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You would think that Los Angeles, the place where Tinseltown shines its tinsel, would have the biggest and most sophisticated movie audiences in the nation.
You would be wrong.
It was a surprise last month when the National Endowment for the Arts compiled state-by-state data for arts participation and found that the highest percentages of people going out for an evening of art and entertainment weren't in the big population centers on the coasts, but in the so-called "flyover country" of America's heartland.
Specifically, the state of Utah topped many of the major statistics. In moviegoing, Utah was No. 1, with 76.2 percent of residents going to a movie at least once in the calendar year 2015. The national average was just 58.4 percent.
In terms of seeing art-house movies the foreign and independent stuff outside the mainstream blockbuster fare Los Angeles also suffers by comparison.
L.A.-based film critic Michael Nordine lamented his city's art-house problem in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last year. He asked: "It's long been known that the art house scene in Los Angeles lags behind that of New York, but must we be outdone by Iowa City and Bloomington as well?"
He could have added Utah to that list.
Salt Lake City is remarkably blessed to have seven art-house screens the one at The Tower Theatre and the six in the Broadway Centre Cinemas. Up the road in Park City, the Park City Film Series serves up offbeat fare to the mountain town's denizens every weekend.
The Salt Lake Film Society (the nonprofit that runs the Tower and Broadway) and the Park City Film Series will celebrate the joys of screening nonmainstream fare this Saturday as part of the first-ever national Art House Theater Day.
The event, says SLFS director Tori Baker, began as an idea discussed at the Art House Convergence, an annual convention of independent theater operators held every January (just before the Sundance Film Festival) in Midway. SLFS is a charter member of the group, which Baker said began as a weekly conference call among theater owners, comparing notes about their work, and has now grown into a convention that this year drew 600 attendees.
Baker said Art House Theater Day started with one question: "Why don't we have a day to celebrate the valued proposition of art houses?"
Other facets of the entertainment industry have done it. April brings National Record Store Day and Independent Bookstore Day, and there's Free Comic Book Day every May. So why not a day, Baker said, that spotlights "the bricks-and-mortar home for cinema across the nation"?
For Katharine Wang, executive director of the Park City Film Series, it's a day to celebrate "what art-house theaters are contributing to the cultural environment of the community."
The two nonprofit organizations share parallel histories.
The Park City Film Series started in 1995, Wang said, originally as part of the Park City Arts Council, and became a separate entity in 1999. It was started by Park City residents who wanted to have the year-round experience of seeing movies they saw at the Sundance Film Festival, which they could only get by driving into Salt Lake City.
"It's nice you can have something you can walk to, or be five minutes away [by car], instead of going down the canyon," Wang said.
The Salt Lake Film Society was formed in 2001 to keep the historic but then-floundering Tower Theatre from going under. SLFS later took over operations at the Broadway.
Art-house theaters, Baker said, are different from mainstream multiplexes because of the selections in movies. Rather than just taking whatever the movie studios are offering each week, she said, "you can curate the best from contemporary artists working today. … If you really want culturally specific stories, Hollywood's not going to make those anymore, except for the broad-scale and operatic."
Curation having people who know movies picking the programs is something that's going out of style in an age when people go on streaming services (like Netflix and Amazon) where algorithms recommend movies based on stuff the viewer has seen before (or, more often, stuff the company is trying to push).
"They're never going to have a search aggregator that says, 'I'm interested in Indian culture,' " she said. "That sort of browsing function you used to have in video stores, that's more difficult."
For Wang in Park City, Art House Theater Day is a chance to show the different facets of the Park City Film Series.
The main selection for the weekend is the documentary "Dark Horse," a Sundance award winner about a Welsh town whose residents banded together to buy and raise a champion racehorse. In addition to being a good movie and a Sundance hit, it's "kind of a nice acknowledgment about the celebration of community," Wang said.
On Saturday, the Park City series also will screen two shorts from the Belgian animated series "A Town Called Panic." They will screen the shorts twice, once in English and once in French, in keeping with the series' Dual Immersion program to teach languages to children.
The Salt Lake Film Society, Baker said, will have surprises at both locations Saturday and will sell theater swag (such as custom posters from the Tower's summer late-night series). The Broadway will play its regular lineup of films Saturday, while the Tower has a grab-bag of special screenings: "A Town Called Panic," the fraternity drama "Goat," the 1981 fantasy adventure "Time Bandits" and horror cult-classic "Phantasm."
Baker credits the Art House Convergence in helping independent theaters better showcase their shared mission.
"There's not necessarily a national understanding about what a home for cinema like ours does. We're defining that right now as a group," Baker said, adding that Art House Theater Day "is our way of saying we're getting farther along on that path."