Big Community, Bold Vision

Clinton Street Theater is probably the indiest of the indie/arthouses. I play a lot of great stuff that no one's ever heard of...

A few weeks ago, Marc Mohan asked me to answer some questions about our independent theater for an article he was writing for the Oregonian A&E section. His article can be found online HERE.

I was happy to participate because it give me the opportunity to really think about our theater--how far we've come in the last 16 months, and where we hope to go over the next few years. So, since only a few of my comments made it into the article, I want to share the entire interview with you here.

Marc: What challenges do you see indie theaters facing in an entertainment landscape that includes ever-fancier corporate multiplexes, the rise of digital projection, and increasing home viewing options, including day-and-date releases on VOD?

Lani Jo: Truthfully, I see lots of challenges ahead. First of all, we are not ready to convert to the expensive digital projection, and right now, as long as we can still play Rocky Horror Picture Show on our old 35mm platter system, we don't need to convert. But there may soon come a day when it will be "go digital or go dark," and then we will need to rise up and meet that challenge. Day and date releases are also a huge challenge and there have been several instances when no one came to a theatrical screening of a film, and I believe it was due to the same date release on VOD. People lead such busy lives, and they're tired at the end of the day. There is such a thing as a "small screen" film (many of the documentaries and idie features fit this bill) without big explosions and special CGI effects, and they play perfectly well on a home viewing system, which sometimes rivals that of my theater. So with a good system and a film readily available through any number of options--Netflix, cable, Apple, etc.--at the end of a long day it's perfectly understandable wanting to get some great Thai take-out and put on pajamas and curl up at home. There are certainly days when I wish I had that option.

Marc: How do you plan to meet those challenges and continue to lure ticket-buyers?

Lani Jo: What people can't get at home is interaction and a sense of community. Whenever possible, I try to have films that are connected to a particular community, and I include Q & A sessions with filmmakers, panel discussions, fundraisers for organizations--anything that might make a patron feel part of something bigger than just him/herself. I also play a lot of independent stuff (straight from the filmmaker) that isn't available on Netflix, cable--even the video store.

Marc: What do you think distinguishes you from Portland's many other independent theaters?

Lani Jo: I believe the Clinton Street Theater is probably the indiest of the indie/arthouses. I play a lot of great stuff that no one's ever heard of, sometimes because I'm getting it directly from a filmmaker that hasn't gotten distribution and he/she is taking it on the road. I joke that we're a "no profit" and not a non-profit, and that gives me a lot of flexibility in my programming. I need the theater to break even, but Roger and I are fortunate that we are not using income from the theater to pay our own personal bills. That means I can be generous with the space and provide it at an extremely low rate for independent filmmakers. This is also the reason I can support a great number of non profit organizations by providing a space for their fundraisers. And anything over that is going back into the theater's infrastructure--new equipment, we have air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter, and little by little we're creating a space that is comfortable and inviting.

I believe I am the only indie theater in Portland that has on-going serious film series with partner organizations such as the ones we have with KBOO (Radio Pictures), People's Coop (REEL EATS), In Other Words (REEL FEMINISM), and Grand Detour (Portland Stew, which is a monthly screening and potluck by Portland's experimental film community). In addition to the REEL FEMINISM series with In Other Words, I have at least one or two other screenings each month of women-centric films.

We also are known for our sports films events, such as the Filmed By Bike Festival, and numerous screenings of skateboarding, snowboarding, motorcycle, etc. films.

We are a sex positive theater and the home for Bike Smut (now in its 7th year) and CineKink, and we screen a large number of LGBTQ films and have had several fundraisers for Basic Rights Oregon. Last month we kicked off a new Sex Workers Film Series that will run through March '14.

In keeping with the Clinton's 100 year history, we are also incorporating non-film events, such as live theater and live music. This weekend we are hosting the 10 Minute Play Festival, which first premiered at the Clinton in March, and in June we became "Amity Island" for the most hilarious five-show run of JAWZ The Musical. We've had several CD/Album Release parties, and combination video/live music performances.

The thing that sets us apart the most is the Rocky Horror Picture Show as it's been an ongoing fixture every Saturday night since 1978.

Marc: How do you make your programming choices?  Are there economic forces that prevent you from booking films you'd like to show?  To what extent do booking decisions arise from personal taste vs. marketability?

