Microcinemas: Big Screen, Little Risk

Microcinemas bring classics and cult films to a passionate audience

Microcinemas

image by Stephanie Glaros

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From the outside, the Trylon “microcinema” in Minneapolis looks more like a vacant office space than a movie theater. But past the front door of the short, bland brick building and through an upstart gallery space, lovers of vintage film can see Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert thumbing a ride in It Happened One Night, Walter Matthau scrambling to stop Robert Shaw’s hijacked subway train in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, or Debbie Harry shoving a Betamax tape into James Woods’ oozing gut in Videodrome.

Thanks to Netflix and online streaming, movies have never been more readily available. Still, the increasing scarcity of repertory cinema has left small but devoted audiences hungry for the experience of watching classics in rooms full of like-minded strangers rather than at home alone.

The Trylon is testing the theory that the best—and perhaps only—way to put old movies on a big screen in the cash-strapped, video-on-demand era is on a small scale. Microcinemas like the Trylon, with its mere 50 seats, and the All Saints Cinema, located in a train station in Tallahassee, Florida, have sprung up or survived where traditionally sized repertory houses, with their hundreds of seats and huge overhead, have been struggling or shuttered. A map at Wayfaring.com pinpoints the locations of 47 microcinemas throughout the country.

The Trylon’s owner and manager, Barry Kryshka, got into indie theater when a beloved local rep house, the Oak Street Cinema, closed. He founded the nomadic Take-Up Productions—and named it accordingly—to pick up the slack.

“We started by showing Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man in the alley behind a coffee shop, on the side of a white brick building,” recalls Kryshka. “Whenever a character in the movie was standing in front of a white wall, it turned into a white brick wall.”

From those modest guerrilla-style beginnings, Take-Up moved to programming series of movies—Hitchcock thrillers, ’40s and ’50s film noir, Depression-era screwball comedies—at various theaters. Profits from these wildly successful screenings were funneled into the construction of the Trylon, which sits adjacent to Kryshka’s other, more profitable business, an audiovisual equipment rental outfit that helps him run the theater as a de facto nonprofit.

Shrewdly installed with both 35mm and high-definition video projectors (not to mention a tiny popcorn stand), the Trylon opened in July with a Buster Keaton series. All 12 screenings, played to live musical accompaniment, were sold out. In a 50-seat room, that’s only 600 tickets. But the theater’s rent is only $800 a month, and the staff is all volunteers.

If the scrappy Trylon represents the cinema of the future, it may not be an entirely new model. Former Minneapolis film booker Adam Sekuler, who now programs alternative titles at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, likens Kryshka and company’s DIY endeavors to the first exhibitions of the University Film Society’s Al Milgrom, who is still stubbornly screening art cinema on the University of Minnesota campus.

“In the ’60s, Al would get grad students to help him splash white paint on the walls of classrooms and show his films there,” Sekuler says. “You can see [the Trylon] as the next wave of that tradition.”

Why expend all this effort on showing movies that people can watch at home?

Kryshka hesitates, then answers with a shy smile. “True movie lovers tend not to be the most social creatures,” he offers. “The beauty of a screening is that it gives socially skittish people a communal experience where they don’t have to talk.”