L.A.’s New Beverly Cinema is now in its second month of being programmed by its owner, Quentin Tarantino. Putting some of that scratch from Django Unchained, Pulp Fiction, etc., to good use, Tarantino has upgraded the theater’s sound system and installed a 16mm projector alongside the 35mm one. No small detail, that; from here on out the New Beverly will most emphatically be screening film prints, not DCP, and most of the prints will be drawn from QT’s own collection. (Apparently he has a vault of something like 20,000 titles. What might be lurking within that collection? We’ll find out.) A rare exception to that policy comes this week, when the New Bev will host a 35mm print of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
This is all to the good — or you’d think so, anyway. Ever since the New Beverly went dark on Labor Day for a month-long hiatus (so Tarantino could overhaul the place), L.A. blogging circles have largely fixated on the story as a tale of the Hollywood big shot muscling out the theater’s previous manager, Michael Torgan. Former New Beverly staffer Julia Marchese has added to the gripes with a blog post about how she was demoted from general manager to candy seller (being encouraged to quit, in other words), and about how the New Beverly is in danger of losing its soul under the new management.
L.A. cinephiles most likely already know this bit of local history: The New Beverly opened in 1978 under the auspices of Sherman Torgan, and for decades it hummed along as L.A.’s definitive repertory cinema (or revival house, if you prefer). With the rise of DVD in the early 2000s, the attendance took an inevitable hit. Torgan started having trouble making his rent, and the property owners reportedly wanted to boot him out in favor of a Super Cuts.
Consider how depressing that would have been: a humble but beloved local institution — in its own way, integral to L.A. cinephiles’ notion of community — shuttered in favor of one more chain outlet (cf. Manhattan during the past 10 years). Just what Los Angeles needs. Circa 2003, Tarantino, a long-time attendee of the New Beverly (no doubt), started subsidizing the cinema’s operations to the tune of five grand a month. Sherman Torgan died suddenly in 2007; his son Michael took over as manager and chief programmer, while Tarantino bought the property and gave the facilities a much-needed upgrade. He also served as programming advisor, and his influence was hard to miss.
Tarantino officially took over the programming in September to ensure that the New Beverly remained a haven for 35mm, with no concessions made to the fool’s gold of DCP. (Read this September L.A. Weekly story for QT’s entertaining rant about the DCP screening of A Fistful of Dollars he hosted at Cannes this past May.)
I’m not in a position to pass judgement on the alleged power struggle that went on in the projection booth of the New Beverly. (Not much of a power struggle, perhaps, given that Tarantino owns the place.) But anyone tempted to reflexively criticize the rich celebrity for throwing his weight around should bear in mind that without Tarantino, it’s possible and indeed likely that the New Beverly might have closed years ago. And a modest repertory cinema isn’t like the film program at LACMA, which was able to attract some deep-pocketed saviors when it was on life support five years ago. At the New Beverly there’s no wall engraved with the names of donors, no black-tie galas, no prestige, in short — only a kind of street cred. In movie-mad L.A. the New Beverly ranks as a public institution, and saving the theater is Tarantino’s version of civic-mindedness.
As much as I appreciate the old-school Deco grandeur of the Egyptian Theatre and the hipster domain of the Cinefamily, in the 12 years I’ve lived in L.A., the New Beverly has often struck me as a kind of ur–repertory cinema. The price of admission for a double feature has always been shockingly low, and the bargain prices extend to the humble concession stand. The vibe is unfussy and unpretentious, yet the programming is keyed into — no, epitomizes — the most broad-minded cinephilia imaginable.
There’s no such thing as disreputable genre at the New Bev: it was the one place in town that paid tribute to sleazemeister extraordinaire Jess Franco after he died in April 2013, with a screening of Succubus. In fact, the monthly grindhouse double features have probably gone a long way toward paying the rent for the last few years.
But the theater has also quietly booked a lot of adventurous international programming that isn’t guaranteed to pull in the black–T-shirt legions who pack the midnight movies. On the highbrow front, I have fond memories of catching Chantal Akerman’s 195-minute Jeanne Dielman there a couple years ago — talk about challenging.
Over the past few years the theater has enticed some big-name guest programmers (Edgar Wright, Jason Reitman, etc.), which has helped keep the calendars varied and has certainly drawn the crowds. (Bringing in filmmakers as guest curators is such a good idea that you wonder why it doesn’t happen more often in L.A.) But even with some of the more esoteric double features, when the theater can be awfully quiet, the New Beverly has always felt like a venue that contributes to local culture, where the screenings are a shared event.
That the New Beverly will now be showing 35mm and 16mm prints exclusively makes every movie on the calendar more enticing. As Tarantino lives out the cineaste fantasy of running his own repertory cinema, it’ll be fascinating to see what each month’s schedule brings.
Interstellar aside, the October and November lineups have been idiosyncratic in a way that’s inimitably Tarantino-esque — offering some classics, and no shortage of B movies, but also plenty of unsung titles from the 1950s through the ’70s that have received little critical attention. I expect Tarantino has interesting things to say about all of them. In an ideal world he would have time to write program notes for each double feature, but since he’s gearing up to make The Hateful Eight, my other hope would be that he could record a podcast or short YouTube video with a few remarks about each month’s programming. (Not so far-fetched — we know he likes to talk.)
Last month Tarantino told the L.A. Weekly, “If you’re not worried about packing the house because you can’t make your rent, then you can have a lot of fun.” (Interview here.) Thus far the fun has included collections of trailers from QT’s personal stash, as well as mixtapes from his fave soundtracks playing during intermissions. This is all very reassuring. Movie lovers can go to the New Beverly and bask — not in a rich man’s largesse, but in the knowledge that the theater is being run by someone just like them.
That obscure art-house discovery Interstellar plays at the New Beverly November 5th through the 13th. But check out the repertory calendar for the rest of the month, too!