Gazing into the Crystal ball
Missoula entrepreneurs struggle to run the biggest little movie house in town
It took Robert Duvall, an Oscar-winning actor and proven box-office draw, 13 years to make his latest film, The Apostle, playing this week at the New Crystal Theatre. The big Hollywood studios told him that the subject matter-a preacher/murderer seeking redemption in the Deep South-wouldn't appeal to mainstream audiences.
Eventually Duvall went his own route with the film, which he produced and directed, drawing on $5 million of his personal money, bringing together Farrah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton, June Carter Cash and Miranda Richardson to co-star, arranging for Lyle Lovett to sing on the soundtrack, and garnering in the outcome a Best Actor nomination from the Academy of Motion Pictures for his turn as Euliss "Sonny" Dewey.
In terms of poetic justice, it makes sense that this celebrated film, which struggled into existence, is being screened at the Missoula movie house which is still trying to find a permanent niche for itself, despite a quarter-century history in the Garden City.
In the movie's defining scene, Sonny-who has left behind his family and his church following an altercation that leaves his wife's boyfriend in the hospital-faces down a troublemaker in a tractor who wants to raze his new church.
Sonny's little roadhouse of worship has been renovated with the help of the community's children and has given a multi-racial group of worshippers a place to pray. As the confrontation escalates, members of the congregation set their Bibles in the bulldozer's path as a challenge to the trespasser. When confronted by such a show of faith, this angry stranger ceases to menace the church and even allows the leader of the flock to embrace him.
The scene reminds the viewer that faith in anything-be it a higher power, making a film or trying to set up a non-profit business-can lend even the most flawed individuals undeniable strength. For this reason and more, I pause when Tam Armstrong, who along with Joel Baird has been managing the Crystal Theatre since it went non-profit nearly a year ago, says to me: "We could use an Apostle every month."
Armstrong laughs as she says this, a touch self-conscious I imagine because the Crystal's currently shaky finances mean that it's going to take a lot of faith and more than a few truly popular movies to keep Missoula's only bona fide art house open beyond the next few years.
Armstrong and I are talking in the projection booth in the back of the Crystal Theatre, where she is assembling the week's midnight movie, The Usual Suspects, on a mechanical platter the size of a wagon wheel.
The conversation is all over the place, bouncing from the fact that Armstrong has been coming to the Crystal ever since her girlhood in Missoula 25 years ago, to the changing soundtrack technology which will require an outlay of several thousand dollars so the theater can update the 40-plus-year-old 35 mm projector used to screen most of the films.
Starting last May, the Crystal Theatre and Video Store, a constant unit going back more than a decade, ceased to exist as a single entity. The operation's owner Jace Laakso, citing a host of logistical problems both financial and otherwise, decided to turn the theater portion over to his longtime employees, moving the video store to a new building kitty-corner across Higgins. Armstrong and Baird, in turn, paid Laakso enough to absolve his investment in the project, and decided to turn the New Crystal into a non-profit media arts center.
"I used to think it was just a hobby, but I'm over that," says Armstrong, who has worked in movie theaters most of her adult life. When the Crystal changed hands, it seemed like a good idea to all parties involved. Laakso wouldn't have to close down the beloved Missoula gathering place, which had just celebrated its 25th anniversary, and Armstrong and Baird could keep on plugging away at jobs they enjoyed.
Plus, they got to take on the challenge of setting the Crystal up as a non-profit, a plan which had struck Laakso as too difficult given the demands of the video shop. And so, like true believers, the pair struck out on a new adventure.
According to the mission statement for the New Crystal Theatre Inc., the main job of the business has changed very little since the days when a teenaged Armstrong sat in the dark and waited to be transported to foreign lands. The free popcorn and emphasis on Charlie Chaplin have vanished, and the words used to articulate the goal may be different. But the theater's raison d'être continues to be "bringing international and independent films that would not be otherwise available."
