The Small Screen
Film journalist and curator Ed Halter gives the big picture on the microcinema movement that has spread across America.
In 1994, filmmakers Rebecca Barten and David Sherman built a tiny 30-seat venue for showing films in the basement of their San Francisco apartment, using a nook intended for their gas meter as a projection booth and some converted painted pizza sauce cans as lights. "We didn't have any money," they wrote years later in an essay chronicling their project, "but we had a landlord living in Hawaii who didn't know that we were building something down in his basement." They dubbed their literally home-made theater the "TOTAL MOBILE HOME microCINEMA" and ran shows there for three years, screening a mixture of old and new experimental film and video, sometimes with the artists in attendance. Some of their 150 shows unspooled before merely a single audience member; Barten and Sherman preferred under 30 in any case. "We were happy to be small," they wrote. What they couldn't have known at the time was that their little movie house would give a name to a new generation of do-it-yourself venues that emerged over the next decade.
From the mid-90s to today, a loosely connected network of autonomous cinema spaces has grown around North America, frequently called microcinemas. "A lot of people around the country have started running MicroCinemas," Barten and Sherman wrote about three years after their space closed. "Every time they call me I ask them what they mean by the term because I'm not sure. The answers are all different but the common factor is that they are starting them all by themselves." There are other commonalities as well. By most people's usage of the term, a microcinema isn't connected to a larger institution, like a museum or university; most are run by basically one or two people, or a small collective at best, nearly always filmmakers themselves.
Microcinemas thrive on experimental film and video, often of a locally-made variety, and therefore employ projection formats seldom seen anywhere else nowadays — 16mm, super-8 or even regular 8mm — as well as video projection; commercial-theater standards of 35mm or HD projection are virtually unheard of at the microcinema level. Thus the "micro" is not a limitation but a badge of pride; many aficionados of small-gauge filmmaking consider a small, intimate space to be the ideal screening environment.
The history of self-sustaining spaces for avant-garde cinema long predates Barten and Sherman's domestic experiment, of course. Artist-run cine-clubs stretch back to the 1920s. In New York, Amos Vogel's hugely popular Cinema 16 of the 1940s and '50s invented the modern notion of the film society, and in the 1960s, Jonas Mekas operated the Filmmaker's Cinematheque in New York while Bruce Baillie screened films at Canyon Cinema in the Bay Area (Canyon would later transform from an exhibitor into a distributor). In the 1970s and '80s, the Collective for Living Cinema in New York grew from a weekly series in a church rec room into a downtown Manhattan theater that rivaled Film Forum in its day, and the Mekas-founded Anthology Film Archives continues to thrive in the East Village.
But significantly, many of today's microcinemas were founded in smaller cities quite beyond the San Francisco-New York axis that has traditionally defined American experimental filmmaking. Basement Films, run by filmmaker Brian Konefsky in Albequerque, has been active for over a decade, as has Shreveport's mini-cine, described by its current organizers as a "a roving, pop-up suitcase, grocery cart, thrift store, hands-on, volunteer-run venue." In Houston, Andrea Grover purchased an abandoned church in 1998 and converted the building into the Aurora Picture Show; ten years later, it has become something of a micro-institution within Houston's arts scene, hosting year-round programming, a video library, and granting the annual Aurora Award to a media arts pioneer.
In keeping with its flourishing arts and music scene, Portland, Oregon has played host to multiple screening societies and self-run film spaces. Filmmaker Matt McCormick's Peripheral Produce began in the mid-90s as an occasional, roving series, but now has grown into a DVD label and a yearly event, the Portland Documentary and Experimental Film Festival (PDX). (Peripheral Produce isn't the only organization of its type to make the successful transition to DVD distribution; Craig Baldwin's legendary proto-microcinema Other Cinema in San Francisco now boasts a line of DVDs of their own, and Seattle's Blackchair Productions, run by Joel Bachar, has morphed into an arts-centered DVD label called Microcinema International in homage to its roots.) For year-round programming, Portland also has the nine-year-old Cinema Project, currently run by Autumn Campbell and Jeremy Rossen, and 40 Frames, devoted exclusively to 16mm and organized by Alain Letourneau and Pam Minty.
Thanks to the large number of wide-ranging locations, a related phenomenon emerged in the past decade: film tours. Like rock bands, filmmakers simply book a number of shows in some rough geographical order, hop in a van, and hit the road. In 2001, Portland filmmaker and musician Johnne Eschleman reversed this logic and took his own micro-microcinema on the road with him: a portable 10 foot by 10 foot mini-theater that fit in the back of his vehicle. When constructed, it fit three, and Eschleman crammed himself into a tiny space behind the screen, where he played guitar and records to accompany his own hand-made films.
Within the decade-plus time since the coining of the term, many spaces that could have been classified as microcinemas have come and gone, such as Vancouver's Blinding Light! Cinema, which once hosted the Vancouver Underground Film Festival, 16mm film collector Dennis Nyback's short-lived Lighthouse Cinema on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and the Mansion Theater in Baltimore, run by animator and projectionist Skizz Cyzzyk out of an old funeral home. In New York, Brian Frye and Bradley Eros's Robert Beck Memorial Cinema, which ran weekly events in downtown Manhattan for many years, renamed itself the Roberta Beck Mercurial Cinema after Frye's exit, now existing as a far more occasional outfit. Williamsburg, Brooklyn's Ocularis, which flourished during the rise of its uber-hip neighborhood, declared itself on hiatus a few years ago following its tenth anniversary, and has yet to re-emerge. But the fact that many spaces have sustained themselves for so long is a testament to the passion of their organizers — the rewards may be many, but rarely of the financial variety.
Has the heyday of the microcinema come and gone? In some cities, one suspects that the more adventurous galleries and alternative art spaces have started taking on some of the roles as the low-fi screening spaces that once only microcinemas attended to. Nevertheless, moving-image-specific organizations continue to emerge; perhaps significantly, recent venues in three different cities have all been founded by veteran film programmers. In San Francisco, Irina Leimbacher and Konrad Steiner, both formerly of the half-century-old San Francisco Cinematheque, launched a new series called kino 21 last year, showing a strong interest in more politically-minded work. After leaving his post as programmer of the longstanding film society Chicago Filmmakers, Patrick Friel began White Light Cinema earlier this year, putting on monthly screenings of classic and contemporary avant-garde work.
And here in New York, Thomas Beard, Ocularis's most recent programming director, and myself, former organizer of the New York Underground Film Festival, have been running a new venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn called Light Industry, operating within a corner of a converted factor floor on a gigantic industrial park called Industry City. Each week is presented by a different curator, critic or artist from the all-too-rarely overlapping worlds of experimental film, contemporary art, international cinema and elsewhere. Whether our attendees think of us an alternative arts space, an event series or a microcinema remains unknown. But after years of attending intrepid, self-run film venues in New York and around the country, we can undoubtedly say that the do-it-yourself ethos of the microcinema was a direct inspiration. And unlike Barten and Sherman's situation back in 1994, our landlords know what we're doing.
992 Valencia St
San Francisco, CA 94110
800 Aurora Street
Houston, TX 77009
P.O. Box 7669
Albuquerque, NM 87194
P.O. Box 40835
Portland, Oregon 97240
P.O. Box 5991
Portland, Oregon 97228
425 SE 3rd #400
Portland, OR 97214
San Francisco, CA
55 33rd Street, 3rd Floor
Brooklyn, NY 11232