By Ian Lovett, 2/25/2010
In 2007, Quentin Tarantino released “Grindhouse”, a double feature film he made in collaboration with several other directors. The film gave modern audiences the experience of attending one of the 1970s low-budget theatres that Tarantino himself used to patronize, which would low-budget, second-run movies, often on grainy film, or with reels missing.
What audiences did not know at the time, however, was that in that same year, Tarantino also undertook another effort to keep grindhouse film culture alive, by purchasing the building that houses the New Beverly Cinema, on Beverly Boulevard, so that the theatre could stay in operation.
The Torgan family has owned and operated the one-screen cinema since 1978, running old movies and double features, Tarantino said he began coming to watch at the New Beverly in the early 1980s.
“I was eight years old when my family bought the building,” said Michael Torgan, who has worked at the theatre on-and-off since he was 19, and now runs the operation. “It’s always been this exact same format, using the same template that we used in May of 1978, with the same calendar design, the same header.”
For the first 25 of the theatre’s 32 years, Torgan said the theatre was a success story.
“You’re never going to get rich running a single screen theatre,” he said. “But it had its niche and was quite popular, crowded almost every night.”
One of the movies that the theatre played was “Reservoir Dogs”, Tarantino’s first film. For several years in the mid-1990’s, the film ran every Saturday night at midnight. At the first regular screening, Tarantino brought most of the cast with him to the theatre for an impromptu question and answer session.
But in 2002, Torgan said business dropped suddenly and dramatically — at least 50 percent. Like many other independent theatres, the New Beverly was in crisis, operating at a loss for five years.
In 2006, Tarantino approached Torgan’s father, Sherman Torgan, and said he wanted to help. He looked at the theatre’s books, and he covered the difference between expenses and revenue so the business wouldn’t sink. When Sherman Torgan died suddenly the following year, Tarantino bought the building, becoming the New Beverly’s landlord and continuing to provide the financial support to help keep the theatre in operation.
The operation of the theatre has not changed. Torgan still owns and runs the business. Five nights a week, he works as part of the three-person staff that puts on the nightly double features, selling tickets at the window, or running outside to get more paper cups from his car. But Tarantino has undertaken important repairs and upgrades to the facility, though the basic look of the theatre remains unchanged.
“Basically, it’s always looked like this,” Torgan said. “But we’ve upgraded the electricity, resurfaced the ceiling, we’re having the front of the theatre restored, and the marquee is going to be restored, all courtesy of the landlord.”
Not all independent theatres have been as lucky as the New Beverly. Just a couple blocks down the street, the Fairfax Regency Theatre is closed because some tiles fell in from the roof during the recent rainstorms. That theatre’s landlord has declined to make repairs, and is hoping to knock down the building and put up a mixed-use development.
Jack Kyser, a founding economist of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, said he expects to see more independent theatres turning to charities and non-profits to stay in operation.
“It’s a tough economic environment for independent theaters,” Kyser said. “Major chains have invested in state-of-the-art equipment, especially 3-D. Another issue is the shortening of time between theatre release and DVD release. If the theatres don’t have a niche, it’s very difficult from them to stay in business. Some of the sites are in very good locations, and often they’re worth more as real estate than as an operating theatre. If someone is interested in serving as a patron, that makes life a little easier.”
In addition to helping fund and refurbish the theatre’s operations, Tarantino’s guest appearances also helped change the New Beverly’s business model. The theatre now gets directors to “guest curate,” choosing the films that will be shown for the week and coming to discuss them.
On Monday night, film students Andrew Furtado and John Mackin lined up on the sidewalk outside the theatre at 5:00pm for the 7:30pm double feature, which also included an introduction from Oscar-nominated director Jason Reitman. The two had lined up the previous night as well, but along with about 50 others, didn’t make it into the sold-out show.
“I started getting into older movies because of theatres like this,” Mackin said. “It’s an audience of film lovers. Even old eighties movies, everyone laughing and making fun of them in the crowd. That’s the kind of audience you want to watch with.”
Further back in the line, Matt Vasquez, who works as a projectionist at Regal Cinemas, drives to the New Beverly from Whittier at least four times a month. He calls his current job the best one he’s ever had, but worried that soon he would have to look for a new one.
“My theater is slowly going all digital, which they can control downstairs,” Vasquez said. “When that happens, they won’t need projectionists anymore. I hope people still know how to do projection work in twenty years, but it will probably just be in places like this. I think in L.A. these places will always be around, because movies are such a big part of the culture here, but I feel bad for the rest of the country where they’re not going to have this.”
Torgan agrees that long term, independent cinemas may have to find external financial support. Still, he’s glad he can help keep a part of film history alive.
“It certainly seems that practically every venue that does this kind of programming has gone the non-profit route, funded by outside sources beyond box office revenue,” he said. “But there’s always been a core group of regulars, it’s just shrunk a bit over the years. And it’s gratifying to be part of something that people appreciate and love and we have a fantastic arrangement with our landlord that makes that possible.”