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Fox Venice Theater
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Tale of the Fox

by Wendy Reeves

with the kind permission of the
Free Venice Beachhead June 1978

Once upon a time - about 1968 - there was a big old-style movie theater on Lincoln Boulevard that had fallen into disrepair and disrepute.

Almost the last of its kind to be build (in 1951), the Venice movie house had been sold with the rest of the Fox West Coast chain to National General Corporation in the early '60s.

Across the street, in a rented garage, then-film-student Rol Murrow had been living "for an awfully long time," keeping an interested eye on the faltering fortune of his neighbor building.

"Eventually when I got out of film school and needed more room to work in, there happened to be a large loft space above the theater available; it had never been rented before. So I just leased the place outright and then tried to find people to fill it. Some other filmmakers came in and then a group I'd been associated with for a couple of years - a light show group called The Single Wing Turquoise Bird."

These studio-sharers formed a proprietorship: The Cumberland Mountain Film Company. A proprietorship, as contrasted with a partnership or corporation, is a very simple kind of business entity.

"Basically it was just a name around which everything else could happen; a way to keep the rent and things straight," explains Rol, also admitting, "It was a genuine anarchy."

Under the feet of these creative anarchists the Fox Venice Theater was having hard times.

"National General really wanted to run a neighborhood house but they were never able to succeed. We would occasionally go downstairs to catch a movie and there'd be 2 or 3 people in the auditorium. Sometimes they closed at 9 when nobody bothered to show up. So they stopped putting any money into it and the neon all started going out, and so on and so forth.

"Finally they got the idea of running exploitation product for 50 cents. They did that for about a year.

"The product was really bad - mostly violent action films. This brought in crowds mainly of teenagers looking for cheap thrills, so the theater got much rowdier."

For the Fox, it was a rapid decline from there. In early '72, National General leased the movie house to a company called National Cinema.

"They had a background in running softcore sexploitation and porno theaters," Rol recalls, "and for the 8 months they were operating the Fox Venice they ran really heavy exploitation product: mostly softcore sex films like "Women in Cages" and various AIP spectaculars, a lot of biker films, black exploitation product, and so on. They went to 99 cents after 7 p.m.

By then the theater was very very rough. I had some friends beaten up one time when they were on their way into the studio. It was the dregs."

CUMBERLAND TO THE RESCUE

Then National Cinema went bankrupt. Upstairs, some of the studio members were excited by the opportunity to do something with the theater. "We knew National General didn't particularly want it back. The fellow who had managed the place for them and 3 of us from the light show formed a corporation, Cumberland Mountain Theaters Inc., and proceeded to secure the lease. January 11th, 1973, was our first day that movies hit the screen."

Of these original 4 people, only Murrow and one other remain: Larry Janss, a constant prime force behind the Fox operation.

Though legally the corporation was small, Rol stresses that a lot of others contributed their energy and talents. "A large group that had been affiliated with the studio continued to work at the theater in various capacities. We could never have made it without them all."

Initially Cumberland went along somewhat with the demands of the Fox's existing audience.

"Our opening bill was The Magic Christian and Superfly. We toyed with that kind of exploitation product for a while until we realized that catering to a bad audience would never bring any good. Plus the films for the most part had nothing to do with enlightenment or a decent approach to social issues. So gradually we began drifting away from that."

Cumberland experimented with their programming, looking for a new image and a new audience.

"A couple of months into the operation we instituted a policy of Spanish language films on Wednesday nights; later we changed that to Sunday afternoons." These became a popular and permanent feature. "We tried children's shows on Saturdays, but with the reputation of the theater it was too difficult to get that going. We also tried a number of midnight shows."

This period helped the Cumberland organization to clarify its priorities and values.

"Most theaters at that time fell into two categories: the major theaters and neighborhood houses which ran primarily late American product on a weekly-run basis, and Fine Arts theaters which ran foreign films, also on a weekly basis.

"A couple of theaters, like the Vagabond, did interesting things in festival format, but heavily oriented toward foreign cinema, and with an attitude which was almost academic. You know: they had like the 'screening room' approach toward films."

Almost all the Cumberland people had a strong background in film or other visual media and they had definite opinions about a new way to run a movie house.

"We hoped to embody an alternative viewpoint of how films should be exhibited and how filmmakers should be treated. Also we really wanted to run a theater which wasn't stuffy.

"There was a very strong historical feeling involved in saving a neighborhood theater - a big barn of a house which definitely would have been twinned or tri-plexed if we hadn't taken it over - and we really wanted to capture the flavor of what movies had meant to people at one time. We decided to try to build an audience around the idea of films being entertaining, informative, illuminating, and socially responsible."

