While Park City may be better known for the home of film festivals, and SLC for spots like The Tower and Broadway theaters, other cities are starting to expand into artistic films with their own locations. --- Take, for example, the Art House Cinema 502 on historic 25th Street in Ogden, a micro-cinema with less than 30 seats that opened over the summer of 2011. The fully equipped movie theater became a must-visit location for those looking for more rare and artistic films who didn't want to make the trek down south, and also became one of the main locations for Slamdance 2012. Today, we're chatting with co-founder and co-owner Joel Layton about the theater and the success he's seen so far, his experience with Slamdance, thoughts on local film and festivals and a few other topics along the way.
Gavin: Hey, Joel. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Joel: I've pretty much lived my life so far in Utah, graduated with a BFA from the U in 1978, worked for FedEx for near 30 years, then retired, worked three years for the Veterans Benefits Administration, retired. Married to my first wife for 40 years; she passed away and I am now with my second wife, who recently had my first child, Ulysses, at the ripe old age of 57.
Gavin: What first got you interested in film, and what were some movies that influenced you early on?
Joel: When I was 10, late-night TV had nothing but old movies; I used to get up after my parents went to bed and watch them. I recall seeing Orson Wells' Touch of Evil. I was hooked and I've loved movies since. I have attended at least a handful of films at Sundance since before it was Sundance. In 1978, it was called The United States Film Festival until Robert Redford took over in '82 and moved it to Park City. Taking my vacation that week every year, I once saw 46 films and three seminars in 10 days!
Gavin: Something that sets you apart from many involved with local film is that you had no prior experience in the medium or even showcasing it prior. What prompted the idea of getting involved with film to begin with?
Joel: The love of film for both my wives and me led us to feed our habit. Lilli and I attended a screening at a micro cinema in San Francisco that had but 17 seats. With the new baby on board, we couldn't get to Salt Lake as often as we would like to catch independent film at Broadway or the Tower, so we thought why not start one of our own? It seemed to be a pipe dream at the time, but somehow we persevered and made it happen.
Gavin: How did you come up with the idea of starting a small movie theater, and how did you get Lilli and Albert Randall on board?
Joel: Lilli and I have always been of the same ilk, Albert needed some coxing, and still is the skeptic, or maybe sometimes the realist among us that keeps us on our toes.
Gavin: Considering all the various types of theaters you could have started up, why a micro-cinema version?
Joel: Filling a large venue for art houses is a tumultuous task and too many theaters fail because they can't fill the seats to pay the rent and utilities. Most receive a nonprofit status and apply for grants to survive, as they will in the end only average 20-30 patrons per screening in a 200-300 seat theater. A small venue like ours has a small -- very small -- overhead. This allows us to maintain and have enough to pay the rent and keep the distributors at bay. We perhaps would have gone for 50-60 seats, but we always had the micro-cinema business plan in mind. Our 28 seats times the five days we screen our five-to-six films should be just the figures to satisfy the needs of the top-of-Utah market for our type of films.
Gavin: How did you come across the location on 25th Street, and what made you decide to set up shop there?
Joel: First and foremost, we fit. Our little Art House is a nice addition to the other shops and eateries along the historic district. The amount of foot traffic is far and above our best advertising. I truly believe we couldn't have made it elsewhere without a very large advertising budget, which we could not afford.
Gavin: Considering the location and its history, how much work was put into cleaning it up and restoring it to be a modern theater? And where did you get the name for the place?
Joel: We considered several sites along 25th street but this one was just in our price range. We are virtually debt free because of that decision, as we were able to build up our cinema out of pocket. The space had just the right feel to it with the exposed brick and vintage ads painted on them from ears long past. The half office, or crow's nest as we call it, gave us just the overhead space for our digital projection system. It just seemed to be calling our name.
Gavin: One of the things you like to show off are the 28 art deco theater seats you have for the room. Where did you find them and how hard was it setting them up in such a small space?
Joel: Lilli scoured the Internet looking for real theater seats. Obviously, new seats like those in your typical Megaplex were way out of our reach. Luck shined on us again when we found 39 seats circa 1938 on Craigslist. These seats were perfect and as close as Denver. A borrowed utility trailer and a one-night-straight drive there and back and were set. The building inspector cost us four seats to accommodate proper aisle access and these were a bear to install as they had been dismantled at least three times in their history and required a lot of attention but in the end all were worth it. There were only four of the art deco end caps and we have seven rows so we hope to have replicas duplicated sometime in the future.
Gavin: You opened back in August of last year. What was the reaction from the public and how did the first few shows do?
