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2018 Salt Spring Film Festival: Out of the Interior – Survival of the Small-Town Cinema in British Columbia

    Film Festival    February 28, 2018

The following article was written by Jennifer Cikaluk as part of a series of articles about filmmakers coming to the Salt Spring Film Festival on March 2-4, 2018. Filmmakers Curtis and Silmara Emde will be attending the festival and leading a discussion about the film following the screening. The Filmmaker series is sponsored by: Stonehouse B&B, Harbour House Hotel and Hastings House.

OUT OF THE INTERIOR: Interview with Filmmaker Curtis Emde

The trailers have run their course. The lights have dimmed and the curtain has pulled back to widen the screen. There is last minute scuffling to seats and the rustle of popcorn quiets. Then it happens; the image, the music, the voices, the magical moment when the moviegoer becomes the audience.

It began in 1905, and it was called The Nickelodeon. 450 people lined up to pay a nickel to see a 15-minute show. The first of its kind, a permanent indoor exhibition space dedicated to showing projected motion pictures. Soon hundreds popped up in main street storefronts across North America. With the rise of the film industry, large cities built glamorous ‘Movie Palaces’, which flourished from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. At the same time, small towns and neighbourhoods were building their own independent single screen cinemas.

These independent picture houses became part of every small town community providing a communal space for people to come together and share in the moviegoing ritual. The cinematic experience elicits emotion and transports us to escape. It can stir our intellect and charge our social responsibility batteries. We enter the cinema as one and emerge having shared a collective experience.

“There are people who come every week. They come every Tuesday night or every Thursday night regardless of what we play…it’s an important part of life in a small town.” (Out of the Interior)

Filmmakers Curtis Emde and Silmara Emde’s first feature length film, Out of the Interior, is an exploration of small town cinemas in the interior of British Columbia. Inspired by childhood memories and a curiosity of how small town cinemas were making it work, the two set out to explore the current state of thriving and struggling single screen cinemas.

“It was run down, it had been abandoned, we could all see it. We just thought, OK this could work, cause it was just too cool to let go” (Out of the Interior)

The main characters in Out of the Interior are small town cinemas marked by nostalgia, the home of childhood memories, first dates and rainy day hideaways and those cultural caretakers (mostly families) who struggle to protect them. Many of those structures have disappeared or are decaying. All were challenged by the digitalisation of the movie industry. Burdened with the unachievable task of modernising their cinemas, many found it too hard to keep up. Some were left with no options. The big studios didn’t care. Multiplexes were dominating the moviegoing experience. With increasing numbers of people ‘staying in’ and access to an abundance of cable content and high-end home movie systems, the small town cinema was under threat.

“I confidently say that everything the studios do is all about money. It has nothing to do with fair play. It has nothing to do with working with the small town theaters to keep them open. I can honestly say, I don’t think there is a studio in Toronto or California that really cares if anyone of us stays open anymore.” (Out of the Interior)

Along their road trip exploration, the filmmakers found many who did make it. The survivors were not just making it. They were thriving, standing strong on the shoulders of supportive communities and fuelled by the energy and creativity of some very hard working and imaginative people. The people who run the cinemas found ways to survive by changing their business models, taking risks and rallying the support of their communities. Community support was a key ingredient in the success. Out of the Interior honours the single screen cinemas in the interior of Southern BC and the people who run them.

“People know that it’s the difference of supporting the theatre and losing it because, they can watch it at home…I would hope that all communities would be able to engage their public to want to keep a public space that is communal.” (Out of the Interior)

Public spaces are the social glue for small towns, and moviegoing at its core is a social experience. We are fortunate to have our own single screen cinema here on Salt Spring. The Fritz survived the digital transformation. It maintains a steady stream of films, has something for everyone and has delicious real butter popcorn. As we prepare to gather for the Film Festival we can be proud to be a community who has embraced and celebrated the cinematic experience. More importantly, we should recognise our community has become better from our exuberant participation in the great social communal experience of ‘going to the movies’.

I reached out to Filmmaker Curtis Emde to talk to him about the film and his experience as co-filmmaker with his partner Silmara Emde on Out of the Interior.

Q & A:

What inspired you and your partner Silmara to make this film? And why do you believe it was an important film to be made?

 Out of the Interior is the culmination of The Projection Project, which is our multi-media look at the changing landscape of movie exhibition. Silmara started photographing projection booths at movie theatres in Vancouver just as they were replacing their long-standing 35mm film projectors with digital ones, or photographing the demolition of the theatres that weren’t willing or couldn’t afford the digital upgrade.

On a completely unrelated assignment, we were on our way to Cranbrook when the seeds for Out of the Interior were planted. We would come across the local cinema in every town we stopped in on that trip. We seemed to be drawn to these places like magnets. Most of our work had been focused on Vancouver, but we wondered if there wasn’t a different kind of cinema story in the Interior. At first we thought we’d just profile three of the theatres in short, stand-alone videos. But the owners we talked to would insist we include other theatres they knew. Each time we found more links and connections between these places, a kind of silk thread connected the theatres and their owners.

