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Entertainment

LA's Best Art House Theater Had a 24-Hour Telethon

The Cinefamily, an organization dedicated to exhibiting interesting and hard-to-find films, had its annual telethon last weekend in Los Angeles. Miranda July, Tim Heidecker, Mike Judge, and more came out to help keep the group's activities funded.

by Julia Prescott
Dec 17 2013, 12:00pm

In the brand-conscious landscape of Los Angeles, Cinefamily wants you to know they’re a champion of their identity crisis. An art house / cinematheque, a comedy club / music venue, an indie theater featuring otherwise orphaned films; it’s a place that holds many titles, but last Saturday, its main business was sleeplessness.

I stood in the back of the Cinefamily Fantastic Elastic 24-Hour Telethon watching Hadrian Belove, the theater’s Executive Director begin to grapple with his own reality. It was only the third hour into the event, and you could see the focused fear in his eyes, like a pole vaulter about to make a leap. “Can I get a refill on my drink?” Hadrian said aloud, to no one in particular. A mass of volunteer aids trickled by his side, clad with headsets, some holding professional-grade cameras––soon enough, the man had his booze. His gaze relaxed, his determination restored.

He had 21 more hours to go.

This is the third year Hadrian and his team have refused sleep to keep their dreams alive. Last year’s telethon aimed at raising money for a new projector, this year is focused on just keeping the doors open––which, in a world where “going out on the town” rarely means sitting in a movie theater, has become a feat in itself.

My body was wedged in the back corner of the theater due to limited seating when I was offered my first marathoner’s perseverance kit. “Stay up all night. I’ll give you mushrooms,” a friend of mine and Cinefamily regular generously offered. I politely declined, not because I’d rather trudge through au naturel but because the event felt like a drug trip in and of itself.

If you happened to wander in during the opening ceremonies, you might have stumbled upon a live performance from Nilbog, the self-described “horror/sci-fi/giallo film score tribute band,” whose haunting sounds enhanced what already felt like a cult seance of fanaticism.

Then later, you’d be able to keep your buzz on while watching drone metal pioneers, Earth as they performed live to Werner Herzog’s already-trippy Fata Morgana documentary. If you watched live at home, your contact high was enhanced by a slow cross-fade the Cinefamily production team employed with a giddy enthusiasm.

True to the telethon format, Cinefamily relied heavily on their celebrity guest stars to inspire goodwill. Earlier in the day, Illeana Douglas emerged fresh from a Turner Classic Movies-funded cruise to auction off her possessions in a segment titled, “Celebrity Garage Sale.” A jacket from the movie Cobra, a copy of a virginity-horror-thriller short called, Dreamboat, and a Ghost World comic book were among the few items she brought with her to toss to the crowd.

As each celebrity filtered in and out of the chaos, the room’s magic became more and more evident. When Miranda July walked out onto the tiny stage, followed by a table of her own personal items splayed out for sale, she played the room as both serious filmmaker and comedian. Miranda’s dry wit gained her rapid-fire laugh breaks as she presented her items: a padded bra she bought in earnest, a German hair care product she once loved, and many other similarly cared-for items presented with the calm, confident tone she’s known best for.

Though the whole event was live-streamed through the theater’s website, there were moments that played more to the in-person audience rather than those watching at home. For me, it was roaming through the lobby and hearing a production assistant loudly state, “There is literally going to be a brass band walking through here in a matter of minutes.” Another was when I stumbled out into the brightness of day to find myself almost tripping on Illeana Douglas as she chatted with a fan.

There were moments where you could witness the swipe of a volunteer’s exhaustion from manning the booth to inspired enthusiasm when asked how long they’ve been working for the theater, and what they love about it most. This question was never short of a good, passionate answer.

Many volunteers held similar backstories: they came to Los Angeles with artistic purpose, stumbling upon Cinefamily by chance and finding their new friend group within its intimate walls. They also might have floated through its doors by the lure of a screening of their favorite movie, only to discover a whole calendar filled with many other films they might never have stumbled upon previously. Lastly, and what seemed to be the most common case was the fact that the theater seemed so unlike any other movie house in the area that it prodded at their curiosity.

Even though Los Angeles boasts many alternatives to the multiplex, there’s something about Cinefamily and its mixtape range of programming, it’s “something for everybody” business model that out-weirds and outdoes so many of its alleged “art house” competitors.

I mentioned this to Hadrian on the phone a couple days prior to the event, curious about his take on the “us versus them” premise of a young fledgling movie house’s struggle to remain relevant in this town. His answer was curt: “Cinefamily’s mission is to promote cinema––it isn’t tied to a particular place. The more solid our resources are to do what we do well, the easier it is to partner with people.”

The theater has an inclusive attitude toward movies, and even though their programming is different than the New Beverly Cinema just up the street, or the Sundance Theater, that doesn’t mean they’re fighting against them. Rather, they are pushing down the path so they can stay alive together.

In a later hour of the telethon, Steve James the director of the upcoming Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself, began to talk about domino effects. Suddenly the audience began to resemble a lecture hall as all patrons sat upright and listened in calm silence. Steve spoke about the first instance of power both Siskel and Ebert felt as film critics in Chicago when they began to recommend a little art house movie called, My Dinner with Andre. Suddenly, after they featured it on their program the movie grew from unknown to talk of the town––an anecdote that certainly felt relevant that night.

I couldn’t help but consider Cinefamily holding a similar place in the cinematic zeitgeist. Not only do they provide second lives to unheard of and unknown films, but the theater itself seems to benefit by a strong word of mouth that keeps butts in seats and weird events like the telethon going year after year.

Taking a look around at the telethon in its various states, seeing devotees camp out, newbies wander in out of curiosity, eager fans jump up when Miranda July asked them to be a part of an experimental audience game, or donate $300 for a signed copy of Ghost World, you realize this place is truly different.

I’m feeling timid about stating that I ended up not making it through the full 24-hours in-person, but I certainly checked in on the livestream early Sunday morning. There I found Edgar Wright addressing the camera, cheery despite it being 7:30 AM, next to a surprisingly focused Hadrian Belove. He was in his third or fourth costume change for the event; still lucid enough to pull references out of his magician’s encyclopedic film mind. I was impressed. I was even more impressed with the good handful of audience members gathered behind them, happy to be there, possibly high, but ever devoted. I’m already counting down the days until next year. 

@juliaprescott