Art-house blues

Local independent theaters can’t always get the films they need to survive. And local film buffs miss out on a lot.

Jon Fenske, foreground, and Sinisa Novakovic, co-proprietors of Davis’ Varsity Theatre.

Jon Fenske, foreground, and Sinisa Novakovic, co-proprietors of Davis’ Varsity Theatre.

Photo By Larry Dalton

On a recent Friday evening at the Varsity Theatre in Davis, Jon Fenske was doting, like a new parent. He asked one of the staffers there to turn on the poster-display-box lights and turn them off again, so as to compare the effects and decide his preference. He had the staffer fire up the neon marquee a little early, just before dusk, and stood across the street admiring it, along with the welcoming copper gleam of the new concession counter inside the lobby.

“I always just loved the building,” he was saying. “There’s some magical quality about the building.”

Fenske, who is 40-ish, favors tastefully casual dress. He is lean and tall, with blue eyes, dimples and sandy hair that grays at his temples—features that combine disarmingly, even when he seems preoccupied. Squinting at the marquee, he mumbled something about making sure to keep it clean enough.

Fenske doesn’t work at the Varsity. He already has a job, across the street, as a hydrologist with the Institute for Water Resources. He describes himself as “a Varsity investor who helps out with the programming.” He is one of the people responsible for reviving the recently dormant 1950 streamline-moderne marvel and restoring it to an early-21st-century approximation of its original use.

“We wanted to have a very classic ambience, but with state-of-the-art technology,” he said. Renovations, accordingly, have been thorough. It took four months and “$180,000 of our own money—we were planning $90,000 in our proposal.” The city, which owns the building, chipped in another $150,000 and granted a long-term lease to Fenske and his partner, the Varsity’s general manager, Sinisa Novakovic, who also runs Mishka’s Café, just a few doors down on Second Street. The lease also involves an adjacent property, into which Novakovic hopes to relocate his cafe. “The city gave us conditions that allowed us to succeed,” Fenske said.

All that remained was the small matter of succeeding.

“We realized this was the only UC town without an independent theater,” he continued. “It just seemed like there was a void.” Then Fenske brightened, describing his plans to put a few chairs and tables on the sidewalk outside and a gelato bar in one street-facing nook of the building. If he seemed overeager, it was probably in part because of how uncommon such personal pride in the management of movie theaters now is. Probably also because, in a minor movie market, a single-screen art house with 350 seats is a risky venture.

Onscreen at the time was Kinky Boots, a modest, modestly reviewed movie about a drippy Englishman who rejuvenates his inherited shoe factory through an unlikely friendship with a drag queen. This evening’s show was sparsely attended.

“You’re only as good as your last movie,” Fenske said. “We only have one screen, so whatever you go with, that’s big.”

His preoccupation had surfaced again, and for good reason. The renovated Varsity’s inaugural film already had been instructive. It was the black (lung) comedy Thank You for Smoking—not a mainstream blockbuster by anybody’s definition, but not exactly an arty obscurity either. It had seemed prudent, a safe bet, and proved to be one by making some money. It also proved a blunt introduction to the art-house proprietor’s plight: the waiting and the worrying. Thank You for Smoking was supposed to open at the Varsity on March 31. On March 3, Fenske learned that he couldn’t have it until April 7. Soon thereafter, he would learn just how mysterious and capricious the art-house distribution game can be.

OK, so, say you’re a film nut. Nothing makes you happier than staking 10 bucks on a few darkened hours of flickering, fleeting wonder—on the chance that whatever awaits you on that big screen will reach beyond the medium’s inherent crass commercialism, toward the worthier enterprise of fine art. You agree with Fenske’s partner, Novakovic, who discerns mainstream American movies as too often “the product of corporate meetings deciding what’s going to sell—which is a pity; there’s a whole world out there that’s making good, good movies.” When you see a film, you’re receptive to a challenge, a true elevation of spirit. You’ve even come to expect such things. Maybe you’ve been called a snob. Whatever. This is what you’re into.

