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Secret Movie Club: L.A.’s Grassroots Screening Hub is No Confidential Affair

Secret Movie Club: L.A.’s Grassroots Screening Hub is No Confidential Affair 1

Secret Movie Club programmer Craig Hammill (l) and SMC volunteer Casey Young (r) await the midnight crowd at the Vista Theatre’s screening of Lethal Weapon on December 1, 2018.

Suppose you got your hands on a 35mm print of Raiders of the Lost Ark and had a party?

In April 2016, filmmaker Craig Hammill decided to do just that. Carrying on a tradition from his years as a film student at the fabled University of Southern California, Hammill rented Los Feliz’s Vista Theatre to screen Steven Spielberg’s 1981 trendsetter. Flyers showed up at L.A. bedrocks like Amoeba Music.

“About 60 people showed up and we lost $100,” Hammill recalled. While he and his wife were cash-strapped, Vista owner Lance Aspaugh put him in touch with Bernie Bergman, a fellow programmer whose Nerds Like Us promotion also screens at the Vista. A second screening, a 35mm print of James Cameron’s beloved sequel Aliens, followed the next month.

“And we kept doing just well enough to do another month,” he continued. “That’s how we started and it was fun.”

Now, Secret Movie Club, Hammill’s brainchild, is closing its third year of eclectic programming. Sweating charisma in the fashion that he approaches cinema, Hammill spins the wheel to highlight genres, directors, and broad umbrellas like “Great Adventures” and “Films from a Child’s Perspective.” When we talked on December 1, his day was book-ended by his last Great Adventure matinee, The Iron Giant, and the start of his cynical Christmas season with Lethal Weapon. Clad in his unmistakable three-piece suit, Hammill converses with me in the stock room behind the Vista’s concession counter.

“Programming is really fun,” Hammill said with honor, citing his own preferences and that of his audience as “a collaboration… the morning audience is totally different from the midnight audience.”

That collaboration outlines his excellent, self-labeled mission statement: “If anything, I hope, I think, Secret Movie Club… reminds everyone in the audience of how movies are supposed to feel. A group of people of all races, colors, backgrounds, classes, in a darkened theater, having a shared narrative experience that speaks to everyone’s shared consciousness.”

Secret Movie Club: L.A.’s Grassroots Screening Hub is No Confidential Affair 3

Secret Movie Club’s fabled “lion,” a suggestion box for patrons. Recently, I suggested a “Summer of 1989” program to the lion, paying homage to the year’s stacked blockbuster season.

His words are certainly sticking.

Recently, two sellouts were timed to happily accidental coincidences His October 26 midnight show of Suspiria coincided with the release of Luca Guadagnino’s remake. Not long after, a second show was added for the next night.

Last week, Hammill saw his December 15 screening of Children of Men sell out, unaware that director Alfonso Cuarón’s awards contender Roma was being unleashed into the awards-season gauntlet. To further the irony, Roma, as of this writing, is the main attraction at the single-screen Vista.

In a city that covets archival film prints, from the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian and Aero theatres to the recently reopened New Beverly Cinema, Hammill’s outlet has carved out an irresistible niche in Los Angeles’ inescapable rep scene. There’s an integrity and a more personable, intimate audience at Hammill’s screenings.

Audiences come for the film, not a bonus attraction like a Q&A or introduction. However, there are exceptions. Actor Harry Northup spoke before a midnight show of Taxi Driver. Biographers of Prince and Bruce Lee were on hand to talk before Hammill showed Purple Rain and Enter the Dragon, respectively. In October, David Lynch reached out to ask audience members who flocked to Hammill’s midnight showing of Eraserhead a question that was typically cryptic for the genius, enigmatic auteur.

The result of these screenings are evenly balanced between excitement and mindfulness. Further, Hammill’s curation narrows down to prints graded a “B” or above. He guarantees that whatever film is being shown will not be tattered or unclean.

“That’s a journey in [of] itself,” Hammill remarked. “The studios and specialty companies have been amazing. They want people to see their 35mm prints.” If none are available from the studio, he contacts archives, collectors, and rightsholders for the greenlight.

