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Sean P. Means: Art House Theater Day celebrates movies outside the mainstream

First Published      Last Updated Sep 22 2016 05:04 pm

You would think that Los Angeles, the place where Tinseltown shines its tinsel, would have the biggest and most sophisticated movie audiences in the nation.

You would be wrong.

It was a surprise last month when the National Endowment for the Arts compiled state-by-state data for arts participation and found that the highest percentages of people going out for an evening of art and entertainment weren't in the big population centers on the coasts, but in the so-called "flyover country" of America's heartland.

Specifically, the state of Utah topped many of the major statistics. In moviegoing, Utah was No. 1, with 76.2 percent of residents going to a movie at least once in the calendar year 2015. The national average was just 58.4 percent.

In terms of seeing art-house movies — the foreign and independent stuff outside the mainstream blockbuster fare — Los Angeles also suffers by comparison.

L.A.-based film critic Michael Nordine lamented his city's art-house problem in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last year. He asked: "It's long been known that the art house scene in Los Angeles lags behind that of New York, but must we be outdone by Iowa City and Bloomington as well?"

He could have added Utah to that list.

Salt Lake City is remarkably blessed to have seven art-house screens — the one at The Tower Theatre and the six in the Broadway Centre Cinemas. Up the road in Park City, the Park City Film Series serves up offbeat fare to the mountain town's denizens every weekend.

The Salt Lake Film Society (the nonprofit that runs the Tower and Broadway) and the Park City Film Series will celebrate the joys of screening nonmainstream fare this Saturday as part of the first-ever national Art House Theater Day.

The event, says SLFS director Tori Baker, began as an idea discussed at the Art House Convergence, an annual convention of independent theater operators held every January (just before the Sundance Film Festival) in Midway. SLFS is a charter member of the group, which Baker said began as a weekly conference call among theater owners, comparing notes about their work, and has now grown into a convention that this year drew 600 attendees.

Baker said Art House Theater Day started with one question: "Why don't we have a day to celebrate the valued proposition of art houses?"

Other facets of the entertainment industry have done it. April brings National Record Store Day and Independent Bookstore Day, and there's Free Comic Book Day every May. So why not a day, Baker said, that spotlights "the bricks-and-mortar home for cinema across the nation"?

For Katharine Wang, executive director of the Park City Film Series, it's a day to celebrate "what art-house theaters are contributing to the cultural environment of the community."

The two nonprofit organizations share parallel histories.

The Park City Film Series started in 1995, Wang said, originally as part of the Park City Arts Council, and became a separate entity in 1999. It was started by Park City residents who wanted to have the year-round experience of seeing movies they saw at the Sundance Film Festival, which they could only get by driving into Salt Lake City.

"It's nice you can have something you can walk to, or be five minutes away [by car], instead of going down the canyon," Wang said.

The Salt Lake Film Society was formed in 2001 to keep the historic but then-floundering Tower Theatre from going under. SLFS later took over operations at the Broadway.

Art-house theaters, Baker said, are different from mainstream multiplexes because of the selections in movies. Rather than just taking whatever the movie studios are offering each week, she said, "you can curate the best from contemporary artists working today. … If you really want culturally specific stories, Hollywood's not going to make those anymore, except for the broad-scale and operatic."

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