his caricature on a photo for me, Groucho Marx, Andy Warhol and John Lennon! At all of them we ran into Bay Area film people.
Came back - I could not find a job in production in San Francisco! My dad's insurance agent said, 'Gary, you ran a theater in high school, in college, why don't you get a job in a theater and find out how you're are going to get screwed when you become a filmmaker?' Sounded logical. There were a bunch of theater circuits in San Francisco, and the first one I interviewed with - United Artists Theaters - gave me a job. That was like graduate school.
They also produced some films. I guess this is a long answer to your question. At that point, I realized I didn't have the patience to come up with a script, find the financing, get it made, and find a distributor. Then the worst thing - at nine o'clock on opening night, you find out that your film is a bomb, more often than not.
But what I really loved was helping the people who did have the patience get their films seen. Even though United Artists was a big commercial chain, they did have some art houses. That gave me the opportunity to do a bit of that. I was able to get my boss to finance a script written by Zucker, Zucker and Abrahams, and hire the younger brother of a college friend... John Landis to direct 'Kentucky Fried Movie.' Then I introduced him to John Cassavetes whose 'The Killing of A Chinese Bookie' they also agreed to fund - sorry about that!
Along the line, I was introduced to Steve Gilula, who had just graduated from Stanford. He had a dream - I had the same dream - to take a movie palace and turn it into a daily change double feature theater - another film lover's grindhouse! I hired him at UA. We knew something was up when he was looking for an apartment, and my wife and I were looking for a new apartment, and on Monday, when Steve came in for his first day, he had found an apartment at 2nd and Irving and we'd found one across the street.
On April Fool's Day, 1976, we re-opened the 1917 UC Theater in Berkeley with Fellini's '8 1/2' and Truffaut's 'Day for Night.' Dreams can come true! Little did we know that would be the start of an art house chain. Friends would call us from Sacramento or Denver and say 'I wish there was a theater like that here,' so we got tempted and grew Landmark - now I think there are well over 200 screens. We ran it for over 25 years.
Man it could sometimes be crazy! We had appearances at the UC Theater, from John Waters and Divine (who couldn't decide if he should come as a man or a woman so came as half and half) to Russ Meyer (he gave out Kitten's phone number after telling how she convinced him that oral sex was a good thing) to the Medved brothers [the right wing pundit/film critic Michael and liberal brother Harry] promoting their Golden Turkey Awards book. Then, of course, there was Werner Herzog eating his shoe for the premiere of Errol Morris' 'Gates of Heaven' [cooked by Alice Waters, filmed by Les Blank].
Did you ever hear about the first time we showed 'Singin' in the Rain' there? By coincidence it also started pouring outside - and inside. That was when we learned there were major leaks in the roof! Did our audience flee? Hell no. They fought to sit under the leaks with umbrellas opened. Or a group of musical fans suggesting they would create slides with all the lyrics for 'Wizard of Oz' and 'Meet Me in St. Louis' and project them for a singalong - way before it was done for 'The Sound of Music.' And a program I called 'The Long Long Trailer,' 15 hours of coming attractions hand picked by me.
Not to mention, the whole 'Rocky Horror' phenomena - it kept our theaters open in hard times - or the other midnight sensations like 'Eraserhead' and 'Pink Flamingos.' John Waters loved us and did a very funny 'No Smoking' promo where he was smoking and enjoying it immensely. We helped launch the careers of dozens of independent filmmakers, although not everyone liked us. A local producer on a panel called me "the anti-Christ" of independent cinema because I had not liked a film he'd produced, forgetting that I also played it in several Landmark venues. Despite not liking it personally, I felt there was an audience who would appreciate it. Some people are so fickle.
We were at a point where we needed some money to expand but we couldn't find any investors, so we sold it Sam Goldwyn, Jr. We continued to run it for him. He sold it and I didn't want to move to LA, so I became a consultant. Then I left, as did Steve - he runs Fox Searchlight Pictures [a division of 20th Century Fox, which specializes in indie and British films]. Landmark continues- we are very proud of what we created with the help of many film lovers who worked with us - it is a different company now, run by Mark Cuban, but the basic concept still holds true.
