While the Lumiere brothers originally screened their films in a Paris café, the term microcinema was not coined until 1991 with the naming of Rebecca Barten and David Sherman’s Total Mobile Home Microcinema. Since then microcinema has come to define a broad range of small screening spaces specializing in moving image media that hovers out of range of national distributors, air conditioned art houses, and sleek museums. The hermit crabs of screening series, microcinemas claim abandoned spaces, creating surprising, inspiring, and unlikely homes for media. They flit across rooftops or joyously unspool in a former church. The number of microcinemas is multiplying every year, not just in the US, but also in Canada, Europe, and Australia. A couple of them, Flicker in the US and Exploding Cinema in Europe, are even cloning themselves and replicating in new cities.
Every microcinema is unique, even the clones. Not only are the spaces one-of-a-kind, but so are the audiences. One of the characteristics of this screening format is that programmers, and often the filmmakers, interact with the audience. Microcinemas are not a place to sink into the dark and disconnect all neural activity. These events require a diet of healthy discussion and community to thrive.
Other Cinema | San Francisco, CA
Established before the term microcinema entered the alternative media lexicon, Other Cinema has existed in one form or another for at least twenty years. And for those two decades, the focus has always been, literally, “other” cinema; ethnography, pornography, amateur work, to name a few of the genres favored here. “It’s like fire, cave paintings—elemental, primal—tribal is a good word,” founder and filmmaker Craig Baldwin explains.
The primal, tribal works that audiences really pack the house for are local projects, experimental documentaries, and media archaeology pieces, like Pixel Vision, regular 8, super 8, and small-gauge work. Baldwin also programs theme shows and series on issues like reproductive rights and September 11th. Each theme will draw a different audience. “It’s a celebration of diversity, about engagement with the art and the issue of the day,” he says.
On an average night, about seventy-five people will show up, including the crew and friends who have been comped in. After expenses Other Cinema nets about $50 a night. All funding comes from the $5 apiece tickets, period. “Not that we’d turn away a grant!” Baldwin exclaims, “but we can’t put ourselves in a position of dependency.”
With such a long-lived microcinema, Baldwin has very clear ideas about publicity. In the early years, calendars were works of art in themselves: slide-rules, spinning disks, and assemble-yourself zoetropes, but eventually time constraints dictated standardization. The calendars are now limited to seasonal fliers, which gives each printing a long life. “People can put them on their refrigerators and be reminded of upcoming shows, and get excited,” Baldwin explains.
Other Cinema doesn’t use an e-mail list. It’s too time-consuming. But they do have a strong electronic presence. The website gets over 100,000 hits a year. The site’s primary purpose is to create a global presence by connecting with other microcinemas and enthusiasts both in North America and overseas and to promote their journal OtherZine. “[It] does duty on the history/theory front, often with media-archeology articles or other arguments that fall between the cracks of academic film research,” Baldwin says.
But Other Cinema’s most important advertising is word-of-mouth. That’s where the fab Mission District storefront location is so important. “With thousands of people passing every day, an energized spread of blurbs, pics, and bold graphics can really spark interest,” Baldwin comments.
Other Cinema presents two seasons of Saturday screenings a year, which correspond to school semesters. The venue is dark during the summer and in January.
Aurora Picture Show | Houston, TX
The Aurora Picture Show makes its home in one of the most unlikely places of any microcinema, a former church in south Houston. Snuggled into a largely Latino and African American neighborhood, this screening space has not only formed a community of its own as microcinema, but has taken a place in the larger community. “I wanted to keep it for a congregation,” founder Andrea Grover explains.
Since the initial screening in June 1998, the Aurora Picture Show, like any healthy congregation, has continued to grow. There are now a group of regulars. Grover knows their names, faces, and where they’ll sit for each show. She is working to expand the audience by focusing marketing, exchanging mailing lists with arts organizations, and promoting in the neighborhood. She’s also targeting audiences from outside of the traditional microcinema demographic with programs like the family friendly Popcorn Kids, which admits children for free.
The efforts are paying off not just in building the community but in funding too. After operating for a year on whatever the door brought in, the Aurora Picture Show received grants from the City of Houston, the Texas Commission on the Arts, and several private donors. Last year, the budget was $80,000, $10,000 of which came in from the door. “[When I started] it was a full-time hobby,” explains Grover, who supported herself as a freelance writer until recently, when she became the first full-time employee of the Aurora Picture Show.
