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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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."
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
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!