Secret Cinema 1998 Annual Report

Since we're still absent-mindedly writing "1998" on our checks, it still seems safe to write up the 1998 Annual Report, offering some highlights of another action-packed year for the Secret Cinema.

A year ago we were gearing to start our second semester at Moore College of Art & Design. Moore was and is the most movie-theater like setting that our screenings have touched down in yet, but at that time, the response to our offerings there had been frankly disappointing. It seemed that many of the films from the first season would have drawn larger audiences if they had been shown at one of the cramped (yet cozy and familiar) coffee houses and bars that had been our established outposts previously. Since Moore's auditorium offered use of a much larger screen--and sight lines that allowed one to see all of it--this was very disappointing.

This finally changed in 1998, starting with January's Scopitone Party presentation. Featuring impossibly rare footage (do we use that phrase too often?) and a unique slide lecture about the history of film jukeboxes (which we first presented at the '97 Gijon, Spain film festival), this Secret Cinema event was just too novel to ignore, and it garnered the most press coverage we've ever had. Even with rainy cold weather and flood warnings, more than 100 people attended, and our series at Moore no longer seemed like a mistake.

Continued programming of such special events kept the crowds coming, most startlingly so in March with the showing of a film that we here at the Secret Cinema had longed to watch for over 20 years, Andy Warhol's The Velvet Underground & Nico. Adding interest was some additional rare Velvets footage in the Jonas Mekas short Scenes From The Life Of Andy Warhol (we'd hoped to also include Ron Namath's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, thus including nearly all of the extant footage of the legendary band, but its distributor said that the only print had been damaged at its last screening, and despite our promises to be extra careful, would not let us use it).

Our previous track record at Moore caused us to err on the side of conservatism and book only one screening of the V.U. program--it was quite a shock when a huge line formed around the block of Moore (again in rainy weather), and when all the fuss was over, nearly 400 people got in (with many more turned away). This was by far the largest turnout for any SC event ever. It helped to further put the Moore series on the map, not to mention inspire a brief yet heated internet debate over our assertion that the Velvet Underground were "the second most influential rock band of the '60s" (a statement we stand by). If only we'd had the foresight to take pictures of the long lines.

Speaking of the Moore big screen (well, we were a few paragraphs back), it got even bigger with the purchase of new, higher powered 16mm projectors, which now allow a 15' wide screen image--larger (or at least taller) than many mulitplex screens. It took some time to iron out technical glitches with the aged equipment, but most of the bugs are now solved and, an L.A. repair shop and UPS willing, we'll even return to dual projector operation (i.e., no pause between reels) with our next Moore screening.

This purchase, as well as that of a really big portable screen (too large for all current SC venues except Moore, which has its own big screen), was made with an eye towards more flexibility in screening locations--and with a definite desire to launch another outdoor series in the summer, like the brief experiment (with much smaller screen) we tried in '96. Any help in clearing red tape or procuring funding for such a series will be greatly appreciated!

Other programming ideas tried at Moore included our first ever silent film screenings, which featured live musical accompaniment by keyboardist Don Kinnier (we noted of He Who Gets Slapped that "the 1924 Lon Chaney classic is as odd a film as the Secret Cinema has ever screened," which was certainly true). The Velvet Underground screening was followed, in a sense, with the first local showing in years of Andy Warhol's epic The Chelsea Girls, which keeps a two-projector, double screen image running for 3.5 hours (we happily note that most of the audience stuck it out all the way!). And for the 40th anniversary showing of the locally-made sci-fi classic The Blob (part of a five event, month long SC festival of Halloween Horrors), festivities included a display of original Blob memorabilia, a miniature set, and the actual Blob itself (Blob collector Wes Shank must have felt especially moved, for after taking care to put a protective cover over the precious, sticky artifact, he changed his mind and let the many stragglers touch the Blob, which was surely a rare opportunity for all).