The art house, of course, is your refuge. You see great cultural potential in places like the Crest and the Tower in Sacramento, the Magic Theatre in Nevada City and the Varsity in Davis. You hope to see great films in those places, too. You like the sound of Novakovic’s explicit goal, “to show something to the people that they’ll fall in love with.”

Jittery with anticipation, you scan for interesting alternative fare—the arty, indie, non-corporate stuff—on cable or the Web, or in magazines or the bigger-city newspapers. You try the Sacramento papers, and “coming soon” seems like the best you can get. You’ve been through this drill with those authors you like, too, whose readings never seem to grace greater-Sacramento-area bookstores. Or with that favorite band, for whom the tradeoff to staying preciously obscure apparently is the avoidance of California’s capital on every West Coast tour. No, the Bay Area isn’t too far to travel for your fix, but why should you have to? And if it’s so close, why does it feel like a world away? It doesn’t help that your friends there have started pitying you—or simply stopped talking to you, because they’re tired of having to worry about accidentally spoiling movies that every normal, with-it person already has seen.

You try to keep up. You remember hearing good things about, say, Tell Them Who You Are, an intimate documentary on the renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler by his son, Mark. Or The White Diamond, Werner Herzog’s dirigible-powered jaunt into the canopy of the Amazon rainforest, and one of last year’s most favorably reviewed films. Or Zhang Ke Jia’s clear-eyed peek into a Beijing theme park, The World, cited by such defensible non-snobs as Roger Ebert and the staff of Entertainment Weekly as one of the year’s best. Or The Best of Youth, that supposedly mind-blowing six-hour Italian epic endorsed by practically everybody. So many goodies. You wonder if any of them even played in local theaters. No, they didn’t.

In local theaters, “alternative film” tends to mean movies like Brokeback Mountain, which, with its major-name talent, big-studio backing and exponentially expansive advertising budget, hardly seems arty, indie or non-corporate at all in retrospect—and which, now that you think of it, took a hell of a long time to get here anyway. The difference between before Christmas, when Brokeback hit San Francisco, and after New Year’s, when it hit Sacramento’s Tower, is the difference between life of the party and late to the party. And had Davis’ Varsity been open at the time, it would have played there later still—if at all.

That’s all according to plan. “Sacramento is a secondary market,” said Jack Foley, who heads distribution for Focus Features, the specialty arm of Universal, which released Brokeback. “That is, it ranks under the top 10-15 markets in the country in importance, which is measured by revenue generation as well as population.” As Foley explained it, the strategy for Brokeback was to get a buzz going through limited early-December release in a few primary markets and, if that took, to accelerate the wider release in lesser markets when the time seemed right—in this case, about a month later.

“Sac was not relegated to a secondary, thoughtless position in the strategy,” he said, “but was used as a significant grossing engine on January 6 to explode the film’s impact across the nation.”

Not that it’s Foley’s fault, but his spiel sounds a little like one of those “You’re important to the team” pep talks that Little League coaches toss off to their benchwarmers. Does it mean your moviegoing options will forever depend on whether people in cities of greater “importance” liked something enough—or, more precisely, whether enough people paid to see it? Does it mean your film culture will be measured by its capacity as a “grossing engine”?

All distributors time their rollouts differently—but they all consider primary-market grosses to be key. Hence, the all-too-prophetic disclaimer atop many press releases sent by movie publicists to Northern California media: “All release dates and playdate theatres are subject to change without notice!” Ultimately, what makes art-house distribution so tricky is that it’s often determined extemporaneously, according to “any perception that there’s business on a title,” said Jan Klingelhofer, the longtime film buyer for the Crest. “Distribution is a mystery to everybody,” she added, “including those of us who’ve been doing it for quite a while. It’s not a science. It’s more like an art—and some of the artists are better than others.” What makes art-house distribution even trickier in a secondary market is theaters’ disproportionate reliance on those not-quite-alternative, proven moneymakers—the very pictures whose distribution patterns are prone to mid-course alteration.

“For the first half of this year, through July 4, we played 24 films,” Tower programmer Ellen Cotter recalled, “of which only five represented more than half of our box office.”

