Repertory movie programing at Salt Lake Film Society | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Repertory movie programing at Salt Lake Film Society 

Finding an audience for classic film on a big screen

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If you were to walk into Broadway Centre Cinemas on any given Saturday, you'd likely come upon a crowded screening of rowdy, enthusiastically engaged movie-goers ... seeing a movie they easily could have streamed at home. From Robocop to Bullitt to Punch-Drunk-Love, audiences have been flocking to the Salt Lake Film Society's repertory and revival screenings more than ever. This is a far cry from just two years ago, when the Broadway Cinemas sat empty due to the pandemic.

"There was a very scary time when COVID hit," shared Tori Baker, executive director of the Salt Lake Film Society (SFLS). "What's going to happen to the cinematic big-screen experience?"

As the Broadway reopened in October 2021, the independent art-house faced unprecedented challenges. To begin with, the traditional pipelines that had brought films from creator to theater in the past had largely dried up in 2020, leaving a gap in available films come 2021. "Were people going to release [a film] in theaters, or release it digitally?" Baker recalled asking herself. "There was this kind of industry kerfuffle happening. So that was impacting what we could book."

Baker and the other staff at SLFS began to fill holes left in their programming with repertory screenings: showings of notable, classic or cult films from the past. While such screenings were not new to SLFS—and also occurred via Fathom Events at major cinema chains like Cinemark and Megaplex—Baker notes that, pre-COVID, they screened fewer repertory films than most art houses. The move to show more historic films was counterintuitive in enticing audiences back to theaters, since generally speaking, these films were easily accessible via streaming services or VOD rentals.

Around the same time, however, Baker began hearing rumors in the art-house community "that repertory was landing, and it was working for their community. ... That narrative really sparked our imagination," she said.

So, Baker and her colleagues set to work. Graphed out from October 2021, when the Broadway reopened post-COVID, to now, a diagram would show a steady increase in SLFS's repertory offerings.

Programming these repertory screenings was not a straight shot, however. "The city has changed dramatically," Baker said. "A lot of people moved into the city during that two-year period where things were closed for us, and reintroducing the Film Society meant really looking at the programs." At this point, Baker turned to the society's status as a nonprofit, and their mission to serve the community, which meant thinking "about how we want to see films, and what things we need [post-pandemic]: the community, the gathering, the coming together, that kind of real fireside conversation around cinema."

With all of this in mind, Baker and SLFS launched a major experiment last summer: The Summer Showdown series. The aim of this series was to put films in conversation with each other and with the community.

Baker imagined it as the film-series version of "Would a werewolf or an astronaut win in a fight?" "What happens if you did that with film?" Baker said. "Would Fight Club or Goonies win? Could we add a more participatory, fun element to that and sort of event-ize the project?"

The films competed on an attendance- and donation-based leaderboard via Instagram, with the local cult favorite SLC Punk winning the summer. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with audiences showing a particular affinity for more adventurous fare such as David Lynch's Eraserhead. "It was an experiment," Baker said of the Summer Showdown, "but it's coming back in 2023 because it's not an experiment any more!"

Riding on the success of the Summer Showdown series, SLFS has continued to expand repertory offerings. In addition to the traditional "Tower of Terror" series (horror films around Halloween-time), the annual screenings of Rocky Horror Picture Show, and holiday screenings, they have increased regular repertory programming of restored films, and also introduced monthly themed programs, such as March's "Killer Cars and Joy Rides" and April's "Anderson & Anderson," which featured films by Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Over the pandemic, SLFS changed their mission statement: "To exhibit, create, and preserve the art of the cinematic experience." COVID made it clear how important that experience is, and the success of repertory screenings has emphasized it.

"It's not that the film can't be seen or can't be accessed," Baker says. "But it's a 100% different experience... when everybody's having the same emotions and you're seeing it 50 ft tall and it demands your attention. ...That experience is completely different, and we've heard so frequently over the last year from people: 'It's been a long time since I've been back to the movies, and I forgot.' I think they knew, but also they didn't realize. They forgot just how different that experience is."

Baker is proud to have brought people together through these films: "It was really all about community for us." And with more topical programming such as June's LGBTQ films, these screenings are capturing the community's zeitgeist. "Maybe that's why people are responding to it so much right now," Baker says. As she's continued working on more repertory programming, Baker has leaned into programming films that speak to the community's current concerns. "What's amazing about the art form of film is that it can represent another art form, it can represent a culture and community, it can represent humanity, in ways that are so tied to how we think visually in our own minds," she says. "Repertory has really big power."

Salt Lake Film Society will continue its more robust repertory programming for the foreseeable future, with the adventure continuing in the upcoming Summer Showdown, which will open, Baker says, with a screening of cult-classic The Room featuring the in-person attendance of cast member Greg Sistero. "As long as audiences keep responding, we'll keep responding," Baker says, "because as a non-profit, our job is to be here for the community."

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Merritt Mecham

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