Jeff Howard remembers every movie he's ever seen—where, when and with whom. Formerly one half of the local film-critic duo the Movie Guys, Howard is president of the Las Vegas Film Critics Society and a veteran film journalist. He's also a Las Vegas native who's been going to movies in town for over 30 years. He saw his first film, The Poseidon Adventure, at the old Fox Theater on East Charleston in 1972. The Fox is one of many defunct local theaters of which Howard has fond memories, painting a picture of a moviegoing experience far different from the one that exists today.
"Everything's in casinos now. It's just so different. It's just sad, because all our stand-alone theaters are gone," Howard says, reminiscing about theaters like the Fox, the Parkway and the Guild, among others. He describes a Downtown dotted with movie houses. "It looked like a Times Square kind of downtown back then," he says.
Although Howard can rattle off lists of blockbusters of his formative years—Poseidon, The Spy Who Loved Me, Raiders of the Lost Ark—it wasn't just the films of the day that drew him to the Vegas theaters of yore. "I used to go to the Parkway, and they used to have the Three Stooges festivals," he remembers. "So we'd go there at midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. They would show four or five shorts in the big theater. And every college kid from UNLV, everybody went to it. That was the thing to do. You couldn't do that today. Nobody would show up."
Howard isn't the only local film buff with nostalgia for the old days of Vegas moviegoing, although he is perhaps the most dedicated (he saw Star Wars 110 times, mostly at the Parkway) and the one with the most exhaustive memory. Suzanne Scott, Performing Arts Center coordinator at the Clark County Library, which hosts film series of both classic and contemporary films, remembers going to see old Hollywood movies at the posh theater inside the former MGM Grand (now Bally's). "When I was a kid that's where I saw a lot of these films in those big comfy seats, and you could call and get someone to bring you a soda. So that was really cool," she recalls.
In more recent years, as the city's population has grown, other film buffs have sought to bring a different kind of diversity to moviegoing in Las Vegas. Former Las Vegas Mercury and Las Vegas CityLife film critic Anthony Allison, who's currently "in blissful retirement," put together the Las Vegas International Film Festival in 1998 and 1999, just as another nascent festival, CineVegas, was also getting off the ground. Both were attempts to bring some of the independent and foreign films that populate festivals like Sundance and Toronto to Las Vegas.
For Allison, a New Zealand native who'd lived in London and moved to Vegas in 1996, it was an effort to replicate experiences he'd had in other cities. "I was appalled that a city of this size didn't have a festival," he says. "Any other decent town, including some much smaller ones than this, around the world, had very thriving film festivals." The first LVIFF hosted the premiere of Mob Law, a documentary about Oscar Goodman made before his mayoral aspirations. Allison is especially proud of that screening, as well as the showing of The Red Violin at the following year's festival.
Although he considers the LVIFF a success, Allison discontinued the festival after its second year. "Basically, we'd burned out, because it was such hard work and we were on a very shoestring budget," he says. "It was like, well, if we'd been a bit savvier about getting sponsorship, which was very tough, maybe we could have made a go of it, but we needed somebody with more expertise in that field." He laughs. "I just wanted somebody to come along and give me lots of money."
Along with the early steps toward developing a viable Vegas film festival, independent films also made their way to local commercial theaters, most notably the Gold Coast Twin, which opened in 1986 as the first movie theater inside a casino to show first-run movies and evolved to showcase mostly independent and art-house films before closing in 2000. Around that time, the Regal Cinemas Village Square theater and the Century Suncoast, both multiplexes within a few miles of each other on the west side, began showing independent films on a few of their dozen-plus screens. Art films gained a regular foothold in Vegas, but the Gold Coast was the last dedicated art-house theater, closing its doors along with all the stand-alone movie houses of Jeff Howard's fond memories.
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It's impossible to read any entertainment publication these days without encountering doomsaying stories about the decline of the film industry, in particular the slump at the box office, where proceeds have been down consistently this year over last. People prefer to see movies in the comfort of their own homes, goes the conventional wisdom, especially now that big-screen TVs, DVD players and state-of-the-art sound systems are common and relatively inexpensive. The window between a film's theatrical release and home-video release has been getting shorter and shorter, reduced to as little as three months in the cases of some box-office failures. With online file-sharing networks carrying more and more pirated movies, and studios looking into distributing content legally over the Internet, the age of the movie theater seems to be slowly drawing to a close.