NEW APPROACH BLOWS MINDS

All this led to Cumberland's pioneering efforts with the daily-change or 'repertory' format, which they began that first summer. There were only three such theaters in the country then - none in Southern California.

"The idea came from a theater in San Francisco, but their programming was very commercial - second-feature kind of material. There was no slant towards political, foreign, or experimental films at all.

"It was a tremendous struggle. The distributors were not used to even thinking in terms of renting a film for a single day. And the paperwork was - still is - abysmal."

But, adds Rol, "it gave us the chance to try a wide variety of films, because something that could not bring in an audience for a week, like say Putney Swope or some of the more obscure European films, worked very well on the daily format.

"We could also bring back films which had played around and died, like Harold and Maude, Where's Poppa?, Woody Allen films and such; nobody would book them because they could not play for a week and do any business."

The distributors' reluctance soon turned into respect. "We blew their minds, literally. They just could not believe the box office figures we were turning in on these films. And it didn't kill us if we made a mistake."

One bad mistake can indeed be fatal to a theater unsupported by a large chain. Almost all the neighborhood houses - particularly the single-theater variety - are folding. Roll tells how it happens:

"With the way competition is now, it's a seller's market; the terms are very very expensive. All you've got to do is bid 30 to 100 thousand dollars for a movie to play a week with option to extend and have it die the first week, and then you're scrambling for something to put in the other weeks and wondering where you'll get the money - you've already paid the distributor for the one that bombed, they all have to be paid up front - and there goes another neighborhood movie house.

"We got away from tha t- we were playing product that nobody wanted to rent so we got it relatively inexpensively. It was a whole new game, in our own ballpark."

CHALLENGES AND GROWTH

As with many a long-term commitment, the first year was the hardest. Everybody in the organization except the union janitors got paid $1.65 an hour. "That was everybody," says Rol, "and mostly the corporation people only charged for 40 hours, even though it was very often over a 100-hour work week - very often."

To advertise its daily change of program and make the public aware of its new policy, Cumberland began printing monthly flyers listing names, dates, and times of films. This evolved into their well-know program calendar, which last month reached a 90,000 distribution throughout the Los Angeles area.

Visually impressive, with concise critical comments on every film, these calendars have been eagerly read, widely admired, and even collected. One fan saved several years' worth and used them to decoupage the walls of her kitchen.

The Fox's new audience became well-established - "more of a counter-culture, cinema-loving audience." The hoods and their cohorts were forced to other haunts.

"We made the environment so uncool for the hoodlums to thrive in that they have taken their games elsewhere, because we really do maintain a tight watch on our parking lots, on the streets either side, on the theater itself; we're very careful."

Cumberland's success with the repertory format inspired other theaters to join the game, and the Fox Venice no longer has the ballpark to themselves. Currently there are about seven such movie houses in the LA area and approximately 60 in the whole country, with more in the planning.

"We get people in all the time saying 'I know a theater that's doing poorly, I want to take it over and turn it into a community theater like the Fox Venice, how do I do it?' And you sit down, you run down the riff, let them look at the theater, see how it operates, tell them the pitfalls and everything," Rol laughs."We should really write a book."

Despite growing competition which is making the economics of the game ever more challenging, the Cumberland group is happy to have started a trend and to serve as a model daily-change house.

"We don't just serve the Venice community; we intended to serve the film-going community wherever they are, and we feel we've done this. We admire all the theaters that have emulated us for going on to try something new, instead of folding and being turned into a builder's emporium or whatever."

Not everything worked out as desired however. One goal that had to be set aside was that of functioning as a collective, with all concerned contributing equally to policy decisions. This proved incompatible with survival in the context of the industry and our society.

"Originally we really wanted to go that way, but we ran into a lot of conflict between running a business - with people coming in and putting down money that goes through all the usual channels, and the government transactions, and employer/employee problems, and taxes, and everything else - and the wish to have people participate in decisions. With so many different kinds of commitment from different people, where do the decisions come from, where does the direction come from?"

Today these decisions are made mainly by Murrow, Janss, and programming director Michael Donnelly - but Rol emphasizes that they're based on a policy formed when there were many others involved. "It's remaining fairly true to those kind of ideas."

Though a collective system proved unfeasible, the Fox is still not structured enough for some. "There are people who come to work for us that just can't stand it. They rebel against the sort of anarchistic way things are done. Others are too independent and don't like being responsible to one another." Yet for many "it's a remarkable place to work. The camaraderie and the whole feeling here is really very very good - for the ones who like it."

