On an unseasonably warm night, one of the Hollywood’s smaller, second-floor theaters is so full that seatless souls are plopping onto the floor rather than miss Omega Cop, a laughably low-budget postapocalypse tale in the Mad Max mold. The film’s biggest star? Adam West, TV’s Batman, who spends the the movie in a not very futuristic control room yammering over a microphone to a rogue cop, who’s fighting to thwart slave traders who look like extras from a Loverboy video.
But the screamingly awful movie is only one part of the draw. The other is bingo. Each member of this keenly competitive and rowdy crowd holds a card gridded with well-worn action-film clichés: suitcases full of money, villains in white suits, hero walking away from an explosion, Uzis, flashbacks, etc. The object of this game, concocted in 2011 by a local art collective called Wolf Choir, is to spot enough of the clichés in the film to cross off a row. The winners take home movie passes, posters, and assorted memorabilia.
“He killed one of his own men!” shouts a silhouette down front. “That’s bingo!”
“No, the guy he killed was a friend,” a judge hollers back. “They didn’t have an actual employee-employer relationship. We’re looking specifically for the deaths of minions.”
The scene is many decibels away from the “ssshhh” of traditional cinema appreciation. But with a decidedly Portland spin, Harn has helped the Hollywood join a growing movement of venues like CineFamily in LA and the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas, asking the question, as he puts it, “What is a movie theater today?”
Wolf Choir offers one answer. The Hollywood’s wildly popular Hecklevision provides another. Borrowed in name and concept from Alamo Drafthouse, and fueled by a program called MuVChat, which displays viewers’ texted jokes and smart-ass commentary on the screen, Hecklevision is like Mystery Science Theater 3000 for the masses. “We pick hilariously horrible movies—but ones that we secretly love,” Harn says. Past selections include Point Break, Showgirls, Birdemic (with the director in attendance), Con Air—even presidential debates. A recent audience for 1997’s Batman and Robin broke the MuVChat record for text messages during a film—just shy of 9,000.
Whyte says the Hollywood is hardly the first movie house to do more interactive programming, but by necessity it may need to be one of the country’s best. The reason: competition. In many cities, he explains, a small theater can nab the first run of a Black Swan or The King’s Speech and float their other, artier programs for the rest of the year. But in Portland, Fox Tower’s 10 screens scoop those films up. “We have to get really creative,” he says. And so he is giving Halsted and Harn full tether to experiment. In June and running through the fall, the Hollywood launched “Future So Bright,” a series of programs ranging from the Internet Cat Video Fest to inviting performance artists like Andrew Dickson and A-list local interactive design firms like Second Story to, in Harn’s words, “imagine new ways to tell stories with technology, film, and performance.”
Meantime, Harn anchors the art-house side of the Hollywood’s programming in evenings with the likes of Todd Haynes, James Franco, and Gus Van Sant, while Halsted screens movies snagged through his deep connections and his own vast collection. (The 37-year-old earned the moniker “the Indiana Jones of film archivists” for the 1,000-plus reels of kung fu films he discovered in 2009 in a Vancouver, British Columbia, theater that had been closed since 1985.) “If you have a record of showing movies that people find interesting, they’ll continue to come back,” Halsted says. “I’ve always looked at the work I do at the Hollywood as like film school—but without the pretension.”
It’s the second day of the annual H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival in May, a three-day assemblage of horror films inspired (some more overtly than others) by the late “weird fiction” writer from Providence, Rhode Island, who in his short lifetime created a popular and enduring mythos of malevolent deities (e.g., Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Hastur). In a testament to the depth and longevity of Portland’s intensely eclectic film culture, the Hollywood Theatre has served as the outré gathering’s home for 16 years, the hallways crowded with vendors hawking Lovecraftiana games, books, and arcane jewelry. On-screen is an amateur-made movie from Gluckstadt, Mississippi, called Grasshopper! about a giant, child-eating insect.
Although the recent paint job, a roof speckled with new adobe shingles, and, soon, the new sign signal the Hollywood’s renaissance, inside, dimly lit hallways and the gurgling pipes in the walls reveal the ongoing challenges of the building’s still-original wiring and plumbing. But Wieden and Kennedy’s in-house school, Twelve, has opted to rebrand the theater pro bono. And all three theaters’ projection booths will soon feature state-of-the-art digital projectors courtesy of $160,000 in gifts Whyte stirred up from five foundations, the Oregon Arts Commission, and his own board. That’s crucial because major studios are likely to stop making 35mm prints as early as the end of this year. “It’s been likened to the change from silent to talkie films,” Harn says, in terms of the impact it will have on theaters. “Some won’t be able to afford it.”
By the end of Grasshopper!, an actor emerges tattered and bloody from a basement bearing the head of the giant insect. The audience—some dressed in Doc Martens and black T-shirts emblazoned with tentacled monsters—cheers both the heroism and the excellent construction of the bug’s head.
“Sometimes,” Harn says, “the best programming is to just get out of the way.”