At least that's what journalists and industry insiders are trying to sell you, and while it's undoubtedly true in part, reports of the death of moviegoing have been greatly exaggerated. Even in Las Vegas, a town with a reputation for shunning cultural activities, there are numerous options available for people who'd still like to see movies in auditoriums with other people. In addition to the plethora of multiplexes around town, which show commercial Hollywood releases, options for independent and art films have never been more plentiful, even if some have difficulty acquiring and retaining an audience.
The best evidence for the viability of alternative cinema in Vegas is the continued presence of independent and foreign films at the Village Square and the Suncoast. Nearly every week you can find at least one such film playing at each theater, and sometimes as many as four or five. Paul Serwitz, vice president of film for Regal Entertainment Group, books all of the company's theaters in town, including the Village Square. He sees the art-film program as modest but successful. "Las Vegas is still not a great specialized film town, as far as business levels are concerned. But there is some audience for it," Serwitz says.
That audience remains concentrated on the west side, as far as Serwitz is concerned, despite protests to the contrary. "I think it's better, if you are trying to do some kind of independent thing, to do it more central, maybe," says Chad Simmons, co-founder of Nevadans Organized to Better Address Diversity (NOTBAD), who've been sponsoring a weekly film series at the Clark County Library for four years. "I lived on the east side, so if I ever wanted to see anything over there, it was like this huge trek that I'd have to go through."
Although the NOTBAD series, which features an eclectic range of classic, independent and foreign films, regularly draws 50-60 people a week to the library near Flamingo and Maryland Parkway, Serwitz asserts that the west side remains the only viable location for art-house films to play in a commercial theater. "The core audience for art and specialized [film] really is out on that west side, where it's a bit more affluent and upscale demographically," he says.
Although Serwitz's explanation of the art-house cinema market in Vegas is couched in corporate-speak, it becomes clear at some point that Regal is committed to independent films not solely out of a profit motivation. Serwitz explains that, given the proximity of the Suncoast theater, distributors allocate films relatively evenly between the two theaters, allowing for a wide range of films to be shown. "Almost all specialized film has the opportunity to get played in Vegas," he says, thanks to the whopping 34 screens between the two theaters. That open policy means that Serwitz often books films he already knows won't succeed. "The reality is there are a lot of specialized films out there that play Vegas that have already shown a lack of success theatrically," he says, but there's more to it than box-office receipts from one particular film. "It becomes part of a greater sense of appealing to the art audience, even though some of the pictures don't generate a great deal of business."
Beyond the Village Square-Suncoast corridor, other theaters in town generally play it safe, sticking to wide releases from major studios. But a few niches have been carved out for other underserved groups besides art-house film fans. The substantial Mormon population in Vegas has benefited from the recent boom in Mormon cinema, and nearly every film produced in the growing Utah film industry (often dubbed "Mollywood") finds its way to local theaters. "Usually, we end up playing a minimum of two to three weeks," says Bryce Fillmore, head of distribution for Halestorm Entertainment, one of the largest distributors of Mormon films. "For any picture to play two or three weeks is not bad. Sometimes we've even played as long as six or seven weeks." The last few months have brought Mormon-themed films as varied as a period adaptation of a well-known Mormon novel (The Work and the Glory: American Zion) and a culture-clash comedy starring the former host of Studs (Mobsters and Mormons). "It's probably a little bit broader, a little bit more successful than art product, and can play on a bit wider basis in Vegas than art product can," Regal's Serwitz says of Mormon cinema.
There have also been inroads into catering both to the city's large Latino population, with the Spanish-language Cinema Latino experiencing a brief run in the once and future discount theater at Tropicana and Pecos, and to its Pacific Islander population, with Fijian film The Land Has Eyes opening briefly at the Regal Cinemas Boulder Station theater. Serwitz remains open to serving other local niches, if the films are right.
For cinephiles who aren't satisfied with the short (often only one week) runs of independent films at the Suncoast and Village Square, and pining away for a real art-house theater in Vegas ("I dream of that," says Jeff Howard), there are more options in town than many people realize. Suzanne Scott at the Clark County Library is active in programming two successful weekly series: NOTBAD's Tuesday night screenings, and the Tuesday Afternoon at the Bijou, which features Hollywood classics mainly from the 1940s and 1950s, and has been running for about a year and a half. The screenings attract anywhere from 30 to 50 people each week, mostly seniors. For Scott, the library is functioning as a sort of de facto revival house in the absence of the genuine article.
