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The Rise of Non-Profit Micro-Cinemas

The Rise of Non-Profit Micro-Cinemas

Kinsey Lowe misses the easy-access movie theaters of his cinephile youth. Now that many are gone, he’s in search of their replacements, if any.

When I was a student at the University of Missouri at Columbia in the early ’70s, five theaters were situated within walking distance of campus. Now there are none. But non-profit micro-cinemas are taking their place.

My first week on campus, I was able to walk to the MPAA X-rated Midnight Cowboy, which was selling out at the Uptown. Another nearby venue was an “arthouse” (rechristened the Film Arts Theatre from a previous incarnation as the vaudeville-era Varsity), dedicated to foreign-language films and quirkier British and other off-the-wall movies such as Something for Everyone and The King of Hearts. That’s where I saw my first French-language movie, Costa-Gavras’ Z, and Fellini’s Satyricon plus many other movies that would have never reached my hometown in Mississippi or for that matter anywhere in the state. When I was a kid, projectionists and managers at Jackson’s Paramount were arrested and prints seized of movies deemed obscene, such as The Fox and Rosemary’s Baby. For real.

As a location for serious moviegoers of the era, I don’t think Columbia was an exception; motion picture exhibition and distribution were different businesses then than they are today. Single-screen theaters had begun to die out or be subdivided into duplexes and four plexes, but there seemed to be room for more types of theaters than we see today, from regional independent distributors of exploitation-style movies to cherry-pickers of art-house fare.

In addition to the downtown cinemas near campus, there were two large indoor theaters (since then, demolished or replaced) and a pair of drive-ins (demolished) within driving distance. These days there are zero commercial movie theaters within walking distance of the campus. Two multiplexes lie in shopping areas along the outer perimeter of the city. They do not show art movies, foreign-language movies or independent or “specialized” fare — unless it happens to cross over to mainstream audiences.

What’s a student or anyone else with appetites that might not be satisfied by The Expendables to do? They would be out of luck were it not for something called Ragtag Cinema [their mural pictured], where today’s menu includes Mid-August Lunch, Micmacs, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky and the filmed-in-Missouri Winter’s Bone.

Oddly enough, Ragtag got its start in the late 1990’s as a periodic venue for movies at the jazz club the Blue Note, which is the current incarnation of the old Film Arts/Varsity theater building. When I discovered Ragtag during a visit in September 2001, the tiny place was situated a block east of the Blue Note in a storefront with about 70 places to sit on thrift-store sofas and club chairs. Popcorn was sold in small brown paper bags. It’s where I saw The Anniversary Party, interrupted by an intermission while the projectionist changed reels for the single 35 mm projector.

Since then, Ragtag Cinema has outgrown that space, gained nonprofit status and relocated to a larger, modern space – thanks partly to $250,000 in community fundraising efforts. According to Ragtag’s web site, the new location in a former Coca-Cola bottling plant includes two theaters (130-seats plus sofas in front in the “Big Theater” and movable seating for 70 or so in the “Little Theater”) with new 35 millimeter and digital projection systems and surround-sound plus video and data inputs for live presentations.

Ragtag is not the only indie movie venue in the Show-Me State. Another one that turns up in a Google search for “micro” cinemas is to the southeast in Brad Pitt’s hometown of Springfield: the Moxie also recently secured tax exempt status and, according to a blog post in a Moxie sub-directory, has been taken over by “the Downtown Springfield Community Cinema, which will be administered by a volunteer board through the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.”

Here in Los Angeles, Cinefamily is situated in the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue, where Friday night I caught Play It As It Lays, the late Frank Perry’s hyper-cynical look at L.A. and the movie biz from John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion’s screenplay of her novel. A nearly full house soaked up Jordan Cronenweth’s sun-bleached, smoggy vision of 1972 Los Angeles with Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins at the bleak heart of the Universal release I first saw in 1972 presented by Perry and Rex Reed at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I was the projectionist.

Another L.A. venue is the Downtown Independent, which recently screened movies from Australia ahead of their theatrical runs at Laemmle. Other alternatives are the Echo Park Film Center and Berenice Reynaud’s eclectic programming at the Redcat at Disney Hall.

Please join me on this personal journey of discovery and share any of your favorites.

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