In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story.
There has been a bit of a shake-up in the Los Angeles repertory cinema scene recently. As detailed in a previous article on this blog, the beloved New Beverly Cinema, a LA institution and a treasured touchstone for cinephiles everywhere, has had a rather surprising change of management. According to reports from Deadline, the LA Weekly and others, the Torgan Family, owners of the New Beverly Cinema since 1978, will no longer be running the show. In their place, Quentin Tarantino, landlord since 2007, will be taking control of the theater as his own.
In looking at all of the press surrounding this, the one thing that has been conspicuously absent is the voice and perspective of the owner of the New Beverly Cinema: Michael Torgan. While the more eagle-eyed readers of these articles may have noticed that Michael reached out in order to correct comment inaccuracies, he was previously hesitant to speak to anyone or discuss some of the major issues that the film community seems to be most concerned about in this transitory time.
As readers of my blog may know, the New Beverly has been a significant feature in my film education and career path. Without this theater, it is unlikely that I would be so passionate about the two things I work the most with: 35mm film and classic cinema. As a result, I tracked Michael Torgan down and begged him to sit with me and discuss some of the issues that are being confused in the press and get a handle on what being the owner of the New Beverly Cinema has really been about for him.
If you have ever been to the New Beverly, you will know that Michael may not be the most outspoken person but he is unquestionably knowledgable and above all, kind and inviting. What Michael and I agreed upon for this article was that it would consist of two things: written statement and approved transcribed interview. When you see the italicized words, those are from the written statement that I received from him. It summarized many of his thoughts on the theater’s changeover in a way that he preferred. I will actively say that the difference between the words that I took on my recorder in answer to each question and those which he sent me were minimally different if at all. So with that, I would like to state once again, this article was my idea and any words written by me are mine and do not reflect my employer’s or any organization that I happen to be involved with.
Thank you for reading.
So, Michael. There seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding about the way in which the New Beverly Cinema works as a business entity in relation to Quentin Tarantino as a landlord. I think many people may think that owning the building means owning the business as well. Could you explain this a little bit?
Well, it’s a concept that gets confused often. And it gets frustrating for me because I can’t go out there and yell, “No! That’s not how it is!” because it is more complicated than a simple landlord/tenant relationship. But basically just like your apartment, you don’t actually own the building that you are renting your apartment from but you do own your apartment. In a sense, you are the tenant of your apartment and that’s the way it was with the theater. There was no co-mingling of our funds; there was no sale of the business at all. The ownership of the theater didn’t change at all; the only change was that the president of the corporation who ran it passed away [referring to his father, Sherman Torgan, who passed away in 2007] and his son assumed that position as the president. But nothing changed. We always had a landlord. We had a landlord in 1978 and that landlord changed in 2007 but the business didn’t change hands.
There has been discussion about how the entrance of Tarantino as the new landlord in 2007 may have had an effect on the financials of the New Beverly and your ability to support yourself as an independent repertory house. Can you discuss this a bit?
Sometime in 2006, maybe 10 months before my dad died, Quentin got word that the New Beverly was struggling. Business really had dropped considerably around 2002 as DVDs and home theaters became more and more common. Back in the mid 90s, business was actually very good. Attendance typically hovered in the 85 to 200 people-a-night range, and it was pretty easy to get over a 100 people a night. By 2006, we could still pack the theater with the right film, but so many other films that used to be sure things were suddenly getting audiences of under 50 people, often dipping into the very troubling 25 range. It seemed that audience tastes and viewing habits had definitely changed, seemingly overnight. This was the same time that record stores and book stores saw precipitous dips in their business and started closing in record numbers. The digital age had changed things.
Quentin didn’t want the New Beverly to close, so he approached my dad with an offer to help us meet the shortfall. My dad determined that the theater was potentially losing around $5,000 a month under the current circumstances, and Quentin very heroically and generously offered to make up this difference behind the scenes. This is not to say my dad was by any means broke. The theater had provided him a nice living for over 20 years, my mom worked full-time all those years, and my parents had a house, and savings in the bank. Quentin gave the theater a new lease on life, and his $5,000 monthly contribution was enough for us to pay the theater’s rent and a little bit of its additional expenses, say, the electric bill, which averages $1,000 a month.
When my dad died suddenly, I quit my job and decided to keep the theater going. Within a few weeks of my dad’s death, our landlord of 29 years received an offer from a real estate investor to purchase the building. By the time my landlord informed me of this, the building was already in escrow. Sensing that the new buyer had eyes to redevelop the property into retail space once my lease was up, my mom and I informed Quentin’s office of what was happening, and, without going into specifics, Quentin was willing and able to buy the building to save both my business and the building’s use as a movie theater.
