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Cinema crusader Julia Marchese: fighting for the future of film

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Reel Mama: Cinema crusader Julia Marchese: fighting for the future of film

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Cinema crusader Julia Marchese: fighting for the future of film

Julia Marchese at her beloved New Beverly Theater,
which screens exclusively 35mm film

Julia Marchese is a woman on a mission: to preserve a movie going experience, and a part of film history, that may soon disappear forever.  At stake is 35mm gauge film, the screening format developed over 100 years ago by George Eastman and Thomas Edison, among others, that has been the gold standard for recording and projecting films ever since.  Each film frame has an aspect ratio of 1.33.  Four perforations establish each frame and allow the film to be fed through the projector via sprockets on a wheel.  The music that is the sound of a film being projected is unmistakable and beloved, and it happens to be Julia’s favorite sound in the world.
Julia is a programmer at the New Beverly, a revival movie house in Los Angeles that is one of the last of its kind.  The “New Bev,” as she adoringly refers to it, has weathered its share of storms, but thanks to devoted film fans, particularly Quentin Tarantino, who now owns the building where it’s housed, it has survived and continues to show classic movies daily.
Julia was alarmed when the New Beverly received a letter from a major studio announcing that it would be phasing out 35mm film entirely.  Most theaters have already converted to digital projection systems, but the cost of the projectors is so enormous that many single-screen art house theaters are left facing an uncertain future, most scrambling to raise funds for the projectors before the year is out or be forced to close.
At stake is also the availability of thousands of classic films that will likely never be converted to a digital format.  These films are all on 35mm, and revival houses like the New Beverly are facing the possibility that the films could be locked in the studio vaults, never to be seen by the public again.  Film history, Hollywood’s very foundation, could remain in darkness, forgotten.  
However, there are many who don’t want this to happen and are willing to make a scene in order for the studios to sit up and take notice.  Julia’s efforts include a new documentary she has in pre-production called Out of Print, about the New Beverly.  Fundraising is currently in full swing for the documentary on the funding site Kickstarter, with a quickly approaching deadline of May 24.
Julia may be film history’s greatest champion ever.  

