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Movie Magic

Providence’s indie cinemas defy technology and trends to keep the big screen experience special

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Editor's Note: On April 27, the owners of the Cable Car posted on Facebook that after 42 years the theater will close on May 27, 2018. The following article appears as it ran in the May edition of East Side Monthly, prior to the announcement of the Cable Car's closing.

Richard Dulgarian co-owns the Avon Cinema, which recently celebrated 80 years of, as the theater’s very first newspaper ad put it, “the exclusive showing of unusual pictures.” Along with his brother, Ken, he’s continuing a tradition of big screen exhibition that started with their grandfather Krikor in 1938, when he showed the French film The Life and Loves of Beethoven.

“I don’t think anyone’s heard of that,” Dulgarian speculates (a barely-there Wikipedia entry for the film more or less confirms his suspicions) and he adds with a laugh, “Why couldn’t it have been something recognizable like Citizen Kane or Casablanca?”

Dulgarian has worked at the theater since he was a teenager and at one point or another has held every position under its roof. He’s worked the door, sold tickets, worked concessions, and at each assignment learned valuable tricks of the trade that he’s passed on to every employee since.

“When some places scoop your popcorn, half of it ends up on the floor before you get to your seat,” he says. “We scoop it nice and full and give it a little tap with the scoop. It sort of locks the kernels into themselves.” This is not the kind of attention to detail one encounters at a 20-screen multiplex.

“It’s not by accident. I want your experience to be what our parents and grandparents experienced when they went to a film,” says Dulgarian. This goes far beyond customer service, from the on-screen jingles leading up to the show – the snacks and sodas singing “Let’s all go to the lobby,” vintage bumper animations of bygone stars asking you politely not to smoke or talk during the picture – to the curtain that opens before each screening. He’s even stuck to incandescent bulbs. “It requires an extra effort, but I think it makes a difference. That’s the look I want. It’s the look that was here before.”

Basically, Dulgarian has made the effort to ensure you feel like you’ve purchased a ticket through time. His diligence has its limits though. The cruel march of progress means that film projectors were upgraded to digital a few years ago, no small price to pay to stay in the movie business.

“It disappointed me personally,” he confesses. “If Showcase Cinemas had dug their heels in, no one would have had to do this.” While a cinephile could talk your ear off about the warmth and grain and texture missing in digital presentation, Dulgarian remembers the people who used to man the projectors, the aspiring filmmakers and students who got a crash course in cinema by sitting in the dark and manning the reels.

“I felt like I had more of a connection with the projectionist than most of the other staff,” he reminisces. “They tended to be slightly older, filmmakers or artists. Between reels I’d go chat with them. It’s very lonely up there.”

While the Avon is committed to preserving the classic experience of going to the movies, the Cable Car has been actively exploring the meaning of a thoroughly modern art house theater. It’s been showing films since 1976, but husband and wife duo Daniel Kamil and Emily Steffian have owned and operated the theater since 2008. When I spoke with Kamil leading up to the Cable Car’s 40th anniversary in 2016 – an event marked by 24 hours of films from 1976 – he spoke of the ongoing struggles facing all indie theaters.

“We struggle existentially,” he told me at the time. “What is the meaning of a cinema when we have the ability to see everything on our phone? The only thing that we’re selling is community. Is that important? We make the case that it is.”

For the Cable Car, that means pursuing partnerships with local organizations, taking the temperature of the community, and taking risks. In March they partnered with The Wilbury Group, an avant-garde theater troupe who staged their production of The Flick – a play about three young theater employees working in a rundown arthouse theater in the days leading up to the industry-wide digital conversion – in the Cable Car auditorium.

“It was incredibly meta,” says Kamil. “It was really accurate in terms of how it addresses this world, which are essentially jobs that are needed for people entering the marketplace but aren't necessarily career jobs.”

A post-election film series featuring screenings of 1984, The Great Dictator, and I Am Not Your Negro saw Kamil and Steffian “contextualize and react to what was going on in the world in a pretty immediate way” by showing topical films and supporting progressive organizations like the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Institute for Non-Profit News.

As for the risks, Kamil sees the Cable Car as “working the margins” of the local film market, which he sees has an opportunity to show more niche and under the radar films. The James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, for instance, ran for 10 weeks at the Cable Car because Kamil felt it was important enough to keep showing.

The geek has inherited the Earth, at least as far as the big studios are concerned. Blockbuster season has outgrown summer, thanks to the superheroes and Skywalkers of the movie world, not to mention countless franchises and icons of yesteryear that have been given a digitized resurrection. Anything vaguely familiar is ripe for the big budget makeover – a sequel to Jumanji starring The Rock no one knew they wanted, an adaptation of the plotless giant-monsters-punch-buildings arcade classic Rampage, also starring The Rock – and yet, while worlds are being saved and the hundreds of millions in opening weekend grosses are being pored over, the single screen art house theater persists.

For the record, I’m not throwing shade at blockbuster escapism. I’m just as happy to sit in the dark with the upcoming Han Solo spin-off as I am to check in on whatever Jim Jarmusch has up his sleeve. It’s just that, when you get down to it, the people running the multiplexes are more or less incapable of ensuring that filmgoers have that magical experience every time we go to the movies. They just can’t; their empires are too damn big. There are huge pressures for hungry studios to pack us in and move us out as quickly and frequently as possible. But at the Avon and the Cable Car, there’s room in the equation to make that experience as memorable as the pictures themselves.

Beyond their obvious similarities – single screen, independent offerings – what both the Avon and the Cable Car share is a passion for creating something special for the guests that walk through their doors.

Personally, I remember when Wes Anderson’s Rhode Island-filmed Moonrise Kingdom opened at the Avon. The house was packed, and I found myself surrounded by people cheering at every familiar local landmark and extra that graced the screen. I remember the night in 2013, on the eve of going digital, that the Cable Car put up an old 35mm print of The Last Picture Show for movie nerds, all mourning the end of an era, before retiring its platter projection system. I fondly recall having my mind blown by the wickedly dark Coen Brothers movie A Serious Man at the Avon. My friend, much to my horror, was practically wetting himself (he later assured me that had I gone to Hebrew school it would have been the funniest thing I’d ever seen). Or what about seeing The Interview – yes, the Seth Rogan/James Franco The Interview – in a full Cable Car, complete with an FBI detail, because no dictator was going to tell us what movies we could and couldn’t watch.

Among the big theater chains there’s an arms race for better picture and sound, better selection of food and booze, better seats. None of that measures up to those memories.

“How do we survive?” Dulgarian wonders. “I don’t know. If you look around, there aren’t any Avons left, or very few. [But] I enjoy exhibition. I like the people that come in. They’re happy! And what I’m showing changes every week or two. There’s always something new. And my staff is great. If you come and buy a ticket, they do things I don’t see anymore. They look genuinely happy to see you.”