I inherited my dad’s arrangement with Quentin, and Quentin continued to supplement the business with $5,000 checks every month. I essentially used that money in the same way as it was being used before, except now the rent money was going to Quentin, so basically he was letting us occupy his building rent free, which of course took a huge load off of the business and allowed it to operate without losing large sums of money. We were extremely lucky.
Without in any way trivializing Quentin’s very substantial financial contribution to the theater ($5,000 a month over the course of 7 or 8 years is a HUGE amount of money for a single person to donate to any cause, and I actually felt very guilty and funny accepting it), I do want to make clear that the theater was still substantially surviving on its own. It costs at least $30,000 to keep the theater open, probably closer to $35,000 or more (film rental fees, film shipping, employee payroll, taxes and fees, permits, costs of goods, and all kinds of miscellaneous expenses), and, short of Quentin’s considerable donation, I was footing that monthly expense entirely on my own as the business owner. I was not relying on any other funding like membership fees, membership donations, corporate or government grants or anything else. The theater still very much was an independent family business, very much reliant on its nightly box office grosses.
And the box office prices have pretty much stayed consistent over the years, right?
Yes. I raised the prices maybe once in the last seven years but they’ve stayed the same: $8 for a double feature, which is kind of crazy. It’s unheard of really. What people may not understand is that the cost to rent repertory titles has gone up so tremendously in the last 7 years. So a double feature can cost, at the low-end, $250, but more likely is that the double-feature that you’re seeing costs somewhere between $5-900 and that doesn’t include shipping. It’s a very expensive proposition. Having the subsidy from Quentin Tarantino probably partially allowed me to keep the prices low, but not by much.
So let’s talk a little bit about what seems to be ruffling some feathers. The idea that since there had been digital equipment bought, the New Beverly Cinema was going digital as a preferred method of projection. First of all, how was the digital equipment financed? It’s not cheap to buy that kind of stuff.
I paid for it myself. I basically had cleared a very huge portion of my personal savings and I bought it. I didn’t have the energy to go through Kickstarter like a lot of theaters have…similar theaters in our same position have raised large sums of money through Kickstarter but I didn’t have the energy and I just felt funny about doing it so I just did it. I just bit the bullet. I figured that over 5 years it would pay for itself through rentals. A lot of people want to rent the theater for private screenings of their independent films so that combined with what it opened up the theater for just in terms of general programming? I figured that it would make sense over the long-term. It was a very substantial amount of money to spend at once.
Can you expand a little bit on what your intentions were in regards to bringing it in for general programming needs? I think there has been some confusion about that.
In April of this year, I came to the conclusion that to in order to survive I had to add a digital projector to my booth alongside the 35mm projectors. More and more, I was finding that the kinds of newer films the New Beverly always played alongside the usual mix of repertory titles simply were no longer being released in 35mm. Distributors like Magnolia, IFC, Rialto, etc., etc., stopped making 35mm prints for their new releases last year. Magnolia told me that TO THE WONDER would be their final 35mm release; IFC told me that FRANCES HA would be theirs; the restoration of ALPHAVILLE was digital-only; Paramount was the first major studio to announce it had stopped making 35mm prints for major new releases; and so on and so on. I was also constantly getting requests from filmmakers and film festivals to rent the theater, and I was having to rent a digital projector at $500 a night to accommodate these rentals, and repeatedly having to help lug a very heavy piece of equipment up and down those booth stairs.
I was tired of doing that, and I determined that it would just make sense to finally bite the bullet and purchase a digital projector of my own. Every single repertory venue in the entire country had already done it, and I didn’t see why the New Beverly should be any different. So I made the tough decision to take a major portion of my life savings out of the bank, and I purchased a Christie 4K digital projector, server, and the required digital cinema sound processor. The projector was installed on May 5th, coincidently the theater’s 36th birthday. The cost of the projector was a huge sum of money, way more than I’ve ever spent on anything in my life.
In no way was this digital projector meant to replace 35mm exhibition at the New Beverly. I love and prefer 35mm, most of the repertory titles we screen only exist in 35mm and probably never will exist in DCPs, and I was going to continue to run primarily 35mm for as long as it was possible to do so. Without 35mm, in fact, the New Beverly wouldn’t be able to exist and would really have no reason to exist. Why and how would a repertory cinema exist without 35mm?
