Big-screen commitment and a handful of daisies: Red Vic Movie House celebrates 30 years
Though the Red Victorian hotel would give the Red Vic its name, the theater's address would eventually change. "We'd had a fairly antagonistic relationship with the landlady," recalls Betsy. "We knew for many years that in 1990, when the lease was up, we had to go."
Fortunately, "it worked out better for everyone," Jack Rix says. He and Betsy ended up buying the building that houses the Red Vic today, flanked by Escape from New York Pizza and the Alembic Bar. "Awesome neighbors," agree the collective members, who tend to cheerfully talk over each other like family members. Though Jack suggests that the success of a collective is "like making sausage — you don't really want to delve into it too much," it's clear the unique structure of the theater's "management" has enabled it to thrive. The non-collective members at the Red Vic are volunteers who work in exchange for free movies.
The Red Vic's permanent home holds 143; in keeping with the theater's cinephile roots, "we remain committed to 35mm. We really try to show things in 35mm," Jack says.
This dedication can sometimes lead to extremes (thanks to a distributor snafu, they once had to contact director Jim Jarmusch directly to borrow one of his films). But you'll never see video at the Red Vic, unless the work was specifically made for it.
"If it's made on video, and meant to be screened on video, we do have a pretty kick-ass projector," Lehan says. "But if it's made for 35mm ... "
That projector comes in handy when local filmmakers, whose projects are often created using the more accessible video format, are on the calendar. "We really enjoy showing local films that people aren't going to get to see anywhere else," Jack says. "Lately something that's worked pretty well is to rent the theater to filmmakers. It seems to work well both ways, because we get a minimum amount of business that's guaranteed, and filmmakers get their movie shown."
Though making gobs of money isn't exactly the Red Vic's goal, it has had some certified hits over the years. Used to be you couldn't pick up one of the Red Vic's signature red-and-black calendars without seeing trippy, time-lapse-heavy Baraka (1992) on the schedule. "We're taking a break [from Baraka] for a little bit," Lehan says with a chuckle.
Other success stories (besides The Room, as noted above) include two films coming up in August, El Topo (1970) and Dead Man (1995), plus anything by Werner Herzog, 1998 big-wave surf film Maverick's ("Lines around the block," Susie Bell recalls), and The Big Lebowski (1998), which returns every year on April 20, the high holiday for stoners. The Red Vic's political leanings also draw crowds ("A new Noam Chomsky documentary will always do well," per Bell), along with "stuff that's really beautiful that looks good up on the big screen," according to Jack.
For the past several years, the Red Vic has screened Hal Ashby's 1971 dark comedy Harold and Maude on its birthday, July 25. It was a favorite of the late Steve Kasper, a friend and regular customer from the Red Vic's earliest days. "He loved Harold and Maude," Betsy says. "I don't think we had really thought about showing it, but he brought it in. He was the one who started handing out daisies [after the film, a tradition that continues]. And it just really caught on."
For 30 years, its cozy sense of community has remained unchanged. But the Red Vic, like other repertory theaters, has felt the 21st century pinch: DVDs, video-on-demand, and the Internet mean that less people bother seeking out off-the-beaten-path exhibitors. For the most part, though, collective members remain cautiously optimistic about the decades ahead.