However, if there’s anything Hammill knows about his programming, it’s his audience. During preshow warmups, the crowd hoots and hollers at almost every film he’s scheduled or hoping to screen. The diverse gamut of Hammill’s programming spares no audience or genre. Classics—old, new, cult—rule the roost. He’s a master at crossover appeal; he can sell out John Carpenter’s The Thing at midnight as easily as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away at 10 a.m.

Hammill is even more impeccable with packaging theme months and spread-out, year-long series. June focused on James Bond. August was a month-long tribute to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dutch madman Paul Verhoeven. October was, naturally, devoted to horror, with the surprising addition of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, often forgotten for its Halloween setting. November saw Hammill obtain 35mm prints of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Warner Bros., who owns the films’ rights through their acquisition of New Line Cinema, gave him an unforeseen surprise.

The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers were extended [cuts],” Hammill told me. “The Return of the King was theatrical.” Those three Saturday nights, suffice to say, ran very late. He claims an “unproven” theory that Warner Bros., singled out by Hammill as one of the best studios for him to work with, “probably said something, like, ‘Give them the best print.’ And I think the best prints [for the first two] were the extended [cuts] because they don’t get shown too often.”

Writer’s Note: Hammill is not far off in his hypothesis! Existence of 35mm prints for The Return of the King‘s extended cut are unconfirmed. However, further research revealed that the Astor Theatre in Melbourne, Australia screened a marathon of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in 35mm, featuring the extended versions of the first two films and the theatrical cut of Return, in February 2016. The same configuration was marathoned at London’s Prince Charles Theatre this past August.

Secret Movie Club flourishes every weekend on Sunset Drive. Hammill has begun a sister project, a series of symposiums on movements in film. The first, covering “Problematic Movies,” was on November 24. Here, patrons of Secret Movie Club and aspiring filmmakers ponder the ugly side of some of our favorite movies in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

“I think it’s important if you want to do something worthwhile to not shy away from controversial topics,” Hammill said of his Conversation series. To differentiate Secret Movie Club from other rep shingles, “we want to build… about our generation of moviemakers and movielovers [sic] might move things order.”

The series picks up again on January 12 to discuss “Gender Equity in the Arts.”

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Hammill’s midnight screenings are always paired with a limited edition poster for the night’s films. Lethal Weapon‘s poster was limited to only 75 prints.

My night at the Secret Movie Club

I came here tonight to speak to Hammill, who has gotten to know me on a first-name basis, or, really, a three-name basis: Mike Drew Flynn.

Recently, Hammill, a father of a one-year-old, has made an admirable effort to attract families to his brand of film preservation. His matinees not only attract cinephiles but function as a sort of film school for kids. Today’s sellout was one thing, but it was nothing compared to the demand that his screenings of Miyazaki’s beloved animated films received.

“We programmed first, I think, Spirited Away and [My Neighbor] Totoro,” Hammill recalled. The first screening of Spirited Away, in subtitled form, “sold out within five days,” blindsiding him. The response led to a second show, of the dubbed version, an even tradeoff for audiences. Children unwilling to “read” movies can enjoy the dub, while the subtitled version was primed for purists.

As film projection becomes a bygone practice at multiplexes, Hammill thinks the prospect of getting kids’ opinion on film prints is “fascinating… for instance do they think the scratches, marks, etc. make the movie look ‘dirty’?”

Call me an unreliable narrator. In my seven months of living in Los Angeles, I’ve come to nine Secret Movie Club events. I haven’t walked away unsatisfied by a single print. Hell, my decision to wear a Carolco T-shirt to August 24’s Terminator 2 screening ended up on their Instagram account. Most exciting was a Philadelphia connection’s possession of a gorgeous, Hong Kong-sourced 35mm print of John Woo’s Hard Boiled, which played to a packed house on September 21. The print of the seminal action film was a miracle in of itself, especially as it played for my birthday weekend. It looked better than the mediocre Blu-ray release and featured proper subtitles missing from most domestic home video releases.

At Lethal Weapon, the print suffered unforeseen sound dropouts and hissing. Hammill told those who came they would get a free ticket of their choice for the next visit.

When I was exiting, Hammill pleaded to me to state that the print was not up to his usual quality assurance.