I consulted on how to re-open old theaters: the Brooklyn Academy of Music - I did their business, programming and marketing plan; the Empress in Vallejo; a variety of different projects; and working with [Robert] Redford for a year helping develop the concept of the Sundance Cinemas.
So how did you get to the Balboa?
Nine years ago, I got a call from Irma Levin [owner of the Balboa]. She said, 'We are going to close the Balboa.' The Levin family built the Metro, the Alexandria, the Coronet, the Vogue - a bunch of theaters all over San Francisco. They were partners with United Artists Theaters from the late '40s - except the Balboa, which the Levins held as their own little toy.
Bud and Irma Levin founded the San Francisco International Film Festival . They created it as a commercial thing, actually, something to fill the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when, in those days, no one would release new movies. Lot of theaters closed for painting and to give their people vacations. Bud came up with this idea, 'Why don't we run a bunch of Italian films?' He had just attended the Venice Film Festival. They did that, with the [Italian] consulate, and it was so successful they decided to make an international festival. After several years, he gave it to the City of San Francisco.
By , Irma was in her mid 80s, and their manager of 15 years decided to quit. She said, 'I don't think I can get a new manager I can trust, nor compete against the Metreon and the Kabuki. If you are interested in trying it out month-to-month [it's yours].' Actually, I had booked the theater when I worked for United Artists.
So I spent a lot of time there, hanging out at the theater - I couldn't have chosen a place farther from where I live, [which is] in Oakland by Lake Merritt. It was interesting because the matinees were pretty successful. The average age was just this side of dead, but they were loyal. At night however, few came. They were playing second run double features, often terrible second run combinations.
I talked to the customers who said, 'We just want to get out of the house... it would be great if they were better movies.' If I could up the quality of films, put out an email newsletter, but, most important, hire a staff who would care about the people, then I had a chance. I mean, we are a funky little theater built in 1926. We have to overcome that. Some people thought I was crazy. I saw it as a cup half full because of the loyal seniors.
When I first took over [the Balboa], I improved it with a Website and newsletter and better films, built a younger audience while keeping the older folks and we ran it that way for several years. But the San Francisco Centre and Daly City 20 opened and Landmark started preventing me from getting films. My own policy came back to haunt me - which was to not allow another theater in San Francisco to play a film that Landmark had. So I had a choice: I could book an art film that had bombed terribly - even though it might be a good movie. I love to find an audience [for those], which is pretty hard - once a film is gone, it is gone! Sometimes if I could get a strong co-feature, it worked. But the hits which I really needed, which were like lifeblood, Landmark would hold onto, sometimes until the DVD came out. The studios as well as the independents started saying, 'We don't want double features,' what they call split schedule [because it waters down the market]. I found myself in a really difficult position.
Right around then, Anita Monga left the Castro. She was loved by the audience, the distributors, everybody. The Nasser family took the lease back for the theater their fathers had built and decided they wanted to make changes. Maybe this was an opportunity for me. I'd turn one of the screens at Balboa to repertory and mix new films that were under Landmark's radar. Anita and Eddie Muller were not taking the Film Noir Festival back to the Castro, so I offered the Balboa rent free to help launch our new programming policy and calendar.
For almost two years I did that with various levels of success. The problem is the Internet has grown and decimated print - which I don't have to tell you about. It has become that much more difficult to get publicity. Weeklies give less space to small films they should champion. The Chronicle would offer a rave review but it would be two paragraphs buried with the mud wrestling ads. Those films tended to get lost, and I couldn't do enough business to justify the expense. And the repertory festivals were the big expense because we were shipping in double features every day.
Designing, printing and distributing the calendar was a tremendous amount of work for the return. People are funny; they'd come up to me and say 'I love the Balboa.' And I'd say, 'When's the last time you were there?' 'Oh, I've never been but I take your calendar and circle what I want to see and put it on my Netflix queue.' Everyone assumes: 'Well, only I do this, but everyone else must be going to the Balboa.'
Interestingly, when I look back at those grosses, and I look at Landmark, for the little films, I was often doing much, much better. But it couldn't cover operating costs.
