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Screen Time 

SLC's newest outdoor film venue rises from the pandemic's ashes.

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DEREK CARLISLE
  • Derek Carlisle

After the coronavirus outbreak swept the legs out from under the movie business, many theaters looked to the past as they held out hope for the future. Planned blockbuster releases were replaced on the marquee with nostalgic favorites, and the near-extinct drive-in format got an unexpected boost as exhibitors erected makeshift outdoor auditoriums to keep socially distanced revenue trickling in.

Ironically—or perhaps fatefully—the folks at the Salt Lake Film Society (SLFS) were already planning the idea to add an outdoor drive-in to their brick-and-mortar operations at the Tower Theatre and Broadway Centre Cinemas. So when the pandemic hit, and those theaters were shuttered, the nascent Studio Backlot Motor Cinema shifted into high gear.

"Everybody was doing popups," said SLFS President Tori Baker. "Everybody was putting up a blowup screen somewhere. But at the film society, we take our job as exhibitors very seriously."

Housed at the Redman Movies & Stories studios—just west of Interstate 15 in Glendale—the motor cinema opened last fall with an initial series of 13 one-night-only films, all of which played to sold-out crowds. The relatively intimate space boasts a massive screen while maxing out at fewer than 50 vehicles, which Baker said was imperative to maintain the view-to-viewer proportions of an arthouse cinema.

"When we talk about a big-screen experience at the film society, we're not kidding," Baker said. "If you've got a 20-foot blowup screen in a giant park in South Jordan City, that's not a cinematic experience. That's watching a movie."

The Motor Cinema kicked off its sophomore run last week with the first of 24 scheduled screenings, ranging from new, award-winning films like Chloe Zhao's Nomadland to decades-old classics like Dirty Dancing and Footloose. And Baker said the film society plans to follow the summer slate with a series of more "funky" titles later this year.

"Fall season will look a lot like your Mad Maxes and your Rocky Horrors and all that," she said.

Beyond the expanded schedule, visitors this year may notice an upgraded space at the Redman facilities. Company president Bryan Clifton described the Motor Cinema as something of a win-win for Redman, as its creation dovetails with the ongoing construction of an outdoor soundstage.

"We're getting closer to halfway there," Clifton said. "Each time we add shipping containers to it, it becomes a stronger structure and gives us more ability to do films out there."

Clifton said the installation of last year's screen had to be done quickly. And while they pulled it off pretty well, he said, there was room for improvement.

"When the wind blew, [the screen] started moving around. It wasn't as tight as we would have liked it," Clifton said. "The screen itself weighs about 10 times as much as it did last year."

The Motor Cinema is something of a pivot for Redman Movies & Stories, which provides technical resources and crew for productions. But in talking about the drive-in, Clifton shared his vision of the studio backlot as a multi-use entertainment space where a film crew shoots on the greenscreen during the day and audiences watch films or attend live performances at night—perhaps in the future having refreshments delivered to them by servers on roller blades.

"We live with people's dreams," Clifton said. "It's our job to figure out how to make it happen and we relish the opportunity."

Some of that hybrid potential was on display during last fall's Motor Cinema run, like when fans of the Mad Max franchise attended a screening of Fury Road in clothes and vehicles inspired by the film's dystopian universe.

"The rumble of these guys starting their engines between the two buildings was so loud," Clifton said. "It must have just freaked people out."

While the Tower and Broadway remain closed, Baker was adamant that they will reopen. Many theaters around the country have gone under during the pandemic, including acclaimed movie houses like the Pacific Theatres and ArcLight Cinemas in Los Angeles, or the Alamo Drafthouse chain, which filed for bankruptcy in March.

By comparison, the Salt Lake Film Society has expanded its footprint through the creation of the Motor Cinema as well as its embrace of virtual screenings through SLFS@Home, a digital platform now used by 35 other cinemas around the country.

"That project has helped other arthouses get through their time of closure," Baker said. "We created a technology to allow people to visit their actual arthouse and be able to donate to their actual arthouse as opposed to just being able to watch a movie online."

Baker said those hybrid digital models are here to stay. And while they were catalyzed by necessity, she said it creates opportunities for independent film to find audiences that were previously out of reach.

"It's been an interesting journey, and I do think at the heart of it is innovation and creativity," Baker said. "If you can't get your ballet back and your arthouse cinema back and your theaters back and everything else, it changes the creative culture. And that means innovation in the business sector could be harmed because art is what feeds that innovation and creativity."

In the meantime, big-screen fans with an itch to scratch can look to the Motor Cinema, which is scheduled to churn out a steady stream of indie fare through June. Tickets are $27 per vehicle, and if last year is any indication, they could go fast.

"Hopefully this lineup feels very summer and very indie and exciting," Baker said. "People should take a chance on something they haven't seen before."

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