“I’m glad I saw it in a theater!” I remarked. “I’ve seen worse,” like the near-unwatchable print of Blue Velvet that screened at the Egyptian in August, which was so bad that my friend didn’t want to stay for the second film, River’s Edge. He stressed to me to explain that this is an anomaly, so if you’re reading this, Craig, your prints are always outstanding.

An emotionally visceral action thriller where Christmas means catharsis. A grueling battle for humanity in post-apocalyptic London. A Jewish existential crisis in Minnesota. The joy of Christmas in small-town America literally destroyed by scheming, impish monsters. Conventional audiences wouldn’t go outside of the box to get in the holiday spirit, but that’s exactly what Hammill did, and it’s working.

Sure, Hammill has scheduled a Christmas Eve morning screening of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, the gold standard of Yuletide cinema, but he’s admirably gone more cynical for this month with a lineup including Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon; Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men; Joel & Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man; and Joe Dante’s Gremlins.

Of these, only It’s a Wonderful Life and Gremlins are getting shown elsewhere. After all, they’re the most conventional holiday films that Hammill has chosen. Both the Egyptian Theatre and New Beverly will show the films in addition to Secret Movie Club around the same time.

However, the Egyptian opted for a DCP presentation on both films, not to mention the fact that a digital projection is just five or six times the size of your 4K TV, where you will likely find both films dozens of times on cable this season. It’s a Wonderful Life, barring the annual, overwrought 24-hour loops of A Christmas Story on TNT and TBS, is the most inescapable film on television during the season. While NBC has kept the film a Christmas Eve staple for over 40 years, trips to Bedford Falls have doubled ever since NBCUniversal’s union with USA allowed the cable network to push aside its rampant NCIS and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit reruns to give George Bailey even more televised exposure.

With the rival screenings recently announced and their prominence on television, is Hammill intimidated by the competition?

“No!” Hammill didn’t even bother to hesitate answering this question. “In the end, you have to program from your heart. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite holiday movies… like a lot of people, I watch it every Christmas Eve, and I think my family was just, like, ‘no more.’” He laughs. “Now that I have Secret Movie Club, I can [watch] it and not drive my family nuts!”

More intriguing is his aforementioned, well-received decision to show Children of Men. Acknowledging that the film does not have a Christmas setting or “overtly” leaning towards the holiday, he calls it “the Nativity told from Joseph’s point of view… a woman about to have a miraculous birth to a place of safety where her child might mean the salvation of humanity.”

Hammill is a goldmine of knowledge and wisdom in regards to film. It’s that kind of explanation, as with Children of Men, that makes Secret Movie Club so unique. After all, there’s an argument to be made that RoboCop, which Hammill screened a gorgeous print of on August 10, with its tale of resurrection and humanity, should be aired on TV every Easter.

Hammill’s most daring choice, however, doesn’t even remotely touch Christmas. He’s bucked his theme for December 22 to show 1990’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch, 24 hours after a midnight show of Gremlins and a mere ten hours after a second matinee of the original. Dante’s superior, dementedly satirical follow-up targets the ideology of sequels, cable television, and that inescapable beacon of American opulence, Donald Drumpf. Hammill couldn’t resist the opportunity to screen a 35mm print.

Gremlins is a lot of fun,” Hammill said. “But it’s sort of an understandable holiday choice. Gremlins 2 is a real discovery… it’s a real knowing movie.”

It’s here that Hammill reaffirms his accidental success with Children of Men and Suspiria regarding Gremlins 2, as I point out its prophetic lampooning of Drumpf’s pre-White House era.

“I totally blanked out on that!” Hammill was excited by my analysis of Gremlins 2. “I think your subconscious sometimes knows more than your conscious does, so you program something thinking, ‘That feels right! I don’t know why.’”

With Lethal Weapon, we discussed the deeper Christmas meaning in the film. Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs, has a redemption arc where escalating violence spares him of his suicidal tendencies. It’s one of very few Christmas-set films to tap into the mindset of seasonal depression, what with its famous moment where Riggs recklessly saves a suicide jumper consumed by “the silly season.”

Hammill, much like me, saw the film when he was only ten. Like Steven Spielberg, a Hammill idol and fellow USC student, he is a child of divorce. Before the film began, he spoke warmly of his late father, who was often chastised by his mother for allowing him to watch R-rated films. He had seen Lethal during its initial theatrical run in 1987. He captivated Hammill and his sister with descriptions and re-enactments of the film’s craziest moments. When the film arrived on video in the fall, they rented it. Hammill immediately fell in love.

