When D.J. Palladino was an 18-year-old kid in Santa Barbara, what to do on a Friday night was a no-brainier: He and his buddies went to the movies. And Magic Lantern — the movie theatre on 960 Embarcadero Del Norte in Isla Vista — was their favorite choice.
“When I was [a teenager], we were crazy about movies,” Palladino said. “Magic Lantern was where we usually went — almost didn’t matter what was playing.”
During the 1960s, the Magic Lantern, which is now used as a UCSB lecture hall, was a thriving theater showing offbeat films. Now, on Friday and Monday nights, it reverts back to its original purpose when the Magic Lantern program transforms the building from a classroom into a place to kick back and watch a show.
Palladino, a journalist who writes for The Independent, is the producer of this Magic Lantern film series, which was started in 2004 by UCSB students Chris Zawicky and Christie Julen. The students turned I.V. Theater back into just that — a theatre.
“I was teaching Film 54 [a UCSB film course] and had interviewed Jeff Bridges [for the class],” Palladino said. “I told him about doing a screening of The Big Lebowski. [Zawicky and Julen] asked Bridges if he would show up to speak at the screening and he said yes. That’s how it started.”
But the screening conflicted with another attempt to bring the arts back into IV: IV Live. “Catherine Cole [a UCSB professor] had started IV Live, and created an acting troupe,” explained Palladino. “It was really getting off the ground, and she was nervous that Jeff Bridges being in I.V. Theater would suck away the audience.”
As it turned out, The Dude’s appearance did just the opposite. “It was like magic,” Palladino said. “Hundreds of people showed up [for both events].”
After that success, Cole approached Zawicky and asked if they wanted to be a part of Isla Vista Arts, the umbrella organization for IV Live. They accepted, and the Magic Lantern program was born.
But the beginning of the film series wasn’t without its speed bumps. “We lost $18,000,” said Palladino of the first year. He was sure that he was going to lose his job, but the university ended up offering to cover the losses. It seemed to be a gesture that the higher-ups were keeping watch on Isla Vista, especially in the wake of the David Attias vehicular massacre a few years previous. The following year, however, they learned from their mistakes and broke even. Every year after that, Magic Lantern has made plenty of money.
“Another miracle,” Palladino explained, “were the Monday screenings.” Palladino realized that no one in I.V. was screening films on Monday nights. Since he still retained the film from the Friday screening, he had the idea to have a second screening on Mondays. “Now the Monday night income usually equals both Friday screenings,” Palladino said. “It made it so that we made a fortune. I think we are the most successful film series of our kind in the country. The Berkeley movie night has [a crowd] of 200. We average 600 over two nights.”
Certainly, much of Magic Lantern’s success can be ascribed to Palladino’s consistent involvement in the program. “Not that I’m brilliant, but I’m a constant,” he said. “Seniors graduate and they have to re-learn everything [about the movie screening business].” Palladino, however, gets to stay on, and remembers.
Moreover, his memory will be needed at least for the next year. “Up against this shrinking budget, a student in IV Live came up with the idea for a lock-in fee,” Palladino said. Magic Lantern had to secure 2,000 signatures, and get UCSB students to vote for a $2.00 lock in fee. They succeeded overwhelmingly. “Now, we have money, so we might have Spring and Summer [screenings] be free for students,” he said.
With the program fully funded, Magic Lantern can go on showing movies every weekend, screening films from How to Train Your Dragon to this week’s choice, the obscure and critically acclaimed Winter’s Bone. No matter the selection, however, Palladino tries to make sure most of the films screened are ones that will draw people to the theatre.
“The role that it’s supposed to play is as a cultural alternative to drinking,” he said. “When you’re trying to provide an alternative, [you can’t] just put out Godard films — you [show] movies that people want to go to. It’s an attempt to build film culture.”