NOTBAD's Simmons is proud of his group's film series and its dedicated audience. "There are people that are really eager to see these types of films, people that are hungry, because they're not available anywhere else," he says. "And then there's also maybe just the cheapskates who don't have any money, and it's free. Either way, anybody that comes, generally we get a good reception from people." The library district, too, has come to see film as a cornerstone of its programming for the community, with almost every branch offering one sort of film program or another. "It was kind of a fluke," says Robert Morss, deputy director of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, of the popularity of the film showings. "We just picked up on it and saw that people were coming to these." As far as Simmons is concerned, that's how it should be. "We want more people to be coming to the library, because the library, in my opinion, is kind of the cultural [backbone] of the entire Valley."
The other cultural institution helping take the place of a repertory theater in town is another east side venue, the Winchester Cultural Center at Desert Inn and McLeod. For years the center offered film series every few months, focusing on classic, independent and foreign films, hosted by local film experts (most recently by Anthony Allison). The series were discontinued at the end of last year, but Cultural Specialist Joseph House, who started at the Winchester a few months ago, has been spearheading a revival. He'll run three series a year, starting with one in March focused on films about food. The Winchester will also run a free film series to coincide with Black History Month in February. "Right now I think it's a hidden secret," House says of Winchester. "I'd like to get it to actually bring it more into the forefront."
For a short time, the closest thing to a genuine repertory cinema in Vegas—somewhere to see older films on a big screen—was the Tropicana Cinemas, the discount theater that was briefly the home of the Cinema Latino. Up until a recent ownership change, the Tropicana had been playing weekly midnight cult films, as well as hosting performances of Rocky Horror Picture Show. In October, the theater was the only place in town to see low-budget horror film Chaos, a controversial and bloody movie dubbed by its creators "the most brutal film ever made." New owners Rod and Sherry Fox have discontinued the midnight movies, however, preferring to run the theater (whose primary business is playing second-run Hollywood films at discounted admission prices) during normal waking hours.
They remain open, however, to featuring alternative cinema beyond their regular fare. Spooktacular, a horror movie retrospective, will play for two weeks in December, and a local filmmaker will host a premiere in January. The theater will also continue to show Bollywood movies on select Sunday afternoons, and is available to showcase other alternative programs, as long as it's during normal business hours. "We're excited to reach out to the community," says Rod Fox.
In the meantime, the Divine Decadence troupe has moved its weekly Rocky Horror Picture Show performances to Downtown's Take 1 Nightclub, which has also partnered with Fangoria magazine for a monthly film series showcasing low-budget horror movies. "We love this little venue," says Divine Decadence leader Megan Tabor of Take 1. She's been performing Rocky Horror since 1979 and has seen it bounce around every conceivable venue in town, always retaining its core audience.
As you get further and further from the mainstream, into short films and works by local directors, you can still find options almost every week. David Schmoeller, an assistant professor in the UNLV film department, runs weekly screenings during the academic year of selections from the UNLV Short Film Archive, of which he is the director. He regularly attracts 30 to 40 viewers, a mix of students, faculty and the general public. Underground Vegas Film, a coalition of local filmmakers, sponsors regular showcases of short films by locals (its next program is on December 11 at the Bunkhouse, Downtown). The Dam Short Film Festival in Boulder City and the Shithoof Film Festival both present occasional showcases in addition to their annual events.
Although most people are only aware of one annual film festival—CineVegas, which has grown enormously from its humble beginnings—other, smaller festivals have managed to gain a foothold in town. Now in its fifth year, the Las Vegas Celebration of Jewish Film takes place in January at the Suncoast, featuring a small number of screenings but generally playing to sold-out crowds. Managing Director Joshua Abbey was one of the original founders of CineVegas, and puts that experience to use running the Celebration. His unique approach involves getting a local Jewish group to sponsor each screening, allowing them essentially to do all the promotion and marketing for him. This tactic leads to full theaters and satisfied filmgoers.
Like the Celebration, NeonFest, a festival focusing on gay and lesbian film, gets at least 80 percent of its audience from its target demographic. The festival, which recently completed its second year, shows both new and vintage features and shorts geared toward the gay community. Like Abbey, NeonFest President Bill Fisher hopes to expand his audience beyond its niche and entice adventurous filmgoers to his festival, which charges no admission. "I think that's just a misperception on the part of the general public that somehow this is exclusive, which it definitely isn't," says Abbey of his festival, and the same could be said of NeonFest.