It’s here that I realize a connection to Hammill. With few exceptions, my mom kept me off the hook with whatever movies I wanted to see. He is amazed by what I was allowed to see at such a young age. Among them: Face/Off, The Game, The Big Lebowski, and The General’s Daughter, the latter of which resulted in a phone call from my middle school with teacher and parent concerns that I’d seen the grossly mismarketed thriller where John Travolta investigates a grisly rape-murder that sends shockwaves through Washington.

“I think my mom is on an MPAA watch list for all of this,” I joked.

Think about the future!

“Think about the future,” Jack Napier tells corrupt cop Lt. Eckhardt before killing him in Tim Burton’s Batman. Hammill is already several steps ahead, with the first quarter of 2019 mapped out and beyond. January covers Best Picture winners in time for the Oscars, “the good ones,” he jokes. February offers “360 Degrees of Romance” for Valentine’s Day. March will focus on action films of the 21st century with 35mm prints of Attack the Block, The Raid, Mad Max: Fury Road, and others.

A January matinee of The Muppet Movie will be paired with a collection of Looney Tunes shorts. This is significant for anyone from Generation X and beyond, considering how post-boomer audiences first became acquainted with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the animated Warner Bros. repertoire on Saturday mornings and cable.

For other matinees, Hammill is waiting for the go signal to get prints of Toho’s Godzilla films in the coming months, which will serve as a necessary appetizer for May 31’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

“It would be very funny if that ends up being April, May,” Hammill hoped.

Perhaps the most tantalizing offerings from Hammill are Peter Jackson’s elusive triumvirate of shameless, gore-soaked horror comedies from New Zealand—Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Dead Alive. Meet the Feebles has never received a proper disc release, while the other two have been long out of print on disc

Hammill is working with Jackson’s Wingnut Films to secure prints for the films, whose rights recently reverted to Jackson. The Oscar winner is overseeing 4K remasters of each film for eventual Blu-ray releases. However, with no official announcement, the mere chance to see these films theatrically, especially considering their threadbare initial releases in the United States, is an event.

No firm date is scheduled. He hopes to show them before the end of March, but he warned me, “I’m a superstitious guy.” Nevertheless, negotiations point to the films getting a proper exhibition at the Vista soon, one that most American fans only discovered by virtue of video stores in the 90’s.

Recurring through 2019 will be two series of monthly films: “Deep Dish 70’s America,” focusing on the New Hollywood boom, and the films of Akira Kurosawa. Things kick off in January with Dirty Harry and Rashomon.

“35mm is a medium that gets as close to dreams as I think we’ve yet come up with,” Hammill firmly stated. “But bottom line… we want to show great movies on the medium of which they originated.”

Hammill also hopes to obtain a 35mm print of 1987’s A Chinese Ghost Story, a cult favorite that he enthusiastically describes as “a Hong Kong blockbuster Evil Dead II if it were a romance and was also an epic filled with Chinese mythology and pop music.”

The film was set to screen in September as part of a program of Hong Kong genre films, but coordination to obtain the print could not make it achievable on the schedule. Hammill told me he “fully [intends] to do it within the next year if I can plan it out right.”

“That’s the kind of movie that deserves a 35mm screening at the Vista,” Hammill wrote to me in an email before we met.

It’s also worth noting that Hammill is not exactly a film purist. There are exceptions: Ridley Scott’s personal preferences led to his screening of Blade Runner be projected in DCP, despite the existence of 35mm prints of the 1982 film in its 1992 director’s cut form. There’s also matters where a 35mm print does not exist, such as Sicario, the uncompromising Denis Villeneuve crime drama that screens in the March series.

“This is the only screen you should be looking at,” Hammill tells the audience before films to silence their cell phones and refrain from talking, as it should be. Inside the Secret Movie Club, the theatrical experience is alive and kicking, and rarely can a theatrical revival be as refreshing and unpredictable as with a man like Craig Hammill.

Secret Movie Club screens most Friday and Saturday nights at midnight. Matinees usually run at 10 a.m. on Saturday mornings. They can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Tickets for upcoming shows can be purchased through their Eventbrite page.

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