Film preservation crusader Julia Marchese

I was privileged to talk to her about the New Beverly and her efforts to preserve 35mm as a screening format, one film geek to another.
You’ve described the New Beverly as a cultural gem.  For people who don’t know about it, how would you describe it?
Julia:  The New Beverly Cinema is a revival house.  It’s been around since 1978.  We’ve basically always run it the way that we’re running now, which is double features for a really low price.  We charge $8 for two movies, and we’re cash only.  It’s really just about movies.  We’re a place that’s very old school.  Because we were around in 1978, we were around before VCRs and DVDs.  If you wanted to see an older movie, you had to see it on the big screen.  It’s a really old timey feeling.  
The people who choose to come watch the [older] movies on the big screen are the ones who really care about the movies.  It’s about making a special effort to come out to see this film that you could watch at home, but now you’re choosing to watch it with an audience on the big screen in 35mm, which I think makes such a difference.  Watching a movie with an audience is just a completely different experience than watching it at home.  
What would you say is so special about that theatrical experience, screening on 35mm?  
Each genre has its special feeling when you go to see it in a theater.  I think comedies are always funnier, because you have people laughing along.  Maybe there’s something that when you watched it at home, you didn’t think was particularly laugh-out-loud funny.  Then you see it in a theater, and people are laughing, and you think, “Oh, that’s funnier than I thought it was.”  Or, on the flip side you have horror movies, which on the big screen are always a thousand times scarier than watching it at your house.  I think that the audience really can influence your appreciation of a movie.  
I think that we give a kind of “midnight movie” feel every day [at the New Beverly].  When you go to see a midnight movie, people are making this special effort to come out late at night to see this film, and I think that we have that feeling all the time.  Midnight movies are always the most fun, because people get really into it.  We have instances where people will applaud and cheer or boo, and really get into the movie and have it be an experience.  
Because we are so special, we really don’t have the problems that most movie theaters have, which are growing increasingly worse, which is texting or talking.  It feels like every time I go to a regular movie theater I have to tell someone to turn their phone off.  We don’t have that kind of problem, which is always such a benefit to seeing a movie.  
What is it like to work at the New Beverly?  
It’s such a dream come true.  I moved to Los Angeles in 2001, and I found one of the [New Beverly] calendars almost immediately.  I knew in my heart that was where I wanted to work.  So the first time I went, I asked for a job, and then I asked for a job every time I went back.  That took five years, and eventually they caved in and gave me a job in 2006.  I’ve been working there for six years, and it’s just amazing because I get to be with the people I want to be with, and I get to watch films and get paid for it.  
In 2007 I started a programming series, where we have directors program a week of their favorite films, and then come down and talk about how the movies inspired them.  I got to meet so many of my heroes that way: Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, Peter Bogdanovich, and Rian Johnson.  It’s been really, really wonderful to have these people screen the movies.  Sometimes they’ll screen a movie that’s kind of esoteric or obscure, and the audience will be like, “I never heard of this movie, but Stuart Gordon says it’s cool, so I’ll give it a try.”  It’s a great way to expand people’s horizons, because if their hero likes it, it must be good.  So it’s been really fantastic.
What motivated you to start a petition to preserve 35mm film?
We got a letter from one of the major studios last year saying that they were going to stop producing 35mm prints in 2012.  That was something that really, really freaked me out.  It doesn’t affect us as a revival house particularly.  I was just nervous that it would cross over into the archival prints.  It’s something where if [studios and theaters] are moving to digital, and digital’s cheaper, small, and easy to store, then studios might say, “What are we keeping all these 35mm prints for?  There are only a few revival houses left in the country.  There’s no need for it.”
So that’s why I started my 35mm petition in November to say, “Please leave your prints available indefinitely, because these revival cinemas are so important.”  You have these generations growing up where they need to see a Truffaut film on the big screen, or Hitchcock on the big screen.  It’s going to make such a difference in their film viewing.  
It really changed my focus.  I came to Los Angeles to be an actor, and it’s something that I still do, but the film preservation aspect of my life has grown really big.  The 35mm petition really took off, and I think started people looking and saying, “Wow, this is a really big issue.”  I think it was really fantastic that people stood up and started saying something.  It’s an online petition, so I know it’s not the biggest deal in the world, but I just felt that if I didn’t stand up and say something, I would feel really bad.  I’m glad it took off the way it did.  
I had planned to send [the petition] out to all the studios, and I still want to, but it’s gotten such a far reach I feel like it’s already done its job.  It was written about in the Smithsonian, in The Atlantic, and we just had a couple of articles in LA Weekly, so it’s really gotten out there.  I think that the studio heads know what’s going on, and I think that they are hopefully going to see that people really do care.  We had 10,000 signatures from over 60 countries around the world.  I’m really, really grateful that everybody was so passionate, and wanted to sign and get on board with it. 
Tell us about the film you’re planning to direct and how it ties into your efforts.
I’ve been wanting to do a documentary about the New Beverly forever.  It’s just the craziest, coolest place on earth, and has this dynamic of regulars and famous people and wackos and film geeks.  They’re all mixed together but everybody gets along to talk about movies.  It’s a place unlike any I’ve ever been.  
