Attending a Magic Lantern movie showing is something I have been wanting to do for a long time. The little theater in Isla Vista reminds me of the independent movie theaters I used to frequent when I lived in Los Angeles. I like the idea that it plays a select group of handpicked movies. It has a more personal feel than your typical theater specializing in blockbusters.
Last Monday I decided it was time. I stayed up late, 10:00 p.m., and went to stand in line for Zombieland. Tickets are cheap, only $4. It was just me, a couple of other older people, and tons and tons of students. I munched on my $1 popcorn and $1 candy as I waited for the throngs of students to settle in to their seats.
Before the lights went down, however, there was some pre-movie entertainment. For one thing, there’s nothing like watching a group of students trying to figure out how to stow their five-foot-long skateboards under their seats. Then one student was asked to come up and give his best zombie impression. He stuck his arms out in front of him and walked like Frankenstein. He got booed. After that, Twinkies were thrown into the audience. (No, I didn’t catch one.) By this time I had realized that it wasn’t going to be an everyday movie experience.
Zombieland turned out to be the perfect movie to see at the Magic Lantern. The audience laughed at the jokes, groaned at the really gross parts, and cheered on the actors when they moved toward a romantic moment. It was fun to be in an audience whose members felt comfortable expressing themselves.
And let me just tell you that you need to see Zombieland. It was a movie with a message and a list of rules that could lead you to find happiness, or at least decrease the chances that you will get eaten by zombies. One of them was to enjoy the little things. I suppose that living in a world in which most people are dead, and the rest are zombies, makes the little things really count. Another was to exercise. You had to be fast to outrun the zombies. But my favorite was the double-tap rule. I’m not going to explain that one; you’ll have to see the movie. However, I’d better warn you that this movie is not for the squeamish. If you might get nauseated watching a zombie eating someone’s entrails or vomiting blood, you should avoid eating before watching this movie, or things could get ugly.
In order to get the lowdown on the Magic Lantern, I talked to D.J. Palladino, a film critic as well as the assistant events manager, and someone I think of as Mr. Movie. He often loves moves that snobbier critics trash. He seems to understand that movies are about being entertained.
The Magic Lantern has woven itself into Palladino’s life. He took his wife to be to the Magic Lantern on their first date. The movie showing was Raging Bull. Even though he said it wasn’t the greatest date movie, things obviously worked out.
“It was a cultural center for people my age,” Palladino said. He remembers seeing Fellini movies, Woodstock, and Easy Rider. “It was really a place people went,” he said.
The Magic Lantern has had a rich and colorful history ever since it opened in 1965. It was started as a mom-and-pop type business. When the movie house tried to screen a film with female frontal nudity in the 60’s, they had patrons sign a form. “It’s not like today when you have to have female frontal nudity to make a movie,” Palladino said.
As luck would have it, there was a district attorneys’ convention in the area at the time; the Magic Lantern owner was arrested and fined $1, Palladino continued. The owner decided to give up the movie house even though students supported him by protesting the arrest.
The Magic Lantern then became a part of the Metropolitan Theater system. In the 90’s, Palladino said, the theater became the site of “debauchery.” With Cheech and Chong movies on the screen, and the haze of pot smoke in the air students would truly enjoy their movie experience. Needless the say the place got shut down.
Then UCSB bought the Magic Lantern and remodeled it. The projection equipment, seats, and other things are new. The Magic Lantern is used as a lecture hall as well as a movie theater. While various UCSB groups help fund the theater, Palladino said, the goal is for it to be self-sufficient. At this time, the Magic Lantern is operating with a surplus, Palladino said. “In fact, we’re doing really well,” he said.
But what is the secret to packing the movie house seats with only a handful of films shown a month? Palladino said the secret is knowing your audience. He hires students to help him with that demographic. “We try to keep in touch with what students want,” he said, noting that “chick flicks” are very popular. For a screening of The Notebook, they had 525 people in the theater, and 200 were turned away. Vicky Cristina Barcelona was also popular.
Recent Magic Lantern hits also include more mainstream films, like The Dark Knight, and Pineapple Express, but Palladino pointed out that producers who think they know their audience can be wrong. There were only 35 people in the theater for Bruno, the sequel to Borat. For Speed Racer, there were 18. “I thought everyone would love it,” Palladino said.
But Palladino added that he and the rest of the Magic Lantern staff and volunteers don’t shy away from taking risks by showing great movies that might not be all that popular. If hardly anyone comes to a showing, he said, “We are depressed, and we all sit around and stare at each other.” Then they shake it off, and remind themselves that if they loved the movie, that’s all that matters.
Some of the upcoming Magic Lantern movie showings include This Is It, the Michael Jackson movie, Where The Wild Things Are, New Moon, A Serious Man and Nine. Of the latter two, Palladino said, “I don’t necessarily think [attendance] will be great, but we like them so much,” he said. And that’s what it’s all about. Not just liking your movie experience, but loving it.