I had the privilege of teaching Film History at Humboldt State University in northern California for one brief but life-changing year from 2004-2005. Being a part of HSU was a great experience, but what made the Film History class extraordinary for me was the Minor Theatre…

If you have heard of Humboldt that is probably because you’ve smoked some of its infamous cash crop. There is, however, more to humble Humboldt…

Humboldt County lies a few hours north of San Francisco along the California coast. Frequently when I say this people are startled to learn that there is anything “a few hours north of San Francisco” that isn’t Oregon. If you have heard of Humboldt that is probably because you’ve smoked some of its infamous cash crop. There is, however, more to humble Humboldt than marijuana, and that was certainly not my reason for being there.

Desperate for work, I had moved up there from Los Angeles to teach part-time at the community college, College of the Redwoods, in Eureka. CR was a little piece of heaven for me, tucked between redwood-covered hills, and I loved living between the ancient forrest and rugged coast and having my morning coffee with the harbor seals and otters. I was struggling along financially, though, because my teaching gig was only part time.

Through the local academic network, I happened to meet Charlie Myers, beloved local film critic and Film Studies Professor at Humboldt State University (HSU). We got along famously, and it so happened that within a year, he decided to retire and recommended that HSU hire me to take over his Film History course. Naturally I was delighted and jumped at the opportunity.

Me and Charlie
Me and Charlie, 2005

Charlie told me, off-handedly, that the class held its screenings at the local Arcata movie house, the Minor Theatre. And that was pretty much the extent of what he told me to prep me for the job.

The Minor,  just off Arcata’s town plaza, was built in 1914. It’s well-known among movie-theater-history-buffs — all 12 of them — as one of the country’s oldest still-operating theaters built specifically to show movies (as opposed to a converted vaudeville house or storefront).

Arcata Plaza
Arcata Plaza (Minor Theater out of frame).

In 2003, when I took over the Film History class at HSU, the Minor was owned by Michael Thomas and David Phillips aka The Minor Theater Corp. The Minor Theater Corp. had began as a group of movie-loving college friends who bought, restored, and reopened the Minor in 1972. Though they’d since moved away from the area, Thomas and Phillips looked after their darling theater with great care, civic-mindedness, and cinema-savvy panache. It screened first-run and art house fare.

The Minor Theater was profoundly good to my HSU class. Their staff came in two and a half hours early on our screening day. We had a devoted projectionist who arrived even earlier to platter everything up and check for odd maskings, aspect ratios and such. There was also always someone on lobby duty who greeted us and sold us small popcorns for $.25! There is something about the smell of fresh popcorn, carpeted aisles, and balcony seating that cannot be captured in a college auditorium setting — or worse yet, in a classroom with a 65″ HDTV, which is how many of us have to teach Film History now. But I’ve jumped ahead of my story….

I could not know that I was witnessing film’s swan song and that, through the grace of chance and my little film history class, I would be permitted to orchestrate a couple of notes.

I did realize, as I prepared for the class, what a treat it would be for my students to see the films on a big screen in an actual movie theater. But this rare opportunity we’d been given was even rarer than I could know at the time because we would be screening actual film prints. In 2004, the shift to all-digital projection was not at all a fait accompli. Many believed theaters would continue to project film, if not forever, then for generations hence. So I had no way of knowing that within a decade my incoming students would not clearly remember seeing actual projected film, would vaguely remember DVD rental stores, would prefer to stream movies that they half-watch while doing five other things without caring if they miss scenes or even the ending. In 2004, I could not know that I was witnessing film’s swan song and that, through the grace of chance and my little film history class, I would be permitted to orchestrate a couple of notes.

The Minor 2010
The Minor Theater circa 2010, as it looked when my class screenings were held there.

Yeah, I can romanticize it now, but at the time I was mired in logistics, and before I could get the class under way there was the matter of securing the films.

Lessons in Film Distribution

The HSU Film History class, as I inherited it, had not been clearly defined; it didn’t even have a textbook. It was vaguely global in scope. Charlie had mostly shown films he liked and made those the basis of lessons on aesthetics, narrative, genre, etc. Coming from UCLA I had a more stringent academic sensibility. He had kicked off his class with a screening of The Grifters (Frears, 1990). I felt an obligation to cover some kind of “cannon”  because Film History was the one and only film studies class being offered at HSU. If I didn’t show my students Citizen Kane, I suspected they might never see it.

I was given an email address for Mike Thomas and told to send him my list of films. That was all I was told. My class at CR screened DVDs via a video projector (which was actually a very nice set-up), and I could get almost anything on DVD. It never occurred to me that it would be a vastly different scenario when it came to actual films. Yes, I was that naive about it.

.. the first film on my list was The Birth of a Nation. Where the heck did I think he would get that?.

When poor Mike got my list of movies he must have either fainted or burst out laughing. He was in Los Angeles, so I can’t say for sure. It turned out that it was simple for him to get films from the Warner Brothers library — like Top Hat (Sandwich, 1935) and Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) —because the Minor regularly screened their new releases. Likewise Paramount. But the first film on my list was The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1914). Where the heck did I think he would get that? He very kindly emailed back explaining that if I could figure out where to get it — and half of the other exotic titles I’d requested — he would see what he could do. And that is how I learned about film distribution by the seat of my pants.

Did you know that renting a film in 2004 cost between $150 – $450? Most of that covers shipping because they are huge and heavy in their big metal canisters. It was usually the newly restored prints that were $300-$450, some of which probably covered insurance.

Did you also know there are certain film distributors who believe you owe them their fee even if you screen your institution’s DVD? This I learned when quoted the price to rent a print of The Bicycle Thief from New Yorker Films which was too high for my class budget. I sighed that I would have to screen the DVD instead. The woman to whom I spoke handed the phone to her boss who screamed at me that any showing of said film, to which he owned theatrical rights, entitled him to the money — whether he shipped me a film or I projected a DVD — and “no exceptions for educational purposes!” (So the next time you show that one for your own film history class, you better send him a $250 check before they go bankrupt a second time.)

And it may seem to you a no-brainer that when one rents a silent film print it may actually arrive without any soundtrack whatsoever. Duh, right? I was so used to renting silents on DVD which always had some kind of score, I hadn’t realized some prints would arrive with nada! And watching a silent film in total silence does not workat all!

Lessons in Film Viewing

Well, I did manage to get The Birth of a Nation for our first screening. Some of you are shouting, “Why?!?” Others of you are dying to know how. But I will have to leave that until our next exciting episode…

Footnotes:

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