Four of those five—Brokeback Mountain, Thank You for Smoking, Capote and An Inconvenient Truth—were overseen by major studios. The other, Transamerica, came from the famously faux-alt bottom-line feeders Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Arty and indie in some ways, maybe, but not exactly non-corporate.

Still, “the gross from those big films,” Cotter said, “allows us to bring in movies like Night Watch, or Don’t Come Knocking or Sketches of Frank Gehry,” smaller earners, to be sure, even if they too benefit from big-studio distribution dollars.

In the Tower’s case, having three screens helps. At a venue like the single-screen Varsity, there’s no room to budge. In Fenske’s pragmatic estimation, “You try to break even and wait for the big indies. You don’t get the big indie films, you’re gone.” And not knowing whether you’ll get them until you do doesn’t help at all.

Milt Moritz, the California/Nevada executive director of the National Association of Theater Owners, insists that greater Sacramento has emerged in recent years as a primary market—at least for mainstream films in wide release. As for the alternative fare, he said, “In the scheme of things, a lot of these films don’t do as well. It just doesn’t seem as though the patrons want as sophisticated a type of film. There are some people who do, but not enough. It just doesn’t have as big a draw. Certain pictures—there’s no doubt about it—probably never get to Sacramento. The distributor found, ‘Hey, by the time we’re through with the marketing costs, it just didn’t add up.’ In a bigger city with many more theaters, you can have a better variety of films.”

Moritz admits he doesn’t know how many screens the greater Sacramento area has and that he hasn’t “kept up with the art market there.” Of the 31 area theaters whose showtimes this paper publishes, 13—nearly half—could be called “indie,” in that they’re either independently owned and operated, like the Varsity or the Crest, or owned by companies that deal entirely with specialty fare, like the Tower’s Reading International or IMAX. The rest are divided among multiplex chains: Century, Regal and the Regal-owned United Artists. More telling, though—and less hopeful for film nuts—is the number of screens within those theaters. The chains have 174; the indies, 44.

You’re tempted to suggest that there should be more? Not so fast.

“We showed that downtown was already over-screened,” said Luree Stetson, a neighborhood activist with the Tower District Alliance, which opposed Century’s proposed art-film-focused CinéArts multiplex on K Street two years ago. “Distributors look for operators that have good revenues per screen. That’s why we’re concerned with more screens going downtown.

“With new construction, the overhead is major,” concurred Klingelhofer. “The only way a new theater would increase programming is if the Tower and the Crest get fewer of those titles.”

Of course, the number of art-house screens in a region is only one variable. The number of art-film prints—typically no more than one at a time within tightly focused distribution zones—is another. Prints are expensive to make; studios and distributors tend to test the waters of demand before investing in them. Sharing among the theaters means the theaters have to wait their turns. They have to wait and worry. And so do you.

Four fine films that never came to a theater near you!

In the small, paper-cluttered office just behind the Varsity’s box-office window, there hangs a Help Wanted sign, with the clarification “for my head” affixed via Post-it. On weekends and some evenings, Fenske has been known to linger in there, studying movie revenue data on the computer, gathering scuttlebutt on upcoming films—or, as was the case a couple of times last month, holing up with the cell phone and the e-mail server, trying to avert catastrophe.

If any recent movie seemed right for an upstart single-screen independent theater in Davis, it was An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim’s improbably enthralling documentary on Al Gore’s campaign against global warming. This was the sort of picture Novakovic referred to when he said, “I’m very enamored that there are documentaries trying to tell what the TV and press people fail miserably to tell.” What’s more, he and Fenske knew, this one had some buzz—which meant it had some box-office potential. As Fenske later put it, “This is our movie of survival.” They both knew they had to have it.

And as the buzz built up, the Inconvenient Truth Web site listed its Varsity opening date as June 30, and the theater planned and publicized accordingly. But on the 12th, word came that Paramount had decided, without warning or explanation, on an earlier release. The proposed new date was only four days after the notice came: June 16.