As for CineVegas itself, it's experienced a surge in both popularity and profile since Daniel and Robin Greenspun took ownership of the festival three years ago (the Greenspun Media Group owns the Weekly). After bringing in Dennis Hopper as chairman of the festival's board, CineVegas has been able to attract big-name stars as honorees, and has been garnering increased attention both from Hollywood and from independent filmmakers. Submissions doubled last year, and attendance was up 23 percent, according to Jarom Rowland, associate director of operations for the festival.
Some see CineVegas, which is held at the Brenden Theatres inside the Palms each June, as more of an industry event than an opportunity for local film fans, but Rowland says that 62 percent of attendees at the 2005 festival were locals. "It's really showing that there is a desire for Las Vegas locals to see stuff that's outside the norm, that's not usually featured in some of the big houses," he says. And CineVegas organizers are committed to fostering art and independent cinema in town beyond the festival, hoping to become a force to encourage people to seek out non-mainstream films all year-round. "We're aiming to bolster promotion for art films in general and independent films in general that haven't played the festival, that won't play the festival, but that are just playing in town," Rowland says.
So what is the state of moviegoing in Las Vegas? Ask any of the people involved in promoting alternative avenues for seeing films and you'll get a different answer. "I think on any given week, given the educational institutions and the cultural community centers, there's a lot to see," says UNLV's David Schmoeller. "On a large scale, I don't think we've actually grown to that level yet that I think we should be, being so close to LA," says the Winchester's Joseph House. "It's gotten much better, and hopefully it won't go back to being what it was," says the library's Suzanne Scott. "When I lived there, it was really awful. It was just beyond pathetic," says NOTBAD's Chad Simmons, who moved to Portland two years ago in part because of the lack of cultural opportunities in Vegas. "Every time we see an art film open, like Capote or something like that, we know it's limited. Because people won't go," says Jeff Howard.
Despite the pessimism expressed by so many of the city's tireless promoters of cinema, many of them have plans for new series and events. NeonFest's Bill Fisher is looking into doing monthly or bimonthly screenings of films, possibly featuring appearances by filmmakers, at clothing store the Rack in the Commercial Center, which is in the process of building a 100-seat theater. Joshua Abbey is working with Downtown's Dust Gallery to start a series showcasing experimental films and video art to be shown at the gallery. Joseph House hopes to bring local and independent short films into his programs at the Winchester.
"In the future we're taking steps to maybe encourage an art-house cinema to be built, or to find a dedicated, independent showcase, beyond the festival," says CineVegas' Jarom Rowland, hinting that the festival might also sponsor monthly screenings at the Brenden Theaters. Jeff Howard, who dreams of an art-house cinema Downtown or of a restored Huntridge Theater showing repertory programs, is looking into programming his own film festival in the fall at the Crown Theaters in Neonopolis, also home to NeonFest. He's also incorporating the Film Critics Society, and hopes the group will take an active role in sponsoring screenings and bringing filmmakers to town.
On the more commercial side, Halestorm Entertainment has another movie, Church Ball, which it hopes will appeal to non-Mormons as well as to their core Mormon audience, opening in Las Vegas soon. Rowland is certain that The Talent Given Us, the Grand Jury Prize winner at 2004's CineVegas festival, will finally make its way to town in regular release, bringing full circle the festival's power to promote successful films outside of its insular environment. And the Latino audience may once again have a theater to cater to its interests, as the LA-based Maya Cinemas, which recently opened its first multiplex in California, looks to come to town. "Within two years, we hope to be in the market," says CEO Moctesuma Esparza. Unlike the Cinema Latino, the Maya Cinemas would show first-run Hollywood films, with only one or two screens dedicated to Spanish-language material, but would still be focused on serving the Latino community.
There may not be a vintage revival house or a dedicated art-house theater in Vegas, and people may not be going to the movies as much as they used to. But the state of moviegoing in town is not nearly as bleak as some people think it is, and the options are plentiful if only you know where to look.
For many, staying at home remains the top choice. "As a former celluloid fan, I never thought I'd hear myself saying this, but I actually prefer to watch movies on the small screen," says Anthony Allison. "Blasphemy," counters Jeff Howard, who collects old 16mm prints. He never wants to stop going to the movies, and, given the options available, it doesn't look like he'll ever have to.
Josh Bell will discuss the state of moviegoing in Las Vegas on The Steve Bornfeld Experience, which airs 4 to 6 p.m. Friday on KNUU 970-AM and is streamed at