Also new for 1998 was finally using a non-virtual mailing list to send postcards detailing Secret Cinema programming to those without email. We'd been collecting the names on and off since 1992! (I wonder why some of the cards were returned to sender?). This has noticeably helped attendance, and we have no good excuse for not starting this earlier.

While the audiences and screen sizes were growing, we worked hard to continue the smaller, intimate screenings we'd done for so long at coffee houses, night clubs and bookstores, and which still symbolize for many the Secret Cinema experience. There were several return trips to Lionfish, the Griffin Cafe, and Borders in center city. We also added some new screening spaces, including the charming George's 5th Street Cafe, and a couple events at the Bryn Mawr Borders (although until the buzzword-spouting, "marketing" and "retail environment"-oriented new events programmer moves on from the latter, don't hold your breath waiting for more SC shows there!).

1998 saw us, working in collaboration with the Troc/Balcony nightclub, do the first Secret Cinema events combined with live musical entertainment. First was the appearance of Rare Surf Films From the '60s and Beyond on the Troc's movie screen (using our film projectors, not their video equipment), in between sets by appropriately retro bands on the Balcony stage. We'd been suggesting this idea to every club booker in town for over a year, but kudos to the Troc's John Hampton for actually following though. It was followed up at the year's end with a similarly themed screening of Magical Mystery Tour sharing the bill with more '60s-esque local bands and a stunning set of mod sounds by d.j. Andrew Chalfen, accompanied by random psychedelic movie backgrounds from a three-projector setup. All this activity recalled, to us at least, our pre-Secret Cinema roots, projecting film on local rock bands Ornamental Wigwam and Nixon's Head. There will definitely be more film/music SC events in 1999.

Last March saw us attempt our first "class trip," to the Syracuse Cinefest festival of vintage Hollywood film. While several people expressed interest in going after reading about it in the papers--and indeed, there were more first-time Philadelphia attendees at this wonderful event then ever before--almost nobody took us up on our offer of organizing ride shares and group meals. Thus, we will not be repeating this scheme in 1999, but will be happy to provide info on the Cinefest to those interested in attending on their own (it takes place between March 4-7). Meanwhile, we do aim to arrange another Secret Cinema class trip, this time as a more easily attendable one-day excursion. More details soon.

1998 included only one "Philadelphia Premiere" of a new/recent film--namely the highly-amusing documentary Screwed: Al Goldstein's Kingdom Of Porn (produced by the now-notorious Todd Philips and Andrew Gurland of Frat House), which had six showings at Moore and Fergie's Pub. We definitely want to do more premieres, and have already booked Nick Broomfield's Fetishes. We were also lining up the local premiere of the excellent The Bible and Gun Club, until we finally learned that no 16mm release print exists of this 16mm production. Ditto for the concert film Storefront Hitchcock. Go get 'em, International House!

Speaking of, the first SC screening in the wonderful I-House screening facility happened last July, during our barely-noticed slot in the PhillyHOVERGROUND multi-media arts festival. Only a handful turned out for the 1966 sci-fi/spy-concerned Dimension 5 (a film which wowed them in Spain, honest!), but this was par for the low-profile, confusing festival.

Secret Cinema's participation in some other festivals, both near and far, fared much better. The first came during our first billed SC screenings at the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival (with less fanfare, we provided a short subject for the first year's midnight showing of 3-D male porn movie Heavy Equipment). This time, SC programmed two popular PIGLFF events, The Secret Cinema Goes Camping at the Arts Bank, plus a free, "sold out" screening at Borders of The Day The Fish Came Out.

At the end of summer, SC was the guest of Benicassim '98, one of the largest European rock festivals, held in the Spanish town of Benicassim on the Mediterranean coast. The huge outdoor festival site was like nothing we'd ever seen at home, with 23,000 young people camping out to see the likes of PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Spiritualized, not to mention every superstar techno d.j. we'd never heard of. The backstage complex alone was surreally lavish, with a freshly-built in-ground swimming pool provided just for the happy, laminate-wearing elite. The promoters of this festival charitably provide a cinema, theater and fashion component that the sunburned masses could happily forego for the most part, but interested audiences did turn out to screenings of a few rock-music oriented features at a modern theater in the town's center. Additionally, the SC curator delivered his now award-winning film-jukebox slide talk as part of a festival-related, accredited course on music video that was given at the local university. For some reason, the deluxe color booklet that comes with the 5-CD festival souvenir boxed set claims that, "Among the professionals that will give lectures we have Jay Schwartz, a film director from Philadelphia who has one of the most complete collection of music movies."