This last-minute change—always bad news for a single-screen venue—freaked Fenske out. “We already had a commitment to A Prairie Home Companion at that time,” he recalled. “If we knew just a couple of weeks earlier, we would have booked An Inconvenient Truth and then waited for Prairie Home.” Now it appeared that Truth’s ideal venue would be forced to surrender its bread and butter, leaving the film to fulfill its Davis engagement on one of Regal’s screens.

“It gave the appearance of waiting until we were committed to another movie, then bumping up the date, forcing us to give it up,” Fenske said. That’s not necessarily what happened. But when a film’s likelihood of sudden withdrawal from a venue that depends on it seems proportionate to its likelihood of turning strong profits there, a proprietor deserves to indulge a touch of defensive paranoia. “Another very plausible way to look at it,” Fenske conceded in hindsight, “is that it was opening strong, and the studio just wanted to go wider ASAP—no harm intended.”

In any case, you who would wish for more prompt art-film openings, be careful what you wish for.

At the time, Fenske was in no mood to appreciate the irony, and he decided not to take it lying down. He called and then fired off a lengthy e-mail to Al Gore HQ in Nashville, Tenn., pleading his case and avowing support for the former veep and affinity with his status as a cultural underdog. Gore’s office responded promptly, in part by forwarding the full text of Fenske’s testy note to the Paramount people. Naturally, this freaked Fenske out even more. The last thing he needed now was the studio’s enmity. What distribution privileges, few though they already were, might he just have forfeited?

“I think I really pissed Paramount off,” he recalled, still with the worry in his voice. But something happened: A few hours after he’d sent the note, Fenske got word that he had the movie back, scheduled once again for June 30. He’s still not sure exactly what went down but remains plenty grateful for the chance to screen An Inconvenient Truth.

As hoped, it performed well—except for that one Saturday afternoon when the projector malfunctioned. With 45 paying customers seated in the auditorium, waiting for nearly half an hour in front of a blank screen, Fenske found himself stationed in the corner office again, making calls for help (for his equipment and for his head). Meanwhile, the staff circulated through the auditorium, distributing free popcorn and bottled water. When the problem was resolved a few minutes later, Fenske was pleased to see that most of the audience had stuck around. He took a deep breath and said, “I think that’s a good sign.”

You don’t need to be a film nut to know that across the board, moviegoing is changing. The Motion Picture Association of America has reported that last year, movie-theater attendance declined by 8.7 percent. In May, Warner Bros. announced that it will begin distributing some movies over the Internet, concurrently with their DVD release. Netflix, meanwhile, reportedly rents nearly a million-and-a-half DVDs daily, for which it was said by the Los Angeles Times to “level the playing field, allowing a tiny indie film to compete with a multiplex monster.”

Earlier in the year, the almighty George Lucas himself predicted the death of the big-budget blockbuster. “In the future,” Lucas sagely pronounced for multiple press outlets, “almost everything that gets shown in theaters will be an indie movie.” By that, he meant a $15-million movie instead of a $200-million one, but it’s something.

Lucas also has been a strong advocate for digital projection in theaters, which, by eliminating the need for film prints, would unequivocally change the dynamics of distribution. Theoretically, digital distribution is a democratizing technology and could increase the availability of more eclectic movie fare. Functionally, like everything else, it’s complex. “There are more digital delivery systems coming all the time,” said the Crest’s Klingelhofer. “The jury’s still out. On a practical level, though, digital is so much cheaper. It is a tremendous economy—but that doesn’t mean that people will show up.”

You will, of course. You’re a nut. And maybe by now you’re wondering: Do all these auguries add up, improbably, to some hope for the discriminating moviegoer? Doesn’t it help that audiences in general seem to be getting more nichey, more mature, more sophisticated? Well, at least more desperate. In June, Nielsen Media Research and the Movie Advisory Board released a study called “The Modern Movie Experience,” which examined “how changing consumer attitudes and digital technologies are affecting box office returns.” Even amid the swarm of personalized non-theatrical options, the study concluded, people still go out to the theater—but only, increasingly, if they can have a comfortable environment and a reasonable, appealing choice of what to watch. In other words, they want theaters to show them something they’ll fall in love with and to have a very classic ambience.