It just couldn’t and I’d say shouldn’t exist without 35mm. The price to rent 35mm prints has gone through the roof in recent years (in the case of one studio, the minimum cost to run a double feature suddenly went from $400 to $900, a just-about-impossible-amount-of-money to contend with for a 2-day run), but thankfully most of the studios were not taking any of their prints away as has often been misreported in the press. With the exception of one studio, the same 35mm prints that were available to rent in 2009, when most theaters were still 35mm, are still available to rent to this day. In fact, a couple of the major studios are even occasionally striking new 35mm prints of select repertory titles even though I believe there is only one lab left in the entire U.S.
The New Beverly Projection Booth, credit: Robyn Von Swank
So Michael- can you address the rumors that the theater is in a somewhat rundown state or that the prints that are shown are in a less-than-decent condition?
Well, as for the state of the theater it is certainly not rundown. We have spent a great deal of time and energy keeping it together. It’s been a combination of Quentin and myself. He spent a good amount of money to give us a new marquee and resurfaced the ceiling. On my end, as a tenant, I put a new screen in, put new speakers behind the screen, upgraded to Dolby sound, bought new projector heads (different newer ones), and put in newer seats. In 2009, we were able to get new seats from the Mann Festival in Westwood, which was shutting down. They weren’t new seats but they were newer than the ones we had. They were being offered free of charge, I just had to pay $5000 to install them in our theater.
Quentin probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars improving the building when he bought it, but I do want to make it known that all the technical, equipment-type improvements made to the theater over the past 7 years were paid for by me as the tenant (as it should be, as those are definitely the tenant’s responsibility). I purchased the new screen, the new stage drapes, the new carpet, the upgraded Dolby Digital sound, the new speakers behind the screen, the newer seats, brand new, top-of-the-line lenses., etc., etc. Before the digital projector, I put tens of thousands of dollars into the place on my own.
And print quality at the New Beverly?
Well, we are on the trusted list; we’re a reel-to-reel venue. We run everything on 2000-ft reel changeovers, we don’t ever platter prints or build them up in any way, so we’re generally able to get the very best prints from the studios. Some of the studios (not all of them, but some) have a separate set of prints. These are prints that go to platter theaters and the other set go to theaters that will not be plattering them- the museums, the archives, and most of the repertory theaters. So we get the set of prints that run at most of the top venues in the country. I mean, I see those prints, I see the labels, and they’re the same prints. Actually, in the last 15 years, the prints have been better than ever, which is a great irony considering. You know, there’s hundreds of thousands of titles that are not available on 35mm, which has nothing to do with digital, they’re just not available anymore. But it seemed like the studios were refreshing their inventories just within the last 15 years so suddenly titles that used to only be available in faded, scratched prints were suddenly available in beautiful prints so…
What were your responsibilities as the owner of the New Beverly Cinema? Besides the obvious things people may have seen you do, like working the box office or the concession stand?
*Laughs a bit* Short of projecting? I guess a bit of everything really. Picking up prints. I put a lot of miles on my car picking up prints. It’s one of the ways we were able to survive is because we didn’t use a courier service. I just did a lot of things myself. So buying supplies for the concession stand, programming the calendar, payroll, changing the marquee, bills and paperwork…so it was a full-time job. I was probably there or spent about 60 hours a week at the theater.
Thank you so much for speaking with me, Michael. The New Beverly Cinema has been a very special place for so many of us, and it wouldn’t have been without you!
There were some things that we couldn’t discuss and I didn’t press him on them. That’s the way it goes, right?
But the last thing that I want to say about Michael Torgan is that he is one of my Film Heroes. Let me tell you why.
I programmed a fundraiser film series at the New Bev during grad school that celebrated 35mm film, specifically. Michael was kind enough to make sure that my Student Film Archivist group raised a good amount of money. By allowing me to have this series and guiding me, I was trained as a film programmer, event planner and social media “person.” I have always been very outgoing but in doing this and engaging with Michael, I learned about print availability, pricing and many other critical exhibition details.
While most people in my Archival Studies Program had internships at film and audio labs, I would argue that I interned at one of the best places in town: the New Beverly Cinema. Did I get credit in my program for it? No. I didn’t think about submitting my experience for credit. That seemed so inconsequential when I thought about how much Michael Torgan taught me about exhibition. It’s the one thing I can babble about in the morning before COFFEE and that’s saying something!
I knew Michael on a training level. While I was looking to learn about exhibition, he would instruct me. He would shake his head and smile gently, “No, Ariel, I don’t think we can get that, but that might be possible.” This was a whole different level than the movie pal that I had known up to this point and now afterwards. And yet, he was really good at counseling me in my choices and discussing the ins and outs of what it takes to run an independent movie house and why certain things were not doable.
This was one of the most valuable experiences of my life aside from actually seeing films there. Michael Torgan, once again, thank you and thank you for my New Beverly Cinema experiences. I will miss them most of all.