The space hasn’t changed much. Grover keeps the church atmosphere alive. There are still pews for about ninety-six people. The array of the equipment that came with the church is still around, although some of it has been converted to different uses. There’s an annual June picnic that teams up with the Extremely Short program. Grover finds that the venue allows and even creates a “rich, meaningful, intimate exchange” with the audience.
Every month, two or three different programs screen in the church. Grover programs four a year, and mediamakers and other folks with interesting perspectives are invited to guest-curate the others. Architect Michael Bell put together “Museum of Love Exceeding,” which explored how catastrophe generates new forms. In 2003, Matthew Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation will curate a show focusing on the evolving landscape. For Grover, the Aurora Picture Show community extends beyond Houston. The twenty-six-member advisory board is spread out across the US. A large part of their role is scouting for works at festivals, since collectively they attend more than Grover could manage on her own. “They’re our ambassadors,” Grover says of the board, which includes Ralph McKay, Chrissie Iles, Art Jones, Ruby Lerner, Marian Luntz, and Craig Baldwin. “We don’t want to be a lone island,” she emphasizes.
For more information contact: Aurora Picture Show, 800 Aurora Street, Houston, Texas 77009; (713) 868-2101; www.aurorapictureshow.org.
Rooftop Films | Brooklyn, NY
On a sweltering summer evening there’s nothing quite like sitting on a Brooklyn roof as the sun sets over Manhattan and the silhouettes of jets glide down to land at Kennedy Airport, as you sip a cold beer and watching a movie. That’s right, a movie. Rooftop Films, in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, screens flicks with a view every Friday all summer long. This year, it’s even catered. Last year, you had to bring your own from the bodega around the corner. After six years they’re in a good, solid groove, with an audience of regulars. “It almost doesn’t matter what we show!” co-director Mark Elijah Rosenberg laughs.
Rooftop Films was conceived when Rosenberg set up a one-time-only screening of his work and of some fellow filmmakers on the roof of his Manhattan apartment building to celebrate his film school graduation. When 200 people showed up, Rosenberg knew he had something. Once his friend Dan Nuxoll offered the roof of his building to continue the screenings, Rooftop Films was born. The two formed a partnership, along with Moira Griffin, and they’ve been screening films ever since. The large screen of lightweight plywood is now a permanent fixture on Nuxoll’s roof.
Friday nights on the roof are very laid back, more like large parties than formal screenings. There’s live music before the show on the 10,000-square-foot roof, which can comfortably hold up to 250 people. You can bring blankets and just sit on the tarpaper roof. Nuxoll lives on the fourth floor, so the audience has access to two bathrooms. And he makes a point of keeping good relationships going with the neighbors. “I always give them schedules. And of course they get in free. We try to avoid any potential problems,” he says.
They show an eclectic mix of work. At last year’s Texas Night, the Kunstler sisters’ Tulia, Texas, a straight-ahead doc about oppression of the black population in a small town, was combined with Susannah Erhler’s Tamale House #3, a “goofy” documentary about an iconic Austin eatery. Some films, a few experimental pieces, and an animated music video were thrown in for extra flavor.
More and more, Rooftop is working on broadening their audience. They’re promoting themselves in other Brooklyn neighborhoods with flyers and sharing e-mail lists with other groups like Women Make Movies. Griffin has publicized screenings and submission opportunities to blackfilm.com, a news wire. Rooftop Films doesn’t do snail mailings; it’s not cost-effective, and the regular audience is very wired.
As new folks become aware of Rooftop, the focus is expanding. It’s now also a filmmaking collective, sharing skills and equipment. One-sixth of all proceeds from the screenings are set aside for a fund to pay for new projects. Currently, there are ten projects in production. Rooftop is funded largely by proceeds taken at the door, a “strongly suggested” $6 per person, but they did land two grants from the LEF Foundation. Faced with a dark and cold winter on the roof, Rooftop Films opted instead to tour the West Coast last year, screening in San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver. Other new projects include a magazine and a compilation video of Rooftop works.