You’re thinking, “Well, duh.” You always were the type to take the free popcorn with calm gratitude and wait patiently for the projector to be fixed, because you knew somebody actually was working on it—somebody who cared about your theater experience, not just your ticket and concession money. Besides, you just liked hanging around the place anyway.

Still, taking shit from your San Francisco friends has wearied you. You can’t help but find it a little unsettling that the Tower, which is owned by a chain and programmed from across the country—usually with big-studio-sanctioned, nationally reviewed, market-tested fare— is one of the last bastions of Sacramento’s art-house moviegoing. Or that the other one, the Crest, pays most of its rent with revenues from non-movie events.

You wonder how the local alternative film scene, the arty, indie, non-corporate stuff, will ever go beyond only those movies in which larger distributors are most confident, toward more variety, and more daring, from smaller distributors. You wonder how to make room for something other than what Jon Fenske would call the “movies of survival.” You feel a little lonely.

“Certainly, if the Sacramento area as a whole were a ‘better’ market for specialized film, that would change things,” said Klingelhofer. “But what do you say? ‘Come to everything whether you have an interest in it or not because otherwise you’ll have an unsteady art scene’?”

Netflix’s “local favorites” pages are city-specific and even have influenced theatrical distribution in some cities based on what people are renting there. It’s hard to know what that means for Sacto, whose recent favorites vary widely in disposition, from local filmmaker Sarah Kreutz’s Elsa Letterseed to Crackheads Gone Wild to Clash of the Titans. At least Davis, which runs the gamut of Il Postino, Igby Goes Down and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, seems more straightforwardly alt-film inclined.

“It’s an interesting market from my perspective,” said ThinkFilm distribution head Mark Urman. “To me, I see Sacramento as somewhat of a distant suburb of San Francisco. San Francisco is the No. 2 or 3 top indie-film market. It’s behind New York, and it’s ahead of L.A. San Francisco is a huge hub. They have a lot of institutions for nurturing a community of film lovers. The Sacramento area is just missing a few institutions. A huge film festival, a big film society, a film school. But, even if it doesn’t have that, I think it’s a successful independent-film market. People know where to go. They trust it. There’s so much happening in Northern California that it trickles down to Sacramento and to Davis, which makes that area something quite fertile.”

That reminds you: You’ve been meaning to Netflix ThinkFilm’s Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That, a concert film of the Beastie Boys shot entirely by their fans, which only played once in Sacramento, as part of a country-wide promotion, but like so many other intriguing titles never had an official local theatrical run.

Urman admitted, “We don’t usually dedicate a lot of resources to that area.” But at least he can promise nascent cult-phenom Amy Sedaris vehicle Strangers with Candy. “We’re there no matter what July 14 in Sacramento, July 21 in Davis.”

Is Strangers with Candy, about a buffoonish recovering crack whore who finishes high school in her 40s, a movie of survival for the Varsity? Fenske was skeptical. It certainly didn’t seem like his cup of tea.

“This nice old lady came out of the theater saying, ‘I want to thank you for bringing great movies to Davis,’” he recalled with now-characteristic bemusement. “I thought, ‘Oh, God, here I’ve got Strangers with Candy coming in a few weeks.’”

But when Fenske expressed misgivings (“I don’t know—it looks pretty stupid”), his buyer called him a snob and basically told him to suck it up.

One reason that’s good advice is that Little Miss Sunshine, August’s anticipated movie of survival, fell out. With Alan Arkin and Toni Collette and others as a crazy family en route across the country via Volkswagen bus to a beauty pageant, the movie already has that familiar buzz. Fenske and Novakovic could feel it. Their forecast for Little Miss Sunshine’s Varsity performance was sunny. “We do 60 to 70 percent of the Tower every week,” Fenske said. “Regal does 20 to 30 percent. Why would they give it to Regal?”

But for whatever reason—retribution for closing Thank You for Smoking after four weeks instead of letting it run for another two, retribution for being the guy who went to Gore’s people about keeping An Inconvenient Truth or the simple fact, self-evident by now, that getting an important film as planned would just be too easy—the movie was off the Varsity’s books and on to Regal’s Holiday. “There’s all sorts of little personality games here,” Fenske said, sighing.

