The contemporary cineplex resembles something out of Brave New World or 1984: Row after row of shoebox-shaped rooms filled with chairs, each armrest featuring an enormous cup holder, encouraging the viewer to buy buckets of popcorn and cisterns of pop.
But in small screening rooms across Seattle (see sidebar next page), a different diet of film can be found. Dubbed "microcinemas," these venues for film range from the back rooms of bars to the flagship of the trend, the Grand Illusion. Microcinemas show experimental shorts, new low-budget films, classic film noir, lurid camp trash—the only constant is that someone cared enough to screen it.
"There's always been people showing these films," says Robert Graves, who curates movies upstairs at Scarecrow Video. "We're just looking to see films we can't see elsewhere."
Erick Larson, one of the mainstays of Shining Moment, which screens obscure older movies at the Speakeasy, agrees. "When we started, our charter was 'Exploring the neglected pathways of cinema.'" Jon Behrens, of Cinema 18, is more blunt: "There's just a lot of crap being shown. People are getting tired of paying $8 to go see crap when you can pay a little money to see something fun and hang out and smoke cigarettes."
Much of the movement's growth comes from places that don't usually show films. "When you only have a few bars, they just get bands," theorizes Larson. "But when they have to be competitive, venues look for other things, especially on off nights. Showing films has gotten a reputation for being cool, and they make money from food and drink—it's an economic incentive."
Joel Bachar, who runs Independent Exposure, another series at the Speakeasy, says, "The shift in acceptance by the press has been dramatic. I had a hell of a time just getting listed in the calendar sections for the first year. Now everyone from the [Seattle] Times to Sidewalk.com lists even obscure films appearing in community centers. The rise in public awareness is dramatic."
Many of the driving forces behind microcinemas are filmmakers themselves. Says Graves, "When I built up the theater at Scarecrow, I was hoping to generate the income to make my own film. It quickly became clear that was never going to happen." Reed O'Beirne, whose screenings of Super-8 films should return to the Alibi Room this fall, asserts the low-budget ethos that underlies many of these microcinemas: "If you have an idea and a camcorder, and can convince some friends to help you, you can make a film for practically nothing—if you have a creative idea, which is the hard part. It's a strange art form, where you have to be a great poet and a salesman as well."
Cinema 18, like the Grand Illusion, aspires to be both an outlet and a support system for new films; the small screening room also serves as a studio for film shoots. Says Behrens, "Anyone who has a film they've made and want to show, they should talk to us. We're not a club. Regardless of whether it's good or bad, if you made it, it deserves to be seen, at least once. Some of my favorite films are regarded as some of the worst films ever made, like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter—those are all gems of cinematic history."