We realised in telling seven or eight short separate stories, we were telling one big one. It was on our last two road trips that we really knew we were working on a full-length documentary.

We wanted to tip our hats to the owners and operators of the region’s independent theatres. These are the people who work tirelessly to preserve the heritage of the buildings while also juggling the challenges of the demands of movie distributors and the Hollywood studios while keeping an eye on their customers’ tastes and preferences. We wanted our documentary to acknowledge their often un-sung work, and recognise how important the theatres are to their communities.

We also believe Out of the Interior will encourage anyone who sees it to reflect on the value of public screen entertainment in the digital age. We want to show that, in the right environment, moviegoing is still a worthwhile, exciting and empathy-building activity.

After speaking with the owners of many single screen cinemas, some successfully soldiering on and others failing to continue, can you surmise, what are the best strategies for maintaining a thriving single screen cinema today? For those that failed, where did they go wrong?

The willingness to change and adapt is the key ingredient for the survival for any of the theatres that are still open and still doing well, along with the endurance and patience needed to tough out the hard times. The unwillingness, or inability, to change or adapt, starting with the digital upgrade, definitely was a factor in some of the theatres that haven’t made it.

Another factor is one that might sound corny, but was demonstrated to us over and over again is family. These are family-owned and family-run businesses. Couples run the theatre and the kids help out. They’re in it long-term. Moviegoers grow accustomed to being greeted and served their popcorn by the same people week after week, year after year. That continuity is key.

This is your first feature length film, can you tell us what the most enjoyable and rewarding part of the filmmaking process has been for you and Silmara?

Well, the third most rewarding moment so far was the premiere at the Oliver Theatre last September. We just couldn’t believe we had made a movie that was playing at a real cinema. The response from the audience was warm and gratifying, and that was great.

The second best part was meeting and spending time with these owners and operators over the course of the three years we spent making the movie. We couldn’t get over the hospitality, trust and generosity of so many of them. Some real friendships were made.

But the best thing was being able to spend time together as a couple. We loved exploring the towns and small communities we travelled through. Our son George was born about three-quarters of the way through the making of the doc, so it doesn’t get much better than that.

In 2016 you opened the Orange Lamphouse Studio to expand on more creative projects. Will you continue to create more documentary films or do you have other create ventures in mind?

Just a few days before the Salt Spring Island Film Festival, we will be shooting the first couple of scenes for our next documentary. This one won’t be a feature – probably 15-20 minutes. This new one is about writers living and working in Vernon.

The Orange Lamphouse gives us an umbrella to a wider variety of things, from books, to graphic design, stationery, short films, promotional materials, photo-essays and more. Silmara’s got a couple of photography exhibitions lined up for this year, so it’s pretty exciting.

Now you have attended screenings and film festivals to introduce your film can you tell me what is the most rewarding part of participating in a film festival? And why it is important for you to participate in film festivals?

The best part is the contact with the audience. There are moments during the film presentation that let us know the audience is ‘with’ the movie, it’s gratifying to be there to feel or even hear that reaction. Also the Q&A is insightful and fun, there’s a real sense of participation and mutual appreciation at festivals. The audience appreciates the efforts that went into the production, and the filmmakers appreciate the attendance and the attention.

Silmara and I love meeting other filmmakers. It’s good to feel linked, and to know there are plenty of others like us who somehow find a way to create films while balancing full-time jobs, parenthood, and everything else. Anyone who takes years out of his or her life to pursue a curiosity or seek an answer to a question by making a film is probably someone worth talking to.

With so much content available, more than ever before, some might question the value of festivals. But that content overload is precisely why film festivals are more important than ever. With so much to pick from, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to sift out the good stuff. We need professionally curated festivals and events to guide us to the best. At a festival like Salt Spring’s, you know every film is going to be excellent and worth watching.

Why do you think the communal moviegoing experience is so important today?

Movies, this includes documentaries, are stories, and story is at the heart of the human experience. The best stories are, as the late, great Roger Ebert once said, empathy machines. The documentary genre is just as capable of – and often better at connecting us and moving us as the scripted fictional narrative.

What connects the story telling around the fire and the moviegoing experience is that both events are ‘live’ in way that watching a movie on TV or a Netflix series on your phone in stolen moments isn’t. We are transported without effort, and we’re transported together. For those fleeting moments, the audience is connected. We can’t see each other, but one is aware of a collective human hum beneath the glow of the big screen. This sensation of being immersed in a story but simultaneously being aware of the cinema environment, I believe, gets close to exemplifying that elusive ‘magic’ people often refer to when they talk about going to the movies.

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