Cinema Detroit

Independent theaters prove cinema isn’t dead

It seems that every year, especially near awards season, fears concerning the death of cinema and movie theaters become topics of heated debate. The projected death of the movie theater may be premature. Three years ago, Vanity Fair ran an article just before the Academy Awards, pointing out the epic downfall of the movie theater experience. The past few years had seen a nearly 47% drop in theater ticket sales, one of the most significant declines in theater history. 

While many still enjoy the movie theater experience, the larger theater chains have seemingly failed to fill the niche. Film festivals seem to be cropping up everywhere, and large to mid-size cities are promoting smaller, group experience programming. The public appears disinterested in 3D, lounge chairs, theme park-style cinemas. Instead, they are flocking to trivia contests, discussions, and themed programming— seeking less tech and more human connection. 

One independent theater in the Detroit area offers that connection. Cinema Detroit, at 4126 Third Street in Detroit, provides a unique, independent cinema experience. With a cross-section of local, independent, and mainstream film offerings, it’s truly cinema by the people, for the people. Paula Guthat, one half of the husband and wife team who owns and runs the theater, talks about what it takes to create and run an independent theater. 

What inspired you to start the theater?

I was in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2011, and walked by The Cable Car Cinema Café, a converted cable car garage that became a theater with a café in the front. In 2011-2012 there was a lot of empty space in Detroit, and I thought— there has to be a way we can do this. I talked with my husband about it. Films are a huge part of our relationship.

The problem was, a lot of places we found didn’t have a high enough ceiling or had pillars that blocked the sightline. So we did pop-ups called The Saint Clair Cinema Club. We did it all legally, in terms of rights to show the films, because we knew we wanted to be in the industry. And that’s how I got my feet wet. The response was pretty good, so we continued with doing the pop-ups into 2013. 

A customer from the pop-ups told us about our first space. The owner had been trying to make it into a theater. He already had some of the equipment that we could rent, and it was a relatively low-cost way to get started. There are a lot of hard lessons that we learned. We didn’t want to be another multiplex. We wanted a more personal, intimate setting, and we wanted to show all kinds of movies.

Is Cinema Detroit involved in other events? 

The block party is a quarterly event for local filmmakers to show their films (visit filmfreeway.com/ShortFilmBlockParty). It’s really fun, and seeing how creative people are is amazing. It’s so tough to choose the final films because people are so creative, and they do so much on very low budgets. We have worked with Cinetopia for five years, and we are also a venue partner with the FREEP Film Festival (The Detroit Free Press Documentary Film Festival) April 22 – 26. Throughout the year, we do screenings plus talkbacks — filmmakers talk about the content of socially relevant films and the technique — how they get their point across through film. We recently got a grant to continue to do them under the name Ethics and Aesthetics. We will be working with the Detroit Narrative Agency on that series, and I’m really excited about it. 

What is the demographic for Cinema Detroit attendees? 

Everybody! I mean literally everyone because I believe that film is for everyone, and I have made it a priority to show films by as many different kinds of filmmakers as I can.  

Cinema Detroit is open seven days a week.
4126 Third St., cinemadetroit.org

Link to Short Film Block Party at Cinema Detroit. https://www.facebook.com/shortfilmblockpartyatcinemadetroit/

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