"We're positioning ourselves as an educational charity," Baird says. "As a non-profit, we've put the institution on the seesaw of the public trust. From my understanding, no one really owns it; this is part of community, set up to support the idea and not the individuals."
This strategy could work well in a town with Missoula's clear sense of civic pride. The particulars of running a non-profit, though, are still being explored in a very general way.
The only model the Crystal managers have in the state of Montana is Helena Presents, in the capital city. The differences between that long-standing non-profit set up 23 years ago, turning the Second Story Cinema into a regional powerhouse which now brings Broadway musicals and musical concerts of all stripes to Helena, and the newly reborn Crystal are unavoidable.
In a phone conversation, Les Benedict of the Myrna Loy Media Center, talks in terms of grants for general support from the MacArthur Foundation and elsewhere, explaining that in really good years Helena Presents has only needed about 30 percent of their financial support from the public sector. By contrast, fundraising at the Crystal thus far has ranged from last weekend's Mardi Gras party-which may have broken even-to an anonymous grant from a grateful Missoulian for $5,000 this January.
Both Armstrong and Baird are quick to point out that they are still in the learning phase. With its own non-profit status yet to be finalized, the Crystal is currently operating under the umbrella of Montanans for Quality TV, a local media artists advocacy group. Armstrong and Baird have yet to figure out where the bulk of the estimated $25,000 annual budget is going to come from. In this age of video and cable television, they ruefully note ticket sales don't seem to be the key, and Baird chalks the recent Mardi Gras party up to learning and consciousness raising, adding that the goal is to not lose too much money right now.
"We're not exactly in an area traditionally associated with the arts," Baird says, "nor is the Crystal posited in a more grandiose setting like the museum. So we're being tested on all kinds of levels. And even though we're already conducting it like a business, we have to remember to run it like a non-profit."
Nonetheless, Bard says, while the Crystal could use some capital, current projections show them at least meeting their costs through grants, loans and private donations, if not fulfilling their ultimate dreams of becoming a full service, multi-media performance center.
The irony that most of the film industry worries about grossing millions in the first weekend, and then quickly turns its attention to the next big project rarely escapes Armstrong. She not only puts together the films when they arrive by train, plane and automobile, but also books them, sometimes pestering the distributors with dozens of phone calls months in advance to get the movies she wants.
While both the Carmike Cinemas on the strip and the Wilma Theatre downtown have the advantage of multiple screens, which ensure a certain level of name recognition for the movies they show, the Crystal has its lone scrim.
And when an independent film gets released, Armstrong says, the booking agents are usually more likely to look to those other houses first, if only because the odds are greater that curiosity will draw in at least a few warm bodies.
"I read about all the movies. I've got at least 10 different magazines, including industry catalogues, and then I search on the web," she says. "And the first thing I do when I find out something's coming that I'm interested in is call the distributor and find out if it's even possible that they want to book it at a one-screen, 130-seat theater."
Adding insult to injury is the fact that Montana ranks on the C list, after almost every other region in the country. So even if the audience is there for a film such as The Apostle or The Ice Storm (an acclaimed drama starring Kevin Kline-set to open at the Crystal on March 13, though it was released last fall in most major markets), the upshot is it will arrive late, and sometimes not at all.
Armstrong notes that the lack of copies of a given film can also hold up a Montana release, and after a few months the chance that it will come out on video (ironically ending up at Crystal Video or on other local shelves) increases, diminishing the number of potential theater-goers as well as the willingness of distributors to go to the extra trouble of supplying Montanans with a big screen experience.
The chance to screen films with particular points of view and unique perspectives keeps both Armstrong and Baird hard at work trying to move the Crystal from its tenuous present into a more ideal future.
"Kids today," Armstrong says, "they have the world at their fingertips, and I'm worried that they won't have the chance to the experience at an art house movie theater that I had. You are not going to get it on the Internet, and I don't think we can afford to lose it."
