Portland’s Independent Movie Theater Programmers Reflect on the Movies That Reshaped Their Cinemas

Simultaneously creating and gauging your theater’s niche is a job unto itself.

Rocky Horror Picture Show (IMDB)

Some qualities are mandatory for movie theater programmers: film knowledge, good taste, rallying enthusiasm. But what about perceptiveness, that sometimes nebulous ability to study the grosses, poll the evening’s emptying lobby, and detect a core audience’s evolving pulse?

In a city where a half-dozen independent movie theaters—most of them a century old—harmoniously compete for Portland cinephiles’ attention, simultaneously creating and gauging your theater’s niche is a job unto itself. We asked four Portland programmers about the movies that have shaped and reshaped their booking paradigms.

Academy Theater: The New Blood and “the New Flesh”

Anyone who’s seen David Cronenberg’s 1983 body-horror classic Videodrome knows how insistently its title lodges in people’s minds—and it took similar contagiousness from Jon “Doorman” Pape to book the film at the Montavilla neighborhood theater in 2016.

Then 25 years old and “lowly floor staff,” Doorman was vocally pushing for weirder movies at a time when Academy’s repertory screenings skewed down the middle. “When a film booking fell through, my boss remembered me saying the word ‘Videodrome’ a lot,” Doorman recalls. “It stuck in his head, and he booked it.”

The film proved to be Doorman’s “first big hit” as a programmer. Now, the Academy’s Revival Series is a house staple…and its Deep Cut series delves a fair bit deeper than Videodrome.

Cinema 21: Count Your Wessings

Barbenheimer has treated Cinema 21 to a special midsummer, and manager Erik McClanahan has a theory as to why Greta Gerwig’s and Christopher Nolan’s latest films have played like gangbusters at the theater when other blockbusters don’t.

“That kind of auteur mixing with the mainstream is an automatic [win] at our theater,” McClanahan says. What’s more, he has sifted through the receipts and discovered no one embodies the arthouse/mainstream crossover like Wes Anderson.

Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) was the Nob Hill theater’s biggest hit of the past decade by what McClanahan considers an uncatchable margin—thanks to a multiweek exclusivity window and a five-month engagement.

Recently, in a harsher exhibition climate, Anderson’s The French Dispatch became Cinema 21′s highest-grossing movie of the COVID era. And Anderson’s most recent film, this summer’s Asteroid City, only cleared out so Barbie and Oppenheimer could swoop in.

“If we ever don’t get one of [Anderson’s] movies, I’d be shocked,” McClanahan says.

Clinton Street Theater: Generation Weird

The Clinton is renowned for its unstoppable weekly Rocky Horror Picture Show tradition, but programmer and co-owner Susan Tomorrow was reminded of the theater’s versatility at its first screening of 2023.

After one year under new ownership with “lots of ups and downs,” the Clinton played UHF (1989) on a freezing January day. Tomorrow had no idea whether it would draw, but a packed house ensued for the Weird Al cult classic, enjoying live songs and indulging in the film’s famous Twinkie Wiener Sandwiches.

“They’re horrible; they’re against God,” Tomorrow laughs about the hot dog-Twinkie-Easy Cheese combination. Still, the screening was so successful that kids joined in, she says, a rarity at the Clinton.

“It reminded everyone on the block that we are for Rocky Horror and midnight blood and guts, but we’re also for watching a kid slam a hot dog and sing ‘Amish Paradise,’” Tomorrow says.

Cinemagic: Escape From Portland

When longtime employees Ryan Frakes and Nicholas Kuechler assumed ownership of Cinemagic in 2021, they immediately sensed that COVID-era audiences wanted escapism. That philosophy guided the theater’s staple programming—culty VHS Nights, a Hong Kong film series, John Carpenter tributes, first-run horror titles.

“These [movies] are meant to work a crowd,” Kuechler says.

But maybe, he speculates, Oppenheimer’s recent staying power signals a crowd’s willingness to be worked differently. Cinemagic enjoyed a month of audiences exiting the theater shaken by Nolan’s opus but returning for more.

Similarly, bundled with Starship Troopers and Pacific Rim in a recent monster miniseries, Shin Godzilla (2016)—with its commentary on nuclear tragedy and bureaucratic debates—handily outdrew its more raucous, better-known counterparts.

While that doesn’t mean Cinemagic is pivoting to Saló Fridays or political documentary Saturdays, Kuechler wonders whether audiences might be signaling a higher tolerance for heft.

“I suspect we’ll probably start folding in one or two more serious-minded films every week and see where people’s heads are at,” he says.

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