Right now there are about 25 people who do like it at the Fox; seven or eight full-time employees and the rest part-time.

"It varies. A lot of people work very heavily for a week or two and then they'll be off - for instance, those who help with live shows, or calendar distribution."

Work hours per week have shrunk to "between 40 and 60, sometimes 70" and pay has risen to a reasonable level, though "it's nothing to write home about," concedes Rol.

"We do pay higher than most theaters for floor staff. Usually they sit on minimum wage and never get anything else; managers are very underpaid. We're fairly generous in this regard."

Some Cumberland members are highly-skilled in the industry and could make up to five times as much money doing camera work, sound recording, or editing - but the Fox is more important.

"It's definitely a labor of love for a lot of people, 'cause the pay is just simply not that high. Almost everything goes back into the theater and into the problems we have with prints - which is a whole chapter by itself."

And a fascinating one. So here it is, everything you always wanted to know about....

PROJECTION QUALITY AND PRINTS

People very often complain about what they see on the screen, says Rol, "and we wish they'd complain more - to the ones responsible.

"The problem really lies in the fact that the distributors do not exercise diligence in tracking down exhibitors who mangle prints mercilessly on machinery which, however new it is, is improperly cared for.

"A print should last years with proper care but I've gone to Westwood in the second week of a brand-new first-run movie and seen the print already scratched, dirty, oil-mottled, and improperly projected - out of focus, out of frame, with incorrect changeovers."

Automated projection equipment, very much in use in newer theaters, especially the multiple cinemas, causes problems for non-automated houses like the Fox.

"There's no way you can tell by looking at a print whether reel #1is reel 1 or reel 3, and so on and so forth. It takes careful inspection to even tell which ends are heads and tails.

"Many houses will take the film off its shipping reels and splice it all together into one long film, in order to run it through their automated equipment.

"Then they take it off after the show closes and just cut at random points rather than where the original changeovers were, slapping the leaders on with no attention to whether they're on the right reels or not - and we end up with the result.

"All films are graded by condition," explains Rol. "Condition 1 is perfect, condition 2 has a certain number of splices but is acceptable, condition 3 is getting pretty ratty. We won't accept a condition 4 and very rarely a condition 3 product."

Some films are also unacceptable to the Fox management because of censoring - the best example being a print of Women in Love with the nude wrestling sequence discreetly snipped out.

"If we find we've been sent a condition 3 print, we get on the phone and start calling all the exchanges (centralized film storage and shipping companies) trying to locate a better print. If we can't, we try to get 2 prints in from the distributor and then we combine them so they end up with one print that's terrible but one which is good. They're supposed to do that - part of the rental fee is theoretically for print inspection and repair - but they just will not pay for that to be done regularly enough.

"If they were willing to police the exhibitors, they would have the money for replacement prints, because when an exhibitor ruined a print, they'd charge it to them" Rol shakes his head; "Some exhibitors are notorious for damaging prints."

If a print is damaged at the Fox, someone from Cumberland calls the distributor to alert them to the fact and offer to purchase replacement sections.

"This happened recently and they were flabbergasted that any exhibitor would bother to call up and report damage. I think it was the first time it had ever happened to them." Such scrupulous behavior has naturally earned Cumberland an excellent reputation in the industry.

Older films such as those shown in repertory cinema are especially neglected, and, says Rol, it's again a matter of economics.

"Distributors don't get the joy of making the films and they don't get to see an audience coming to view them. They basically function as a clearing house - a very mechanical kind of job.

"So by and large their only satisfaction comes from seeing how much green stuff they can get rolling in the front door and how little they can see rolling out the back. Primarily they go for the newest most prestigious biggest box office hit. They pay very little attention to their old films."

Dan McNay is the Fox's chief projectionist, and has held this demanding job for three years. "He's very good, very committed to quality presentation.

"We also have three relief projectionists and a full-time film inspector. No other theater does that, nobody can afford to do it, but we do; it's the only way.

Our film inspector spends infinite amounts of time going through every foot of every film, feeling it with his fingers for bad splices, checking all the leaders trying to see they're on right, and so on. It's quite a job."

Dirty prints are cleaned in their own cleaning machine, something no other theater even has.

Rol continues, some frustration with this part of the business noticeable in his voice."I'm not saying nothing ever goes wrong on the screen; there are some nights that are just nightmares. But what the audience doesn't realize is how many nightmares are narrowly averted.

"Things like one of our people flying back from San Francisco with a replacement print and arriving five minutes before it hits the screen."

Cumberland ships replacement prints in from all over the country, at their own expense.

