In the Wake of Cinefamily's Closing, Female Programmers Are Filling the Void
Ted Soqui

In the Wake of Cinefamily's Closing, Female Programmers Are Filling the Void

As one of Cinefamily’s earliest employees, Suki-Rose Simakis programmed what she describes as its first female-oriented screening series, a monthly pajama party that sought to create a safe space by banning men from the building. When she left her job in 2012, feeling dejected from working in an environment that several former staffers have now described — in this publication and others — as being hostile to women, she thought she might never program a film series again. “I kind of put out the candle on that part of my life,” she says. “I was like, ‘I don't program anymore. I’m done, I’m over it.’”

But after Cinefamily closed its doors in August to launch an internal investigation following allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct — and after the theater earlier this month announced its decision to shut down permanently — Simakis began to wonder if there was space for her after all in the independent film community. At about the same time, she’d heard from another former Cinefamily staffer, KJ Relth, who was creating a new screening series about working women for her current employer, the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Relth enlisted Simakis to help program a segment of the project, which will debut in February with presentation help from the gender advocacy organization Women in Film.

Relth says the series is an opportunity not just to examine on-screen depictions of career women but also to investigate "the set as a workplace, and how that can sometimes bring on situations like Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K. or whoever.”

The subject matter is timely, given the rash of sexual harassment and assault allegations that have rocked Hollywood in the months following Cinefamily’s implosion, drawing parallels between the problems at the local art-house theater and those plaguing the wider film industry. Relth’s UCLA series is one of several upcoming film initiatives led by programmers, and women in particular, who feel emboldened to help fill the void left by Cinefamily. To many of these programmers, the theater's demise isn’t so much an occasion for mourning — as plenty of moviegoers have been doing on social media lately — as it is an opportunity to reinvent and diversify the indie film scene in Los Angeles.

To them, the question is not about what type of film organization might inhabit the old Cinefamily building but about how programmers can work to foster a more inclusive, collaborative film community throughout the city.
“I see collaboration as the way out of this cultural conundrum right now,” says Maggie Mackay, the executive director of Vidiots Foundation, the nonprofit formed in 2012 to support the now-shuttered Santa Monica video store of the same name.

Vidiots, which closed its retail location last January, is currently in the midst of a relaunch, thanks in part to a financial donation from Annapurna Pictures and consultation with Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas’ senior director of content, Jenny Jacobi. The Texas-based theater chain is opening an Alamo Drafthouse soon in downtown L.A.

“We really want to use Vidiots [as] a model for other video stores and film libraries and cultural spaces that are designed to maintain human interaction around art, and to re-inspire people to get out of their houses,” says Mackay. “I think what happens with certain film spaces is that they cater to cinephiles with a capital C, and that in and of itself can seem exclusive. I also think it has a lot to do with the cult of the programmer, that there are these big personalities in programming, but the reality is there are great programmers everywhere.”

Founded in 1985 by Cathy Tauber and Patty Polinger, Vidiots is an example of how an organization with women at the top can become more inclusive. “You can have panels and you can have discussions, you can have seminars and brainstorm, but the way that you effect real change is to put women and people of color and the underrepresented in positions of power, and then you don’t have to work so hard to shoehorn inclusivity and diversity into your spaces,” Mackay says. “If your spaces are led from the very top by people that are currently underrepresented, they'll cease to be underrepresented eventually. That's my theory.”

Mackay says that after she joined Vidiots Foundation last year, she went through its VHS collection and was surprised to find a number of birthing documentaries. They’d been acquired during the spans of time when Tauber and Polinger were pregnant. “The way that they were collecting is different than the way other video stores were put together,” Mackay says. “They opened Vidiots specifically because they weren’t finding the kind of work they were interested in watching. That work included foreign films and films made by women and people of color and the LGBT community.”

Courtney Stephens and Kate Wolf, the programmers behind the Highland Park–based screening series Veggie Cloud, expressed a similar sentiment about their idiosyncratic programming: They don’t necessarily see it as female-oriented but, because they are women, they tend to show films that reflect the female experience. “We’re interested in moving toward increased parity in showing works by women, as well as examining works by men, pornography, advertorial films and many other models,” Stephens and Wolf wrote in a joint email. “We’re interested in digging out under-seen works, but equally interested in framing familiar films or subjects in ways that reimagine their value.”

After last year’s election, for example, they responded with a screening of The Stepford Wives, which they called a classic of the “men who build artificial women” genre.

Veggie Cloud will return from its fall hiatus — its last three events were held at Cinefamily just weeks before it suspended operations — in early 2018 to serve as host for Relth and Simakis’ upcoming program. Like Mackay, they stress the importance of collaboration between venues and institutions, citing their previous collaborations with the Getty, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater and REDCAT.

As projectors and screens become increasingly portable and affordable, programmers are feeling empowered to screen movies on their own terms. The informal Feminist Horror Movie Club, for example, was founded earlier this year as a safe space to discuss the violence of horror films through the lens of gender. “In the streaming era we live in, it has become increasingly more rare to watch films with large groups of people,” Brooke Wilson, who runs the group from a co-op called Union House, wrote via email. “But horror is a communal experience, and being able to watch or re-watch a horror movie with a group of other people really frames the issues at hand in a beautiful way.”

Wilson says the club aims to foster an environment where you don't have to have a film degree to participate in a discussion about film. “I love film, but I personally have found myself in too many situations where how much someone knows about film or how many films they have seen is how people quantify their love of film,” she wrote. “I longed for college, where everything was new and there was an enthusiasm to share what you knew, as opposed to competing over who knows more.”

While some of Cinefamily’s alumni have gone on to program at places like UCLA and the American Cinematheque, others are pursuing programming opportunities in less traditional venues. Bret Berg, a former Cinefamily programmer, last spring launched the Voyager Institute, a lecture series that incorporates movies, music and pop culture. Next month, it will relaunch at the all-ages arts and music venue Non Plus Ultra. Zena Grey, a former Cinefamily manager who co-hosted the monthly Lost & Found Film Club at that theater, says she and partner Brendt Rioux are interested in relaunching the series following its yearlong hiatus.

“There is definitely an audience for ultra-niche programming,” Grey wrote via email, adding that the series also held programs at the La Brea Tar Pits and the Exploratorium in San Francisco. “We have our own portable screen, 16mm film projector, editing equipment and a curated film collection of our own — and we're willing to travel!”

Like Relth and Simakis, both Berg and Grey see Cinefamily’s departure as an opportunity to strengthen the existing film community while championing diverse perspectives.

“Every single person in my life in the [film] community at some point came through that space,” Simakis says, acknowledging the massive impact that Cinefamily had on her community. “I don't think that was a unique-to-Cinefamily thing. I think that was a unique-to–film community thing.”

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