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South Bay Was an Art House Film Desert. Then Randy Berler Came Along

SBFS founder Randy Berler at a recent screening
SBFS founder Randy Berler at a recent screening

Growing up in Torrance, I saw countless movies at the AMC Rolling Hills. It's where I was first exposed to such hallmarks of my youth as The Matrix, Lord of the Rings and Kill Bill, and I doubt I'll ever see more movies at any single theater. What I didn't see a lot of there -- it is an AMC in the suburbs, after all -- were foreign and independent titles. Since last summer, the South Bay Film Society has been working to change that by exhibiting the sort of fare that's usually confined to the art house: The Hunt, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Short Term 12, Museum Hours, and Beyond the Hills, among others.

The crazy part? Almost every single one of these one-off screenings has sold out. In some cases, SBFS has had to add extra screenings to accommodate demand. Most of these films make it to Torrance after their initial runs in West L.A. and Santa Monica, but the documentary Blood Brother actually played there first.

Randy Berler, the man behind the SBFS curtain, wouldn't appear to be the most likely candidate for such a position. A retiree who served as the planning director of Redondo Beach until 2008, his reason for founding the organization was simple: He got tired of sitting in traffic for upwards of an hour to see a movie and decided to do something about it. "The South Bay has a large, well-educated population, and it made no sense to me that foreign films and many excellent independent films never come to this area," he says. Hear, hear.

In spring 2012, Berler started off small, with a screening of Krzysztof Kieślowski's 1994 Red at the AMC Rolling Hills, organized through TUGG, a company that lets audiences create their own movie screening events.

He figured that this maiden screening was mostly useful as a way of finding his sea legs. "The thought occurred to me that if I could show there was an audience, maybe I could convince a local theater to start booking the foreign and independent films that interested me."

This didn't quite happen -- Berler realized in the midst of organizing that first event that the only way to continue the series was by continuing to do so himself. Still, it paid off.

AMC Rolling Hills, the largest (occasional) art house theater in L.A.
AMC Rolling Hills, the largest (occasional) art house theater in L.A.
Photo by Susan Slade Sanchez

"In a short amount of time all 216 seats were sold," he says. "There was obviously huge support for the idea that we could attract new foreign and independent films to the big screen in the South Bay."

At the Red screening, Berler announced that tickets were already on sale for a second event: a screening of the Academy Award-nominated Monsieur Lazhar. That sold out within two days, so he booked a second screen, which also sold out. Yet another screening, this one of the even more small-scale The Matchmaker, played on three screens simultaneously for a combined audience of 530 people. Berler immediately started reserving two screens for each event, usually for a total of 360 or so people.

Berler credits these early successes to a couple articles in local papers and simple word of mouth. After realizing he no longer needed to use TUGG as a middleman, his approach became even more hands-on. "For the past year I directly book films from distributors, rent two rooms at the AMC Rolling Hills for each screening, and sell the tickets in advance through PayPal," he explains. The audience skews older, and social media plays a minimal role in promoting individual events -- Berler mostly keeps people informed via a simple website and email announcements.

"The interesting thing I have discovered is that essentially I have created a community theater," he adds. "The showings are not spread out over weeks like for most movies. People coming to my shows see their friends at these one-night screenings and they make new friends." Some of them even stick around for post-film discussions.

SBFS has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. Aftermath plays this Wednesday, with Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty following it on January 8th and The Rocket on January 23. "The audience is so appreciative," Berler adds, "and that is the main reason I continue to do this despite the many hours of work I did not anticipate doing in my retirement."


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