"The only thing they do is give you the print from the local exchange and that is it. If it's bad, you figure out how to get a better one. It's horrible, very expensive.

"We could save an awful lot of money by putting on whatever comes in and letting it go at that. We've chosen not to do this because we have hoped that over time our audience would recognize that there is a distinct difference between the way a film hits the screen here and the way it hits the screen elsewhere. There are those who make the distinction;" (sighing) "there are many who don't."

ILLUSIONS VRS. FACT

Rol believer many people are under the illusion that Cumberland runs more than one theater. "We don't. And some of the repertory houses belong to chains; they have tremendous booking power that we don't have.

"People don't realize that when they choose to go out of their community to see a feature which we also show, at a theater we're in competition with, they're making it harder for us to survive and make our own theater better."

Another illusion people have about the Fox, Rol says, is that it is always sold out and making huge profits. Not true.

"Because of the large staff and special attention to prints and all, it requires better than two-thirds of a house to break even on any given night. At two-thirds full, the place looks sold out; it's hard to find seats, the parking lot may be full, and so on. When we have a night like that, there's perhaps 600 people who walk away thinking 'they're always jampacked.' But when only 50 people show up, there's only 50 who go home thinking 'Wow, the movie was really empty tonight.'

"It takes half a dozen complete sell-outs to make up for one empty night - and sellouts are very rare. We can almost always fit everybody in."

He encourages Fox-goers to use the suggestion box: "it is read very avidly." The programming process is staggeringly complex - an all-day everyday job for Michael Donnelly - and based on many things, including the fact that a theater usually has to play two films from the same distributor. Despite this, the Fox folks respond to audience input as much as possible. Rol especially urges people who request 'non-commercial' films to make the effort to get out and see them when they play.

"People all the time say, 'Why don't you run this obscure European film or political film?' and so on. The fact is we run them and 200 people show up and we lose a lot or money. It takes many Rock Horror Picture Shows to make up the difference.

"Then we hear 'Why do you run Rocky Horror every month?" Well, it keeps the doors open. And a lot of kids have a good time."

RHPS has become a total cult experience at the Fox Venice, where a group of fans in costume dance and lip-synch the parts while the sound system goes full force.

The Fox by the way has an excellent 4-track magnetic sound system. "We pride ourselves on having good sound. Whenever we run music films, we turn up all the stage speakers and amplifiers and present it as a virtual wall of sound."

Notifying the staff of problems in the theater is a tremendous help to them: any problem, from obnoxious babblers to drinking or smoking (the Fox asks that you have your hand stamped and step outside to do either) to broken toilets to out-of-focus films. "We do our best to avoid these kinds of things and work hard to keep every aspect of the theater proper, but it really helps to get rapid feedback. The faster we hear about it, the faster we can fix it."

FUTURE PLANS

What changes are brewing at the Fox? Well, the calendar is going to a2-month format with film graphics and notes on the front and a media newsletter on the back. And yes, prices will go up to $2.50, "probably before very long" admits Rol. "We struggle to keep them as low as possible but it's inevitable now with so much competition."

On a happier note, Rol says, "We'd really like to see much more community involvement with the theater; say by groups of young filmmakers for example, who wish to have certain programs shown - if they'll take some responsibility for how the programs will work financially and really support the project."

Tom Ruch, a former Fox staffer who has recently returned, is beefing up the experimental film programming, as reflected in this month's calendar.

Also beginning this month, the Fox will have regular and permanent repertory programming on Sunday evenings, keeping Spanish films during the day.

More live concerts and theatrics are coming up too. "We're trying to bring top-quality entertainment to this end of town in a more intimate setting than the Santa Monica Civic. McCabe's is an excellent place for that but they can only handle groups up to a certain size. We want to fill a niche somewhere between these two. The Fox is a great house for it; the stage is a thrust stage, practically in the audience's lap; very flexible."

Toni Basil's Follies Bizarre is the big show for June and possibly July. "She's very well known among media people and just on the verge of making it big under her own name. It'll be quite a show, unlike anything anybody's ever seen before."

Of special interest is a new media bookstore opening next door, which will be run by longtime Fox associate Remy Abrams, with rare books and editing supplies for film editors, as well as coffee and cookies.

Lastly, "We're bit by bit undergoing a renovation of the building, inside and out - generally trying to spruce the place up and make it nicer for summer and all the special shows."

Are we just lucky to have a creative, dedicated, and neighborly theater like the Fox? Or could it be related to the fact that Venice is one of the few real communities in smoggy sprawling LA?

Whatever the reason, we all benefit.

Long live the Fox!

 

© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman
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