Lani Jo: Programming and booking, and then coordinating the calendar, are some of the hardest jobs I face on a daily basis. Sometimes films are brought to me by distributors and sometimes I scour the NY Times movie reviews, out-of-town theater bookings (such as the Loft in Tuscon or the Roxie in San Francisco), and kickstarter to find films that might be of interest to my community. The high price of a guarantee from some studios is often cost prohibitive. It can easily be $250-$400 from a studio. Smaller distributors require less, but even $150 and $200 is difficult to pay when there aren't enough seats filled.

I have shown films that were not at all to my taste in terms of genre, but because there was a perceived need by a certain community (horror/cult, for example).

As the smallest of the indie/art houses, I often have difficulty in getting films I want because they are going to another theater. Even when I have something booked, if another theater wants it (Hollywood, Cinema 21, or Living Room), then the distributor will take back the booking and give it to them. I know not to take it personally, though it was upsetting the first time or two. It's just about money, and the distributor wants their film to play where it has the most potential of making it.

As far as I know, I'm the only theater owner doing my own booking. All the other theaters have dedicated bookers, and distributors and studios are used to working with professional bookers. Sometimes I wish it was one less job for me to do, but discovering and supporting an unknown film is one of the things I enjoy most about owning the Clinton.

Marc: Who do you see as your primary audience?

I'm still trying to figure this one out. We have a lot of different audiences because we serve a lot of different communities. I would really love to tap into that group of people who love film as an artistic medium of expression, regardless of genre. Folks who are willing to take a chance on films that are unknown and truly independent, made with little money by filmmakers passionate about a cause or a story. When I can get enough of these film lovers checking my listings each week, then I will have reached my primary audience, but I'm not there yet.

Marc: Give me a couple examples, if you can, of a film which has exceeded your expectations box-office-wise, and maybe one that hasn't.

Lani Jo: I read about the documentary, BIRTH STORY, in a magazine in my massage therapist's waiting room. Right away I knew I wanted to screen this film at the Clinton. I contacted the filmmaker (which sometimes when I'm tracking something down is through a combination of website and/or Facebook), and was put off. She wanted to get a distribution deal first and hopefully screen in a bigger theater. That didn't happen, and I was persistent in my emails requesting the booking. I didn't want to screen the film because I thought it would be a hit at the box office, but as part of my commitment to screen films by women filmmakers about and for women. I also wanted to be able to give something to the birthing community, so $2 from every ticket went to one of four different midwifery-related organizations. In the dead of winter (February) I had a sold out crowd almost every single night, and then continued to show it to large crowds as a Sunday matinee twice a month through Mother's Day when the film came out on DVD. I had no idea the film would resonate so strongly with so many women, but it did, and I'm glad I was able to bring it to Portland.

ALL TOGETHER, a French film about aging and friendship, also exceeded my expectations. I wasn't expecting much of anything, and had a good crowd for every screening.

I've had a lot of failures at the box office. I've owned the theater for 16 months now, and I've had more flops than successes. Sadly, my biggest flops have been with my repertory programming. We had a beautiful 35mm print of Parajanov's SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS and no one came. The same with our 35mm print of LAST TANGO IN PARIS. I also booked a wonderful and inspiring documentary JASON BECKER: NOT DEAD YET, about a genius guitar shredder who contracted ALS at 24, but is still alive 20+ years later and still composing and playing music on a special computer using eye commands. I put a lot of effort into promoting the film and still ended up with almost a week of no shows.

Marc: What's the nature of the community?  Is it a tight-knit relationship between the other theater operators?  Do you see them as your competition, or the chain theaters?

Lani Jo: I don't know if you would call the community of independent theaters "tight-knit." I have a cordial relationship with some of the staff at the Hollywood, the booker at Living Room Theaters has come to my rescue a few times, and I've worked with the Whitsell on coordinating play dates when we were both booking the same film. It's hard not to see them as my competition when they book something I dearly want to have play at my theater, and I can't get it. Booking is also a lot easier for the theaters that have more than one screen, and now that Cinema 21 is adding two more to its mix, I will have even fewer quality choices. Because of the digital conversion requirements, even some of the 2nd run theaters such as the Laurelhurst and the Academy are getting into the indie/art/rep mix, which can still be played on 35mm or an ordinary BluRay player and digital projector, and as they use a professional booker, it's easier for them to pick up some the better films along those lines.

We also compete for rentals, but I believe this is where I can excel, and we are continuing to make the Clinton the go-to place for non profit fundraisers, small festivals, and ongoing partnered film series.

I do not see the chain theaters as my competition in any regard. We are a quirky, independent neighborhood theater, and folks come to the Clinton for those very reasons.