Baird, who works in local public schools teaching visual literacy-how to "read" film and video-adds that the films which make up the Crystal's roster often speak to audiences who have been largely ignored by mainstream filmmakers. The midnight shows are the exception to that rule, though Baird notes that the screenings on Friday and Saturday nights offer an alternative to just driving around.
But more to the point, he says, it's the foreign films and movies which address or portray minority viewpoints that have the greatest impact on the audience.
Baird combines a few different models when asked about what the ultimate goal for the Crystal might be. His description makes the Crystal sound like it might be a sort of living museum down the road, where the exhibits alternate between live performances, movie screenings, and during the day, various sorts of community meetings.
In many ways, in fact, the theater is moving that direction.
With gay town meetings, and Tuesday night discussions taking place after the movies, the Crystal approaches Jace Laakso's dream version of a space with two screens and two stages-a model which parallels closely the better established Myrna Loy Center in Helena. (Of course, Helena doesn't have the University of Montana influence, either, which while supplying a certain number of culture mavens, also competes for part of the Crystal's target audience by providing alternative entertainment in the form of theater, concerts and the like.)
"With our discussions, and the tone and mood of the space, we want to offer a cinema club-and not in the elitist sense," Baird says. "I like the fact that people get in line, get a ticket, find your space, sit in the dark and it still has a community aspect.
"But it's a sad state of affairs right now. The mall is our most common church, where we occupy physical space and explore intellectual and emotional experiences together. It's worth not aping the six-plex to get to that point, or to ape the six-plex in our narrow way to get that experience."
Michel Valentin, a New Crystal board member, UM professor and professed cinephile, clearly likes Hollywood films, but that doesn't stop him from trying to separate the entertainment value of Hollywood movies from the aesthetic and cultural importance of the international, independent film scene.
For Valentin, it's clear that cinema can be as artistic as any painting or literature. "Let's not put down Hollywood," he says. "But American cinema is over-cooked. It's over-polished and it's running out of ideas. People have become blasé because Hollywood is not plugging into emotion.
"But there is another kind of fun, which comes from art. Art is jarring, and it gives an alternative to the repetitive, sugary films. And when people see a movie that provokes a revelation, which brings them out of their malaise, it connects much more with the inner experience."
Be that as it may, it's clear that Missoula is not the only place where independents are losing out or selling out to the big boys and girls in Hollywood. In a culture that's so much about consumption, few things reflect this like the entertainment industry, which is always quick to turn talent into a hot commodity. In the nation's film capitals of New York and Los Angeles, as well as countless college towns sprinkled across the continent, art houses are struggling to survive while multiplexes are booming.
More to the point, says Armstrong, the filmmakers who have relied for so long on the interest of audiences looking for something beyond the mainstream are finding themselves a new home in Hollywood.
She points to directors like Gus Van Zandt, who before finding fame as the director of To Die For and Good Will Hunting, pushed the limits of popular taste with the cult hits Drugstore Cowboy, a tale of heroine junkies, and My Own Private Idaho, the story of a narcoleptic male prostitute played by the late River Phoenix.
"We wouldn't have guys like that if it weren't for places like the Crystal," she says. "Now we can't even get their films."
Nevertheless, there remain filmmakers trying to attain some sort of vision beyond the countless ticket stubs and product tie-ins that dominate the pop culture airwaves. Duvall's recent success is a reminder of that, a fact which doesn't escape Armstrong.
And though neither she nor Baird come right out and say it, it's clear on some deep level they both know that their struggle is much closer to that of Sonny the Preacher than Duvall the Actor. Unlike Duvall, they have no big bank account to draw on, relying instead on their own abilities and the good will of the community. And the end result will not be the national recognition of an Academy Award, but a little theater where they can stretch their horizons and reflect on the dreams of others.
Joel Baird and Tam Armstrong see the Crystal’s future in terms of a community gathering place, with live performances and art supplementing the independent film fare. Photo by Jeff Powers.
The Crystal is the only theater in Missoula providing alternative popcorn seasonings with its avant-garde film offerings. Photo by Jeff Powers.