Photo by Anna Erickson
SIFF artistic director Carl Spence began working for the festival in the early ’90s, not long after graduating from the UW, when the festival’s parent business was based at the Egyptian. Since then, the festival was mostly nomadic, with no permanent home, using borrowed screens during its month-long annual extravaganza. A quarter-century later, Spence now runs a year-round enterprise that’s expanding its presence from Lower Queen Anne to Capitol Hill.
“This is a taking-back. It’s our neighborhood,” Spence tells me on a rainy July morning as he produces a set of keys and lets us into the darkened theater—“originated by the people who operated the festival. I started at the Egyptian.” That was during 1980–89; then San Diego-based Landmark Theatres assumed the lease from Seattle Central College, which owns the former Masonic Temple.
Landmark stopped showing movies at the Egyptian in June 2013. (It still operates the Seven Gables, Guild 45th, Varsity, Harvard Exit, and Crest.) As that chain, and others, have struggled to show art-house and specialty movies in older single-screen cinemas (often with insufficient parking and lacking digital projectors), the nonprofit SIFF has actually been bucking the industry trend. First it began operating a year-round cinema beneath McCaw Hall in 2007. Four years later it leased office and screening space at Seattle Center (in the former Alki Rooms) and reopened the Uptown. This May it bought that triplex for $2.6 million, an announcement paired with the signing of a 10-year lease at the Egyptian, expected to reopen in October.
“It’s turn-key to an extent,” says Spence as we tour the theater, since SIFF is buying the projectors from Landmark. Over $300,000 has been raised for improvements to the facility, including a new surround-sound system. More money will be raised for future upgrades, likely to replace the threadbare seats and add some angle to the notoriously flat main floor, which presently accommodates about 400 viewers.
Spence is bullish on the booming neighborhood. Among SIFF members and ticket buyers,“this is our most popular zip code,” he tells me. “There’s the light rail coming, all the new construction.” Just across Harvard Avenue, a huge new block of apartments is being built where car dealerships and garages once stood. As with the Uptown (or Northwest Film Forum, for that matter), our new urban density brings filmgoers to the front door—no parking required. Another way to cater to such city-dwellers? “We have a beer and wine license,” says Spence—the same hybrid variety as at the Uptown that allows patrons to take drinks inside the theater. And that leads to a fond Egyptian tradition Spence intends to revive: midnight movies.“We’re gonna bring them back—it also helps that you can drink in them.”
A Northwest native, Spence has lived all over Seattle—Fremont, Leschi, Cap Hill, the U District—but for the past dozen years he’s been settled in West Seattle, where he and his husband are raising their small children. So what are his Bests there and beyond?
North Admiral is necessarily his favorite neighborhood. “It’s very walkable” to stores and shops, and the endangered Admiral Theater. His best neighborhood park? Alki Beach Park: “The beach is amazing,” and it’s a great place to let the kids explore. (A short drive east, his family is also partial to Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill.) Best place for a convenient dinner? “La Rustica is one of my favorites.” Coffee? Spence favors Caffe Fiore in the Admiral district. What about a family weekend meal? Easy Street Records in the Junction. “It’s a great place to have breakfast.”
Spence spends most of his workday hours at the SIFF Film Center. Where does he go for lunch in Uptown? He’s partial to the Korean food at the tiny Cafe GoldinBlack on Queen Anne Avenue (“You wouldn’t even know it’s there”). And dinner? “My favorite place on Queen Anne is Crow.” Among the newer joints in LQA, Spence is keen on Taylor Shellfish. “Also, Triumph is a great new bar.” That’s where he recently entertained director Bong Joon-ho during a recent visit for his Snowpiercer (“That’s been our biggest hit of the year”) and where he recommends a cocktail made from A&W root beer and bourbon.
Best place for eyeglasses? Ottica in Belltown. Shoes? Nordstrom, of course. What about dinner dates without the kids? La Spiga on Cap Hill, “and I just love Poppy.”And what about when Spence isn’t working, parenting, or scouring the film festivals in Toronto, Venice, and New York? For best family getaway, there’s only one option: Orcas Island, where a weekend home is devoted to cooking, crabbing, kayaking, and beachcombing. There’s even a hole-in-the-wall bar, The Barnacle, that Spence recommends. And even when he’s not supposed to be working, he’s working: He’s helping to launch the island’s first film festival in October.
Read all of our picks for Arts & Culture, and explore the rest of this year’s edition of Best of Seattle.