Quick: what was the first film to put the Media Arts Center’s Digital Gym on the map? Having to answer that question produced the first of two blushes from the organization’s founding father and guiding light, Ethan Van Thillo. “To this day,” he said with a shrug, “The Interview is the highest grossing film to play this movie theatre. It’s unfortunate, because it’s a mainstream film and we’d rather be known for independent fare.”
Controversy surrounded the release of the 2014 comedy about a pair of would-be assassins assigned the task of taking out Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. A group of anonymous terrorists threatened to attack theaters that screened the film, leading to a haphazard booking pattern that gifted the Gym with an exclusive Christmas Day opening.
“The risk paid off,” Van Thillo said as a smile spread across his face. “We were on every radio and TV station in town. It was great support.” Brand awareness is essential, but as Van Thillo was quick to point out, “it’s great that people know we exist, but ultimately individuals who want to see that type of film are not likely to be repeat customers. In order to survive, we need community partners and other film festivals to take ownership of the space.”
The Media Arts Center is eight years into a ten-year lease, and this month marks the five-year anniversary of the Digital Gym Cinema. “That’s an interesting development for us as a space,” he adds. “Two years, and we might potentially have to find a new place, because North Park is being redeveloped. People are building condos like crazy here.” Any chance of turning the vacant Thrift Trader at the corner of 30th and El Cajon into the Digital Gym East? Taking a moment to grin again, Van Thillo said, “We don’t know what the owners of this place will want to eventually do, but the Thrift Trader down the street is part of the challenge. It’s no longer an issue of availability. They’re asking triple the normal rate.”
It’s more than just movies. Van Thillo has become a leader of the community. El Cajon Blvd. was in steep decline-mode when the Media Arts Center took up residence. Hookers greeted Sunday morning drivers on the way to and from church. The era provided the first time I can recall a Starbucks closing. Modesty aside, Van Thillo noted, “it was a combined effort of the El Cajon Business Improvement Association, the City Department, and other small businesses working together. It shows you the power of an art space like ours to help bring in the community.” The Digital Gym has become San Diego’s one-stop shop for all things cinema: in addition to screening movies, the MACSD holds youth media education programs that offer hands-on classes in filmmaking for kids and teens.
Blush #2: when first we met for our inaugural interview to christen the space, Van Thillo rankled at the thought of showing classic movies. His crimson cheeks now speak the truth: “Ultimately, Moisés Esparza is the curator and I trust his judgement.” There was a time when telenovela-type comedies helped to pay the rent, but that content is currently playing at an AMC near you. Audiences are slowly but surely turning out for repertory screenings, and you have ace curator Esparza to thank.
After the 29-year-old native received his BA in film studies and theory at Columbia University, Esparza was on the prowl for a position that, “mixed my passion for film with a curatorial gig that allowed me to share my love of film with the community.” Five years ago, Esparza joined the Latino FIlm Festival as an intern, not knowing what the future had in store. “It was a position that I kind of grew into,” he recalls. Esparza cut his teeth programming first shorts and then features for the festival. He watched and learned from the Gym’s previous programmers who had brought him along, and when his number came up, Esparza “was able to pick up the reins, in a sense.”
Esparza curates the films that play the Gym, as well as those at the Latino Film Festival. That amounts to close to 300 titles a year. He has spent the past three years working hard to find and build an audience. His biggest learning experience as a curator has been in not allowing his personal taste to get in the way of title selection. “I now know not to program for myself,” he confesses. “Showing films that I felt needed to find an audience… it was a selfish mistake that I kept making.” His selections were met with low audience turnout (and high critical praise). He learned early on that, “experimental for the sake of experimentalism isn’t always beneficial, and for film to exist as a valid art form there has to be an audience for it. Since then, I think I have been able to come up with somewhat of a formula for the films that the San Diego community wants to see.”
Van Thillo credits two factors with last year’s steady rise in attendance: “We now have a full time marketing and PR person on staff reaching out to various local organizations to help cross-promote our programs. The other thing is Moisés’s decision to start screening second-run art house films, which have done quite well for us.” A week of programming at the Gym will generally consist of three offerings: an exclusive presentation of an independent film from a smaller distributor, a second-run offering that’s outlived its time at Landmark or the Angelika, and perhaps a genre film — film noir has become a mainstay this year — or a community partnering with a film festival.
Esparza’s aim is to tap into titles that come with a built-in buzz, that have international hype going — films that have garnered awards at various festivals. I listen as Van Thillo dreams in my language. “Imagine if a distributor would purchase newspaper ads,” he laughs. “We’re dealing with films and distributors that have no ad or local marketing support.”
To celebrate the five year mark, Esparza has put together a week of classics. Included in the package are Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Child’s Play, Funny Girl, Lost in Translation, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and The Red Shoes. Join me on July 12 when I introduce the 3:40 showing of the sparking DCP restoration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Technicolor landmark. For a complete list of screening times, visit mediaartscenter.org.