Since fall, the art of esoteric moviegoing has improved vastly around these parts. You know what kinda movies I mean — films, the kind that cineastes seek. They’re the art house celluloid enigmatic wonders that stretch in an unbroken line from Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville to Lars Von Triers’ Nymphomaniac: the kind that for generations Santa Barbarans have complained that Metropolitan Theatres (the company with a de facto movie monopoly in S.B.) just won’t book with any regularity.
“I have to drive to L.A. to see the movies I want to see,” whines the perennial bleary-eyed bohemian with a copy of Cahiers du Cinema tucked firmly under his arm. Well, not really, or at least not any more, thanks to a happy coalition between the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and, here’s a surprise, the overlords of the Metropolitan Theatre Corporation.
So far the historical concord has been sterling, serving up films that otherwise no one might have known about, from the dark Israeli comedy Big Bad Wolves to the brilliantly unforgettable documentary about Indonesian political murders in the 1960s, The Act of Killing (my personal pick for best film of 2013, no matter what Oscar declares). This week is no exception in the unexpected but indispensable viewing department, as the series known humbly as Showcase screens Generation War, a two-part big-screen presentation of a German film of historical import. Not unlike a cross between Downton Abbey and Band of Brothers, this incredibly engaging melodrama tracks the lives of five young people in Berlin — two Nazi soldiers, a nurse, an entertainer, and a young Jew — about to participate in the horrors of World War II. David Denby of The New Yorker calls it “confounding — silly and tragic, physically alive and morally obtuse.” I think it’s akin to all of the great new television series, enriched mainly by its ironic narrative vantage point. In this case it’s the most dramatic antiheroes imaginable: Hitler youth. But the best part is that, thanks to the Showcase series, you can judge for yourself at the Plaza de Oro Theatre on Wednesday nights.
How did it all come about? “It’s something we always wanted to do,” said Roger Durling, the decade-long head of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, whose genius at programming was always clear. “We just finally went to the Corwins [the family that owns the Metropolitan theater chain] and proposed the whole thing and they said yes.” Turns out, they’ve even been suggesting films, though Durling says he has yet to take them up on any. As for Metropolitan, the corporation has long argued that they work hard to balance profit motive against chance-taking, and have frequently acknowledged that this town, with all of its colleges and proximity to the movie business, has more sophisticated tastes than the chain’s other stores in places like Calexico, or even outside Monterey. “Financially it doesn’t make any sense for them to book a film that won’t draw an audience for more than one night,” said Durling.
So for Wednesday nights only, Durling and the festival books the film, takes the risk, and then takes the house (read: any money made at the box office). The Corwins take home profits from popcorn and Cokes (which normally the exceeds box office take-in by a factor of five or six times). Durling is well-situated due to his personal relations with small studios and, he readily admits, a captive audience. “The people who belong to the [SBIFF] Cinema Society get a discount on tickets. Besides that, we have a strong social media presence,” he said. It may not exactly ensure a crowd every Wednesday, but along with regular ads, he says, it spreads the word. The rest is programming skill, and Durling has thus far managed to keep Wednesdays booked with films he’s seen, either at studio screenings or at other film festivals. So far the biggest hits were The Grand Beauty, an Italian Oscar nominee, and Muscle Shoals, a documentary about the soul music label. “We had to bring both of them back for second screenings,” Durling said. His only regret is that a few films, like The Act of Killing, didn’t draw bigger crowds. Nothing has flopped disastrously, though, which is great news for a theater that’s only open one night a week. “So far it’s been great,” said Durling. “It was always a long-term, time-and-place plan.” So tell your cinephile friends: It’s weird Wednesday movie night from now on.
The Showcase film series screens a new movie every Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m at Plaza de Oro Theatre (371 S. Hitchcock Wy.). For a complete listing of films, visit sbiff.org/the-showcase.