“Exhibition is Part of the Art Form”: Hadrian Belove on the State of L.A.’s Cinefamily and the 24-Hour Telethon

The L.A. nonprofit's co-founder on building an audience and keep them coming back....Read More
The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles

Days before the Cinefamily’s Third Annual Holiday Telethon, the marquee (seen above) could say it all about the year the Los Angeles nonprofit has had, though for them it was just another day in programming an all-too rare screening of the F.W. Murnau classic. Having completed a successful Kickstarter drive and an incredibly generous offer from Robert Downey Jr. to upgrade the theater’s projection during last year’s Telethon, the seats are more comfortable, a brand new digital projector has been installed and if possible, the programming even more eclectic.

That variety will be on full display this weekend as the Cinefamily opens their doors once more for a 24-hour smorgasbord of unique film and multimedia experiences, a marathon that will include lengthy conversations with Anjelica Huston and Bruce Dern, a sneak peek of clips from the Roger Ebert doc “Life Itself,” presentations of rarely screened Bruce Bickford and Werner Herzog films with live scores by The Gaslamp Killer and Earth, respectively, and appearances from Mike Judge, Tim Heideicker and Eric Wareheim, Miranda July, Jena Malone and seriously too many others to name. Yet such diversity of programming does not come cheaply, particularly as Cinefamily’s ambition has grown with their audience size since taking over the Silent Movie Theatre in 2007, requiring a great deal of financial support from the community to augment the what Cinefamily collects at the door to make it possible.

In advance of embarking on his most tireless emcee gig of the year, Cinefamily co-founder Hadrian Belove took the time to speak to the current state of the nonprofit, Cinefamily’s place in L.A.’s cultural scene and how he prepares for the 24-hour telethon, which can be seen on the Cinefamily’s live stream if you do not live in L.A. or simply can’t get a seat at the theater.

How does one program a telethon like this?

Oh my God, with as much energy and dedication as you can. It’s hard. You brainstorm, you make phone calls, you see what’s available. It’s a complicated answer to a simple question. It’s probably the hardest kind of programming I have ever done or could imagine doing.

You’re definitely bringing back some Cinefamily favorites such as Mike Judge’s Judgmental Sampler or screening clips from “Life Itself,” which seems like a nice callback to the Roger Ebert tribute you did in June. Do you actually see it as a year-end encapsulation?

Yes, part of the conception was a celebration and demonstration of what we’ve done in the past to help communicate the range of our interests and who we are. A lot of it is about encores. If you really know us well, almost everything in that telethon is some reference to something we’ve done before. We did a tribute conversation with Bruce Dern and a whole weekend with him, which went really beautifully, three years ago. He told amazing stories and having him back was like tipping a hat to the fact that he’s been one of our favorite events in the past in terms of what a Q and A can be like or a tribute with a classic movie star.

Mike Judge is a highlight of the wild, late-night side, or something like Gaslamp Killer performing to Bruce Bickford animation since we did a Bruce Bickford tribute four-and-a-half years ago. Sometimes you see amazing, strange animation brought to you in different ways. [The Giallo tribute band] Nilbog is playing at the beginning and they’ve been a staple here. That’s another innovative piece of programming someone might not have known about.

On the other hand, there are some brand-new events that capture some of the spirit of Cinefamily. Even those are somewhat reverential, like having Earth play to the Herzog film [“Fata Morgana”]. We’ve had a ongoing love affair with Werner Herzog, and many of our proudest moments at the theater have been Herzog-related. We did a Herzog documentary retrospective, which I don’t think had ever been done in L.A. before, and we did the 3D pop-up museum tribute at the Natural History Museum, so having a Herzog event inside of the telethon made sense. And we’ve done live scores before, but we’ve never had Earth here before, and we knew we’d want to have a live score in the telethon if we could, so it was meant to be. These are the kinds of events that your donations help make happen.

There was obviously a lot of pressure going into last year since you needed to upgrade to a digital projector and anyone who watched the telethon could see the relief that crossed your face when Robert Downey Jr. made the impromptu gesture of saying he’d buy one for you. Does this year have a different feel without that weighing on you?

