The Salt Lake Film Society shines the silver screen across community barriers

Dagny Horton of the Salt Lake Film Society changes the Tower Theatre marquee for a showing of the film "Call + Response" for the YWCA

Story and photo by ZACK RENNER

As he sits in front of the Coffee Garden at 9th and 9th in Salt Lake, 24-year-old film student at the University of Utah, Jordan Connelly looks paler than anyone should in early September.  It could be his natural complexion or just as well his passion.

Connelly, as well as a film student, has been a member of the Salt Lake Film Society (SLFS) for three years. He spends more than his fair share of time in a cool dark theater expressing his love the best way he knows.

“The quality of life in a community is reflected in how that community nurtures artistic expression within it,” Connelly said when asked what role art holds in a community.  As a community nonprofit organization and art house for the showcase of independent film, the SLFS reflects the culture and diversity present in Salt Lake’s communities.

What began with Kris Liacopoulos’s fight for preservation of the local Tower Theatre in 2001, has 10 years later has grown into what the SLFS mission statement calls, “the premiere film establishment of our community.”

Since its inception, SLFS has endeavored to keep independent film a part of the lives of Salt Lake City community members like Connelly. It currently owns and operates the Tower Theatre in the 9th and 9th neighborhood as well as the multiplex Broadway Centre Cinemas on 111 East and Broadway in Salt Lake City.

“We bring the art form of cinema in its most culturally diverse form on a daily basis. Without the Salt Lake Film Society and our community here in Utah in particular, we wouldn’t have access to these films and the thoughts and ideas behind these films,” said 39-year-old SLFS Executive Director Tori Baker in a phone interview, “It’s so important to bring that to any individual community in whatever form you can.”

The society coordinates educational programs about and through film. Its website boasts that over 950 local filmmakers have been able showcase their work on the Broadway and Tower theater screens during designated open screen nights and festivals.

Through programs like the ongoing Utah Screenwriters Project, the Society provides workshops to those who make it through the application process. The 30 that are accepted receive mentoring from Hollywood professionals in producing their own screen productions.

For those who simply want to enjoy film, SLFS theaters are also the only place to see independent and foreign films that otherwise would have no chance to shine on mainstream theater screens in Salt Lake.

One important tradition of community involvement for the SLFS is its youth outreach program: Big Pictures Little People. Each year for the last seven years, the SLFS has paid for and facilitated 900 to 1,000 low-income children, ages 5 to 12, to see family friendly cinema yearly. During the summer months, volunteers for the program organize buses, free concessions, commemorative toys and a comfortable seat in a cool theater with their friends and families.

Collaborating with nonprofits such as the YWCA, the Road Home and the Utah Health and Human Rights Project, the SLFS presents children an opportunity to see appropriate movies and shorts as its website describes. Of those movies was Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” a critically acclaimed Japanese animation film about a girl wandering into a mystic realm of gods and monsters.

“It was an enhancement of our program,” said Jacob Brace, Neighborhood Partners executive director. “It helped make opportunities that are culturally relevant and child friendly available to all children regardless of socio-economic background.”

However, it is not always as easy to drum up a bus full of enthusiastic patrons. When it comes to bringing in members of specific communities to the silver screen, it can be difficult to appeal to the right audience for each film.

“We are humble in terms of our capacity, and in terms of our number of staff for work on the marketing as well as fund raising components,” Baker said. The challenge in selecting films from current and past productions is making decisions on what is topical and what patrons want to see.

A part of being an advocate and art house for independent and foreign film is the ability to give diverse and often marginalized voices a platform for articulation.  These “crossover films,” as Baker calls them, help communicate to an audience that otherwise would not go out for a film.

For instance, the Tower Theatre hosts an LGBT movie night on the first Monday of the month. Through the event, members of the LGBT community have an occasion to gather and enjoy films and discuss narratives relevant to their community. While programs such as this one can pertain to a specific group of people, there are programs of interest that appeal to a wide audience, regardless of gender, age or ethnicity.

However, the complexity in promoting niche films raises as notice to the society of a film’s arrival is commonly as short as two weeks. In the past, advertisements in Spanish language newspapers proved a valuable avenue for promoting Latino cinema, but some communities are harder to target.  A flier or handbill is sometimes not enough to spread word and, as a result, a film often fails to reach the full breadth of its demographic.

While SLFS is a community nonprofit relying on grants from the government, it is also an art house meaning it sells venue to film as art. And unlike other nonprofits, it is able to generate revenue through tickets as well as membership and donations.

Looking to appeal to a variety of demographics, the Society has created assorted types of membership. It has tiers in different price ranges to suit varying levels of interest in film. The basic “Super 8” level membership costs $4.99 monthly or $50 annually and includes $1 off admission, two Tower Video rentals as well as Society news updates via newsletters and email. On the other hand, the higher echelon “Chronik” level membership costs $29.99 monthly or $300 annual and includes free admission to regular-run movies, limitless free rentals, and admission to two members only Sundance Festival screenings.

The Salt Lake Film Society is always looking for ways to expand its membership and donations. As the technology of film grows beyond its ability to keep up, pressure comes down on modernizing the aging theaters.

“We are going to see more challenges in keeping the facility presentable. People know that it’s different than a Larry Miller theater… Our challenge ahead of us now is to keep up with any of those things that are moving faster than we can raise money for [them],” said Baker.