There’s no getting around the fact that whatever vicissitudes of movie distribution lie in store, the Varsity will have to prove itself as a venue to which distributors know they should play those movies of survival, even if it means playing them at what Fenske might consider to be An Inconvenient Time. Even if it means some other, under-sung gems might not have an opportunity to be seen on its screen.

Until the time comes for another screen, that makes the Varsity’s task of proving itself to patrons all the more difficult. “We’re averaging 5,000 customers per month. But it’s up and down,” Fenske said. “Our first three months, we’re gonna have $90,000 box office, and that’s enough to survive. If we continue like our first three months, we’ll be OK. My goal is to not go broke and make a really cool theater.”

Later, he was more philosophical and more optimistic. “People always want a place to go for a date or to see things in a group,” he said. “I just think it’s—I don’t want to say magic, because I know how that sounds. But it is. There’s a certain group dynamic. The bottom line is people want to get out of their house and be out in the community. They can talk about box office being down, but for indie films it’s looking good.”

If you’re a film nut, you know what he’s talking about.

On that evening back in June, while Fenske roamed the block and doted, a collegiate-looking couple strolled past the Varsity and did a double take. “Look,” the woman said. “It’s Kinky Boots.” They shared a flash of Hey, we were just talking about that. “When does it start?” the guy asked. The marquee informed them that they had about three minutes to catch the next show. Fenske, who’d slowed his pace to listen in as the couple passed, turned around. “It starts right now, but there’s a few minutes of previews before the movie,” he told them. “You still have time.” He raised his eyebrows, showed the dimples. He was walking the tightrope between friendly and solicitous. He didn’t mention his financial involvement with the place, but the couple probably could’ve guessed. They looked him over, looked at each other, looked at the theater, agleam in the warm, velvet-dark evening. Then they grinned back at Fenske and sauntered across the street toward the box-office window.

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Where can you bring your hopes and desperations about cinema’s future? Do not say, “The living room.” How about the fifth annual Sacramento French Film Festival? For more, see Night&Day.

Do you know enough about the cinema of Iran? Thursday, July 13, at the Crest, the Iranian Film Society presents Maxx, a timely drama of mistaken identity, culture clashes and diplomatic misunderstanding. Doors open at 6 and 8 p.m. for showings at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door.

Try a little TFO. There’s still time to Meet the Feebles, and sing along with them, as Peter Jackson’s very twisted puppet musical takes this Saturday’s slot at the Crest’s ongoing Trash Film Orgy. Also, still to come: Frankenhooker, July 22, and Trash till Dawn, July 29. More information is at

The seventh annual Sacramento Film and Music Festival hits the Crest August 2. Sac Music Seen hooks filmmakers up with musicians for original music videos. The 10x10 Filmmaker Challenge gives local Tarantinistas 10 days to make 10-minute films with a common theme. And, new this year, Creative Interpretations lets 14 seperate crews tackle the same kernel of script. More information is at

For just over a year, the Kabinet series, Sunday evenings at HQ (25th and R streets), has been building Sacramento’s alt-film scene from the ground up. A portable-screen, DIY affair, Kabinet offers an eclectic array of great films and the company of people who take them seriously—without taking themselves too seriously. More details are at

But not just Netflix! There’s another video-on-demand and DVD rent-by-mail outfit you should know. San Francisco’s Greencine ( specializes in the arty, indie, non-corporate stuff, from all over the planet. It’s guaranteed to have a better selection than any brick-and-mortar video store in Sacramento—unfortunately.

Plus, more micro-cinema coming soon. Maybe you’re already hip to Fools Foundation’s Radical Movie Night on occasional Wednesdays. Well, stay tuned for a new weekly series there, courtesy of Shiny Object Digital Video. The series will present indies, foreign films and docs (with an emphasis on music and queer themes) that haven’t quite made it to our local art houses. Visit or call (916) 484-0747 for more information.