The pressure is still very real. It’s harder to communicate because there was a simplicity to saying to people we need a projector. It’s a lot harder to communicate that running an arts organization requires patronage and support because some people might think, at a glance, “Oh, isn’t that just ticket sales?” It’s really not true. Just like PBS or KCRW, when you’re doing unusual programming, just so many man hours of work goes into doing the kinds of shows we do, far more than capitalism would ever support on its own. We have a very real annual budget we need to meet. We can’t continue doing programming the way we do unless we have support.

Does that extend to your first-run programming? As Los Angeles continues to lose art houses, you’ve been able to get audiences out for Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise” trilogy or more recently, “The Punk Singer,” though I can’t imagine the margins on those films are particularly high.

Part of Cinefamily’s non-profit mission is to support films by building an audience. Our theory is that the best way to really support films is by creating the community that creates the space for these films, rather than trying to directly say, for example, donate to fund filmmakers. By programming a certain way, that hopefully creates regulars and stimulates people to be interested in discovery and being open to things they might not of heard of before. It has also helped us pick certain films that we can put our energies behind.

Though people who follow Cinefamily for a while might sense it, but they may not fully even know just how much care goes into all the promotion for the films. Normally, the film gets booked at just a regular movie theater and the burden is on the distributor or the filmmaker, primarily, to draw the audience. We look at ourselves as partners or maybe even lobbyists for that film. Sometimes we cut our own trailers, we mount a really thought out social media campaign, there’s a passion with which we present them. All that takes a lot of time, a lot of people. That’s the part that is unusual, I think.

That’s why we don’t show a lot of new movies. Even if I think “Gravity” is one of the best movies of the year or something like “20 Feet from Stardom,” which is fantastic, those are films with a lot of support that don’t need us to come along and help it. Those are going to play at the Arclight and do just fine. But something like “The Source Family” did much better here than anywhere else in the country, and I think a lot of it had to do with that enormous energy we put into creating excitement around it. [Note: Cinefamily set up a pop-up restaurant based on the organic cuisine that was served at the original Source Family restaurant in Los Angeles and invited former members of the Source Family out for Q & As.] We wouldn’t do it for any commercial enterprise.

Has the mission changed since you first started or simply expanded?

I’d say it’s expanded. I don’t think it’s changed. Most of our core goals are still there — the revitalizing of the theatrical experience, building a community that’s interested in such discovery. That was all there. I think we began to see the greatest value of what we were doing was to serve overlooked and underseen films and the emphasis began to shift more toward that, though maybe it was always subconsciously there. We would joke sometimes we would look at our own calendar on the wall and ask people coming in [what they had seen]. Even the film buffs maybe had only heard of three or four of them. That’s really our niche. If I can get a sellout, packed room to watch “Mother and the Whore” by Jean Eustache, of maybe younger people who don’t normally go, and who have never heard of Jean Eustache, that was incredibly exciting when we saw things like that happening. We came to realize that was actually, really what our calling was, what we cared most about here.

The other thing that expanded a little bit is how we’re supporting the arts with original shows that are media-based, helping somebody like Dimitri Simakis of Everything is Terrible put together the Acapella-Sqatsi [an a-capella interpretation of the Philip Glass’ “Koyaanisqatsi” score] and [having] people experiment with what a show can be. Exhibition is part of the art form as well and by creating the space, we’re supporting these artists to do things. The Gaslamp Killer-Bruce Bickford show was a show that came from scratch. We put these artists together and helped make that happen.

So in your third year of doing the telethon, are there now any rituals to keep your energy up? Do you get a fair night’s sleep beforehand?

Thank God, John Wyatt and his crew from Cinespia produce the entire telethon. One of the things he does for me is he creates a space where I can leave the theater for the day before. I try not to be in the building for at least 24 hours. I still don’t sleep a lot. I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I stay home and just think about what I’m going to say, and what I’m going to do, and not get caught up in the final set buildings and the technical problems that can be enormously distracting, which in my day-to-day life I get involved in. I take a big step away, and it’s one of Cinespia’s greatest donations, aside from their time and money, to [act] almost like a linebacker in blocking me from that kind of drama.

The Cinefamily’s 24-Hour Telethon will begin at 1 p.m. on September 14th. A full lineup and tickets can be found here, as well as a livestream of the event once it starts.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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