Other Secret Cinema trips out of town included our first screening in Baltimore, bringing the Exotica Music Films package to the 14 Carat Cabaret in a nice arts center there. Another first was the first sold-out SC screening in New York, when we brought the reliably-popular Stag Movie Night: Vintage Porno From the '20s, '30s & '40s to the Fez nightclub. The show was delayed as the overwhelmed club attempted to process the long line that snaked though the adjoining upstairs restaurant and out into the street, and many people did not get in. If only those people could have come back a few months later to the Acme Underground, where our Sitcom Rock: Rock N' Roll Episodes of Classic TV Comedies drew a relatively tiny crowd, despite earning a Village Voice film pick of the week.

Perhaps the most unusual Secret Cinema venue ever was employed last September, when we were invited to show a film within the imposing walls of the Eastern State Penitentiary. A capacity crowd came to our screening of the '50s camp classic Women's Prison, as folding chairs were set up in an open space between wings of 170-year-old prison cells. This provided a peripheral view at all times of real prison bars, as a surreal extension of the ones on screen. We thank ESP's programming whiz Sean Kelley for making this memorable event possible, and we're already planning our next screening there (when warmer weather returns).

As detailed in last year's annual report, for the previous three Novembers, the Secret Cinema had been invited to program a segment of the Internacional Festival de Cine de Gijon, in Spain (in fact, it was through contacts made in Gijon that we were invited to the Benicassim music fest). In 1998, the Gijon festival already had a full schedule of screenings before we could be included, but at the insistence of Festival Director Josť Luis Cienfuegos, SC curator Jay Schwartz was flown over as a guest anyway, since he was now "part of the family." This time "guest" really meant "staff member," as Schwartz was assigned to serve as 16mm projectionist for all screenings in one of the many theaters. The experience almost left him with a new sense of respect for the projectionists who had mishandled Secret Cinema prints in previous years there, working as they did with very little basic resources (a growing problem with 16mm film handling at festivals). He also found time to attend too many late night parties, hang out with fellow Philadelphian Kevin DeNovis, and meet long time hero and amiable curmudgeon Paul Morrissey (his reaction to being told of successful SC screenings of the Warhol films he'd worked on: "You mean people actually watched them?").

In total, there were 37 Secret Cinema screenings in 1998, at 15 different locations, 8 of these being first-time SC venues. These shows consisted of 11 unique theme programs (some of our favorites not already mentioned include The SC Cavalcade of Commercials, Hollywood vs. Hitler: Cinematic Spoofs of the Third Reich, and Creepy Christmas Films) with the rest being feature film presentations (these always including a few "unusual short subjects"). All of these numbers surpass the previous records set in 1997.

This year, expect more of the same--which is to say more of the unexpected, more expansion of what a Secret Cinema film might be, more new alternative settings turned into temporary movie theaters, and hopefully more people learning about our screenings.

Also expect more places presenting VHS video tapes of unimaginative programming and labeling it a "film screening," thus lowering audience expectations and diminishing the impact of all the hard work that goes into real film presentations, such as those at David Grossman's Film Forum, International House, our own efforts and a precious few others'. In an alarmingly high percentage of the past year's "Art Films" listings in the Philadelphia Inquirer's Weekend section, the senior film critics at that paper have seen fit to give their featured first listings to a "movie series" that seats 15 people in front of an ordinary television set (usually showing a popular cable TV favorite, which evidently are the only movies these writers feel comfortable writing about). The repertory cinema experience is dying nationwide, and decisions like these are helping to murder it.

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