After two years I stopped the schedule but it was even harder to get sub-run double features, so I went to a mixture of better first run studio films and art releases - when I can get them. It is harder than ever since the Sundance Kabuki, the Empire and the Stonestown have converted to sort of art houses. The problem with an art film is the distributor can't justify three, much less four, prints in the city of San Francisco for their little films. We've settled into being a neighborhood theater. We serve the people who live on the west side of San Francisco and fans who come from other places. We have over 7500 people on our newsletter. I try to make it unique, with a personalized editorial, prizes give-aways - like this week to 'Young Frankenstein' (CAL Performances works with us). The studios give me posters and swag, if I pester them. Friday night we have the director [Teddy Newton] of the Pixar short 'Day and Night' [considered one of Pixar's edgiest efforts] in person. We try to do as many special events as possible, so the newsletter is essential to spread the word.
It gets tougher. The big distributors don't see anything wrong with taking any theater that will play their movie. When I opened the paper on the Friday we opened 'Sex in the City II' and found there were 10 theaters playing it in the city of San Francisco - seven miles by seven miles - 16 screens total, I knew we were dead!
That's increasingly the situation, because the studios know the money is on the opening weekend So it is really tough. And we pay the studios film rental of over 60% of the box office. I get asked often: 'Are you closing?' I fight closing the theater for a couple of reasons: I am passionate about saving a neighborhood theater that I have a connection with going back to 1972. We have done some restoration and are about to do the façade and we have an amazing staff, headed by our general manager Roger Paul, who I don't want to put out of work. It must be said the great experiences audiences have at the Balboa are because of the the staff. We get so many compliments that they make people feel like this is home away from home. As long as I can budget how much I am willing to lose a year [laughs], I am going to keep the place open. Luckily I have a real job.
You go on Yelp, we have tons of raves. I realize there is a lot of competition for [people's] time. We have the lowest prices in town both at the box office and at our concession stand. I hope something happens. When we come up with a winner like 'Remembering Playland;' it was a huge success - we are only 12 blocks from where Playland was. It showed from early April until two weeks ago [June 2010]. 'Best of Youth' [2003 Italian film by Marco Giordana], a six-hour film was a huge hit that played 22 weeks.
We know people will come. Local director Tom Shepard, who made 'Scout's Honor' about gay kids in the Scouts has a wonderful new one, 'Whiz Kids,' opening in September. In October we'll bring in "Kings of Pastry," the new film by classic documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. We do one-off special events all the time. I am about to make a deal to do operas and live events.
Were you associated with making 'Gumby Dharma?'
No, I am in it. What happened was, in the Landmark days, we had a lot of repertory houses and video tape was just starting and we knew that we had to get more creative in our programming. I heard Art Clokey [the animator who invented Gumby] was living in Sausalito, so I tracked him down and I said, 'Would you and your wife come to the UC Theater? We will do a night of Gumby.' I had some 16mm prints, he had some prints, and it was a huge hit - 1300 people packed the theater.
I said, 'Can I take you on tour: Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, all the places we have theaters?' It was a huge success and it resulted in him re-licensing his Gumby and Pokey creatures. He did a new series, a new Gumby feature length film was made here ,with a lot of local animators who work at Pixar and various other places now. Robina Marchesi, Klara Grunning-Harris and Timothy Hittle wanted to make a movie about his story, so I am interviewed in it.
Have you ever thought about a Berkeley Festival?
There is some kind of Berkeley Independent Festival that shows locally made independent films and there is a disability film festival. But the Pacific Film Archive is a year-round film festival. And the Jewish Film Festival, and Frameline have Berkeley showcases. Over the years the City of Berkeley tried to get me to do something but there was never the commitment to funding that was needed. They just said, 'We want a film festival, can you do that Gary?' [laugh]
When do you go to Telluride?
A week before the festival.
You ever get out to that beautiful hot springs there?
Oh, Dutton, not for a long time - oh look, this was last year's program book.
I know your cover artist from two years ago, Mark Stock.
Yeah, Mark, we have become good friends. Turns out we are both magicians.
Posted on Aug 13, 2010 - 03:51 AM