Despite few theaters, Detroit's film culture proves resilient

Detroit's sports scene is huge and potentially getting bigger. Music and art have been big for awhile. The city's reputation for creative culinary experiences is growing. Film culture? It's a mixed bag.

Once home to movie palaces and art houses, Detroit’s film sector hasn't persisted like the city's other entertainment forms. While The Bel Air offers blockbusters on the far outskirts of the city, most Detroiters lack easy access a multiplex since the closing of the Ren Cen 4 Theater downtown last year.

Detroit's art film culture, however, is far from moribund. In fact, it’s arguably vital in its resilience.

Screening films is a tough business, especially with the ascension of hugely popular television series and diminishing ticket sales for movies across the board. But Detroit proves there's still room for an independent, arthouse, historic film scene.

The mecca for art film in the city, the Detroit Film Theatre (DFT), is a testament to this. Established in 1974, the DFT proved almost immediately that there was a regional demand for foreign and specialized films.

Beautiful details at the DFT

"There has been a general downturn in movie attendance in the big marketplace," says Elliot Wilhelm, founding director of the DFT. "But there are innovative ways in which specialized foreign films can be shown in big cities that cultivate audiences and take them in different directions."

Efforts to restore historic theaters like the Senate Theater, home of the Detroit Theater Organ Society and Redford Theatre, owned by the Motor City Theatre Organ Society, have served as community development cornerstones and unique settings for experiencing classic films.

The key to their success, according to Wilhelm, is niche marketing. "You have to find that cutting edge slice of what cinema is now," he says. "It has to stay fresh, renew itself, find audiences and be discovered by audiences who are not satisfied with a steady diet of superhero movies."

For the arthouse theater, restoring and screening an old film isn't enough. Filmgoers also love a beautiful venue, a community of like-minded people, and a theater's engagement with its audience. Both the DFT and Redford Theatre have cultivated a base of loyal filmgoers who attend nearly every movie because they trust the careful curators. There's often an informative handout and brief talk preceding screenings. The experience feels special.

"I’ve seen a number of historic theaters throughout the country that have been beautifully restored," says Wilhelm, "but are not doing well in terms of growing audiences because they haven’t clearly thought through what their purpose is."

As with any entrepreneurial venture, there's a Catch-22:  "A place that needs time to establish itself probably won't have enough of it," Wilhelm says. "It's hard to make a splash from day one. It needs to be around for awhile. It needs to be discovered and to have its audience find it."

Despite all that's working against movie theaters these days, Cinema Detroit has survived nearly three years by carving out a niche of commercial films, as well as independent, socially conscious, and locally-produced films. The edgier Mothlight Microcinema, too, has shown that there's an audience for the avant garde.

Paula Guthat, co-founder of Cinema Detroit with her husband Tim, doesn't know why the film sector has languished in Detroit's recent boom, but believes her business is helping to change that.

Paula Guthat, co-founder of Cinema Detroit

"Many of our films you can't see anywhere in the metro area. Some you can't see anywhere else in the state or even the Midwest," says Guthat. "We've had varying degrees of success with different features...I'm trying to get people to take a chance on independent cinema so we can build a film culture to provide, seven days a week, what other cities of the same size have as far as art and independent offerings."

How do you create a film culture? "By consistently offering quality films that people deserve to see," says Guthat. "Whether the movie has recognizable stars in it that may go on to be nominated for an Oscar, or whether it's a really small independent film."

Cinema Detroit is learning to match what people should see with the desires of her audience, which Guthat estimates is a 50/50 mix of Detroit and suburban patrons. "You do it by trying to expose people to new and different films and filmmakers including underrepresented voices: women, people of color, people with disabilities."

Cinema Detroit's commitment to local filmmakers will be enhanced this summer with a showcase presenting films in production for critique by fellow filmmakers.

While most film experiences rely on the regional market, Jeff Else is focused on providing a local venue for the cinephile. Else, who once operated Cass City Cinema in the former Burton school building—also where Cinema Detroit used to be—and attempted to start a business in Corktown, hopes to launch a theater in Hamtramck soon. "There is a huge opportunity to provide a better movie-going experience for the people of Detroit," says Else.

"Cinema is an essential function of community," he adds. "My vision for the future is basically the same as anyone who loves Detroit: integrated, growing, and full of life. One of the things I love about movie-going is how democratic in nature it is. It's suitable for a proper date, or as a place to escape to, alone in your sweatpants. It's affordable and beloved by all socioeconomic strata. If movies are an essential part of our cultural identity, then we need more spaces in which to experience them collectively, and to cross-pollinate our tastes. Certainly we have a way to go, but I would like to say that the few cinemas that are here are doing a pretty fantastic job."

DFT's ticket booth

Wilhelm is hopeful that just as the other entertainment and arts sectors needed to find their identity and audiences, so too will Detroit's film culture—even the megaplex. "There's room for everything in this town. I think Detroit is absolutely ready for, and will respond to, a place for films to flourish."

More positive indications that Detroit's film culture is maturing are the emergence of the Freep Film Festival and Cinetopia International Film Festival. Cinetopia, which begins June 3 this year, has grown in venues and film screenings in each of its three years.

"Audiences will go as more and more people crave the idea of an urban movie theater," says Wilhelm. "It will happen. And when it does, it will be a great success."

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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