I decided to start [with] Kickstarter [fundraising site] to try and raise money to make this movie.  Hopefully I’ll make it, and it’ll be fantastic.  It’s such an important time right now because of the digital conversion, but I hope this movie can make a difference.  I’m so afraid of all the small theaters around the world closing.  I hope that this film can show this is so important.  
Please support your local cinemas, and go to these little guys who the digital conversion’s going to really hurt, because it’s so expensive to convert over.  I hope this film will be able to show what an important thing revival cinema is.  
How is pre-production for the documentary going so far?
I am really pleased.  Something I didn’t expect is [that] I’m getting a lot of emails from people offering their help: “I’d like to help you make a poster,” or “Do you need PAs [production assistants]?” or “Do you need an editor?”  It’s been overwhelmingly positive feedback from people supporting me and what I’m doing.  It’s really so heartwarming and makes me feel so good. I think when you stand up for what you believe in life there’s a good feeling you have, but it’s hard to see how far it’s reaching.  When you’re standing in the middle of something, you don’t really see where it’s going.  When you get personal emails from people saying, “I’m really proud of what you’re doing, and I think you’re doing a great job, and this work is really important,” it just makes me feel really good.  If I can make a movie and get recognition for doing something that makes me feel so good and that I’m so enthusiastic and passionate about, I think that’s a pretty nice thing.  
There are a lot of filmmakers, film fans, people from all walks of life who share your interests.  I think a big part of it is raising awareness.  I wondered about your take on some of the challenges art houses are facing right now.  You mentioned the digital conversion.  Can you talk about that?
The digital projector costs anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000.  So if you’re a small art house cinema, that is barely squeaking by as it is, that’s a lot of money to invest.  If the studios have an ultimatum where they say, “You have to do this,” it will kill a lot of small theaters, and that really breaks my heart because they’re just so important.  
I think a lot of theaters are being sneaky about it as well.  We have a big chain of theaters in LA called the Arclight.  They’re supposed to be the film lovers’ theater, but they changed over to digital and didn’t say anything.  I know a lot of film lovers were really angry about that.  They said, "You have to tell me when this happens, because I’m assuming I’m getting the 35mm print, and then I’m not."  Recently there have been a lot of stories in LA.  The Arclight was supposed to do a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it got canceled.  The audience was there; everyone was seated, and they had to send everybody home because they couldn’t find the digital key code to open the file.  
I heard a lot of stories about people getting DCP files [digital files of films] where there’s a glitch in it, or they delete the files, or they can’t find the code.  So it’s not fool proof.  With the way the technology is advancing so quickly, I have a feeling that the projector you install today could be obsolete in the next ten years, so that’s another $20,000, or $200,000.  It’s not cost effective.  35mm has been around for over 100 years, and you can still play films from the thirties and forties, and they’re fine.  But this is going to move so fast that there’s no way people can keep up with it, so I just don’t know what the long-term ramifications are going to be. 
Art houses are fundraising to buy specific projectors, but they’re wondering if five years down the line this will be the latest technology.  Is it going to be functional, and are they going to keep up?  That’s a huge issue.
I’m nervous about that.  I just don’t know what’s going to happen with it.  I don’t think anybody does. People are just guessing.  
What is special about 35mm to you? 
35mm to me is so special because it’s got a feeling and a quality of light that digital doesn’t have.  They still haven’t gotten it to have the warmth of 35mm, and I know that a lot of big film lovers will say that the blacks are wrong, that the black is not as black as it is on 35mm.  If you look at something like a film noir, which is basically only playing with light and shadow, the digital print is just going to flatten everything out and make it really monochromatic, where if you look at a 35mm print, it’s going to be very defined.
My favorite sound in the world is the sound of a projector.  I almost always sit in the back row when I go to a theater because I want to hear that sound when I’m watching a movie.  So that’s something that’s being taken away that I’m really sad about.  I like that 35mm isn’t perfect.  There are going to be splices and scratches and pops and changeovers, and for me being human is imperfection and is always the most beautiful thing.  I don’t want everything to be perfect all the time.  
I’ve been smiling during most of this interview.  It’s great to hear your passion coming through.  I have to ask you: what is your favorite movie?  
My favorite movie is The Breakfast Club.  I’m a big John Hughes fan, and I love The Breakfast Club because it shows that all you need is a great director and a great script and great actors to make a movie.  It all takes place in one room, and so you don’t need explosions and craziness and CGI.  You just need a good story.  
I got to do the staged version of The Breakfast Club a couple of years ago.  I was the Ally Sheedy character, which was so cool because it transfers almost immediately over [to the stage].   It’s a movie I’ve always loved since I was a kid, and I think still speaks to people now.
Any final thoughts you would want to share with my readers?
I would just say, support your local cinemas.  It’s easy to go to the multiplex and do the “big time” thing, but little guys need your help, and your money means so much more than it does to a multiplex.  Maybe go see a foreign film.  Just try something different, and really show mom and pop places that you care.  


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