Broncho Billy & the Movie-Going Experience

This last weekend, the Niles Essanay Silent Film hosted The Broncho Billy & Friends Silent Film Festival. It was virtual, of course.

And since it was virtual, the festival was made up of streaming videos and Zoom conferences. There were three separate videos about Essanay’s work in Chicago – including one with David Shepard. Les Thomsen gave both a comical demo of silent filmmaking and a more serious story about his childhood during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Jon Mirsalis talked about restoring The Battle of the Century, how he came to love movies and music, and the problems of improvising music when you haven’t seen the movie.

Les Thomsen playing the cameraman

But after more than a year of streaming, I was mostly interested in the survival of theatrical cinema.

So, I mostly wanted to watch Gary Meyer’s Zoom discussion called Keeping the Movie-Going Experience Alive. (Meyer co-created Landmark Cinema, ran the UC Theatre and later, the Balboa.) The four panelists, all running independent theaters, were Adam Bergeron of the Balboa and Vogue, Emelyn Stuart of NYC’s Stuart Cinema (the only panelist not Bay Area-based), Lex Sloan of the Roxie, and Suki Van Arsdale of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and the Elmwood.

Some highlights, edited for brevity and clarity:

  • Bergeron: When I was eight-years old, the family went to a movie called Star Wars. That was the beginning of my love of movies.
  • Emelyn: I couldn’t get distribution for my films. So, I decided to create my own theater.
  • What did you do when the theaters were closed down?
    • Adam: At first, we just wanted to help the staff. We eventually got a parklet and started showing movies there. I got to know the people in the neighborhood.
    • Stuart: We have a stand-alone café attached. We stayed the entire time. We came out with knowing the neighborhood. We also are better for the experience.
  • On getting people back into theaters
    • Bergeron: The Balboa opened with a Godzilla festival. We sold out most of the time.
    • Sloan: The Roxie never did blockbusters. We called this the experience summer. We’re just trying this or that. Mulholland Dr. sold out in 35mm.
  • Bergeron on how to get young people to go the movies: Social media works for us.
  • Did virtual cinema help? The value was in the connection. Financially, it wasn’t much.

The Festival has promised to post a link to a recording of the discussion. I’ll add that to this post when this happens.

[July 28] Since I posted this article,  the video of the discussion has become available.

The Festival also offered two streaming feature-length documentaries about types of movie theaters that are disappearing. Both films were directed by April Wright.

B The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie (2013)

I’m not a fan of drive-ins, but the people that director Wright interviewed sure are. They include those who own drive-ins, those who wish they still owned drive-ins, those that look back at the nostalgically, and, of course, Roger Corman. But it’s enjoyable, thanks largely for the music, along with the enthusiasm of the interviewees.

B The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace (2019)

I’m not too upset about the possible death of drive-ins, but I’m horrified every time a glorious movie palace goes dark. (It’s a little better if it is turned into a live venue). This is the best way to see movies, period. The documentary is somewhat depressing, with some beautiful architecture getting the wrecking ball. On the other hand, some are still screening, But I wished that it had always identify the theater. I’m pretty sure I recognized the Castro, but I’m not sure.

Let’s hope that next year, we can all come to Niles to enjoy the event in person.