Joel: Most of our exposure is walk-bys from events like Farmers Market and other 25th Street events so our growth has been slow albeit steady. We had a lot of empty screenings then, and still do on occasion. Everyone that gets the nickel tour is impressed and we get a lot of, "This is just what Ogden needs!" We hope so. We still are giving the tours daily when we can between screenings, and most are excited to have us here. Now all we need is for them to come fill our seats on a regular basis!
Gavin: What's the selection process for you when picking films to show, and what particular films have you screened that no other theater in Utah has?
Joel: We do like to show films that are under the radar, and we work with the Salt Lake Film Society with some of our selections, but we don't want their leftovers. We find films they have passed on or just didn't have the room in their scheduling. Lilli spends late nights scouring art houses across the country to see what's playing, and now we pretty much have built a rapport with distributors so they come to us with offerings. We are also often courted by smaller distributors and even some filmmakers themselves to show their fare. We have had several films that have included us on their own Web pages and have brought patrons from Idaho and Wyoming as well as southern Utah, as we have been the only venue showing certain films. We like that.
Gavin: This past January, you were a location for Slamdance showings. What was it like hosting those films for an Ogden audience and what was the overall experience like for you?
Joel: We didn't get into the Slamdance official program, which may have cost a few attendees, but overall it was a good experience and offered up some good exposure. We will most likely do it again next year. Some excellent films came our way. We've screened a number of films that came out of previous Slamdance festivals. We felt privileged to be a part of it this year.
Gavin: After seeing the work that was done with Slamdance, are you looking to get involved with more local festivals?
Joel: We may be a venue for Foursite Festival this year and perhaps create a mini-fest of our own.
Gavin: The theater has gained a lot of notoriety and press in a short amount of time. What are your personal thoughts on the exposure and the success you've seen so far?
Joel: The press exposure is by far the best advertising. Our budget couldn't even begin anything close to reviews and write-ups we've received.
Gavin: Are there any plans yet on your part to expand what you're doing with the theater, or are you in a pretty comfortable spot for now?
Joel: If we ever begin to have sellout screenings, we will definitely look to open a additional screens somewhere in town. Who knows? Maybe even a multicinema or a microplex, if you will.
Gavin: Going local, what’s your opinion of the Utah film scene, both good and bad?
Joel: We have considered having an open-screen night for local filmmakers much like open-mic night at coffee houses; just show, no dough. We have yet to see what may become of that.
Gavin: Is there anything you think could be done to make it more prominent?
Joel: Well, there's the phrase in the market that says advertising doesn't cost, it pays. Still, we are on a shoestring and we just have to rely on what is free, or close to it. We appreciate the plugs we get from film critics in papers and radio. And we've gotten some nice press with articles in the Tribune, City Weekly, Standard Examiner and Utah Stories. Social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and the like are also helpful. For now, we'll be happy with that.
Gavin: What's your take on organizations like SLFS and the Utah Film Center, and the work they're doing to promote independent film in the state?
Joel: We've had little contact with the Film Center, but SLFS has been very helpful. There are occasions when a film they plan to show is just too good to pass on and so we'll open those on the same day riding on each other's publicity with reviews. We honor SLFS Chronic passes, which gets us a plug in its newsletter. No one has taken the trip yet, in spite of being a short walk from FrontRunner, but they will if they like film enough to pop the cost of that pass. Tori, the director, has been a great source of education in how to run an art-house cinema and we are grateful.
Gavin: Aside from the major names, what's your take on localized festivals like the Salt Lake City Film Festival, Salty Horror or Fear No Film, and the work they're doing to promote filmmaking and the art form itself?
Joel: You are forgetting Ogden's own Foursite Film Festival, of which we most likely will be a venue this coming year. We are all for supporting local festivals and local filmmakers, as well. We are working on a short festival featuring Bicycle Films for a local bike shop and club.
Gavin: What can we expect from both yourself and 502 over the rest of the year?
Joel: While we may have visions of grandeur, we hope to open additional micro cinemas around the country and possibly become film distributors ourselves, attending festivals as such and snagging some of those gems that the big guys pass up. We will keep this cinema running as we move later this year to Reno, where we will be looking into opening our second art house there. We will capitalize on what we have learned doing it the first time. We may even offer franchises across the country.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Joel: I mentioned our support of local filmmakers, and we will be hosting a night of short films from Weber State filmmakers during April's First Friday Gallery Stroll. Most of the filmmakers will be on hand for Q&A. The films are free and so is the popcorn. See you at the cinema.
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