Think late-night flicks are all “Rocky Horror” and “The Room”? Across the city, film programmers are rewriting midnight movie night rules.
As movie theaters spend more time trying to figure out how to compete for audiences with the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, one sector of the theatrical business remains happily and resolutely old-fashioned — the midnight movie.
As a cultural phenomenon that’s been part of the American cinematic landscape for approximately 50 years, midnight movie screenings continue to thrive in Los Angeles, with a range of venues offering regular screenings on Fridays and Saturdays. But as what constitutes a midnight movie is evolving faster than your Netflix queue, so too are the people who venture out into the wee hours to consume them. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the people helping to shape this new era of late-night programming are products of L.A.’s midnight-movie history.
But first, let’s review your midnight screening options. In Los Feliz, there’s Secret Movie Club, which screens mostly 35mm films. Around Mid-Wilshire, there’s the hallowed New Beverly Cinema, which reopened early this year and also screens 35mm movies. On the Westside, the Regent Theatre hosts monthly screenings of Tommy Wiseau’s cult movie “The Room” — best known by film critics, of course, as one of the worst movies ever made — while the Nuart offers Friday and Saturday screenings, the latter devoted to the long-running camp classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Mark Valen, a film buyer for Landmark Theatres, (which operates the Regent and Nuart theaters) says he has been drawn to midnight movies since he was a kid.
“When I was a teenager, I grew up in Santa Monica,” Valden says, “and there was a theater in the neighborhood that started doing midnight shows of fairly recent movies that had started growing a cult following. I would occasionally go to these midnight shows — there were a few theaters around L.A. that would do them. And then when I was 18, I started working at a movie theater, and they gradually started doing midnight shows, which were fun. So I have them in my upbringing as a film nerd.”
The path wasn’t that different for Secret Movie Club’s Craig Hammill, a self-described fourth-generation Angeleno and aspiring filmmaker who attended USC cinema school and stumbled upon hush-hush screenings hosted by the video rental store Cinefile Video.
“I would go to Cinefile in the ’00s,” Hammill says. “[The employees] would kind of elbow you if they noticed you were renting a lot of their movies. They’d be like, ‘Hey, we’re showing this crazy movie Wednesday at midnight right next door [at the Nuart].’”
It was at these screenings that he was introduced to cult curiosities like 1984’s “Ninja III: The Domination.”
“Sometimes the movie was just bad,” he says. “But when it was a Cannon movie or a crazy movie like “Bonnie’s Kids” it was just a joy.”
The New Beverly didn’t respond to Los Angeleno’s interview requests, but no one need doubt the bona fides of its programmer, Oscar-winning cinephile Quentin Tarantino, who bought the theater in 2010 after years of subsidizing its operations.
“I totally went to the New Beverly. I went to it all the time,” the filmmaker told Deadline in 2014. “There was a big revival thing out here in the late ’70s, early ’80s. I grew up in Los Angeles, so I frequented all the revival houses. There’s something really cool about the New Beverly hanging in there and being the last one.”
Because of its roots in the psychedelic imagery and uncompromising peculiarity of a work like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” — which became a sensation when it screened at midnight in the 1970s — it’s easy, if inaccurate, to categorize midnight movies as extreme, genre-y cult items too weird or indelicate for viewing during normal hours. The success of “Rocky Horror” and “The Room” — so-bad-they’re-good films that have cultivated a loyal following — only amplifies this misconception. But look at L.A.’s midnight movie options and you’ll see a far more varied slate. The Nuart features horror movies like John Carpenter’s “The Thing” alongside cheeky treasures like “A Hard Day’s Night.” Secret Movie Club makes space for beloved action movies, but also daringly serves up thought-provoking, meditative dramas such as Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.”
“Certainly there was a time when the midnight movie held a unique allure,” says Russ Fischer, co-founder of Marquee L.A., a website and newsletter that provides a curated overview of the city’s best and most adventurous film screenings. “It was a way to see something new or strange when that wasn’t easy to come by, or to connect with a distinct moviegoing culture. Now, with the exception of something like ‘Rocky Horror,’ which still plays by its own rules, I think the midnight audience wants a genuine experience.”
That genuine experience is part of Hammill’s strategy. After all, he structures the Secret Movie Club’s programming off his own instincts and what loyal attendees request.
“The thing with us is I can only show these movies at midnight,” Hammill says. “It was by default because that’s the only rate I could afford.”
When Secret Movie Club got started in April 2015, he was looking for a venue that could continue a club he’d started at USC where he’d screen movies and bring in guests. The Vista opened its doors, with the stipulation that he couldn’t interfere with the regular programming.
“I was just programming movies I loved that I wanted to see with an audience,” he says. “So the funny thing is this thing has organically evolved where we’re going to do ‘Barry Lyndon’ and ‘A Woman Under the Influence.’ Those are not your standard midnight movies. I just think people are coming and seeing great movies.”
“I do try to keep it fairly eclectic so it’s not all action movies,” Valen says of his midnight programming. “But, you know, action movies do tend to be pretty popular on the cult circuit.”
Which brings to mind a question: Who is the audience for midnight movies?
One might envision a young and nerdy film-loving bro, some real-world variation of “The Simpsons’” Comic Book Guy.
“I think it’s still pretty much a young crowd, like 16-40 is the main age range,” Valen says.
But according to Valen, Hammill and Fischer, although the stereotype of the midnight-movie crowd being predominantly male remains mostly accurate, there is a gender shift occurring. In part, that’s because of the films being programmed. Valen points to a large female turnout for a showing of “Clueless,” while Hammill says he’ll never forget screening “When Harry Met Sally” and seeing a Hummer van pull up in front of the Vista to unload a group of women.
“I don’t know if it was a bachelorette party or if it was just a party,” he says, “but it was great.”
Midnight programming is hardly an exact science. The New Beverly has been unafraid to lean heavily on 35mm prints of Tarantino films since the theater’s reopening, while also slotting ’70s and ’80s comedies like “Animal House” and “Amazon Women on the Moon.”
There’s always a bit of trial-and-error when trying out new possibilities for midnight offerings, but Valen found success taking a chance on a recent film, the critically acclaimed and visually opulent 2018 Nicolas Cage revenge flick “Mandy.”
“I don’t generally play a new film,” he says. “If a new horror film is coming out on Amazon Prime, it’s going to be seen by a million eyes on their laptop. But “Mandy” was a VOD release — the theatrical showings were very limited — and it grew a cult reputation very quickly. I thought, ‘Gosh, it’s so visual.’ It was very psychedelic, too, which lends itself to a midnight movie.”
The bet paid off. Valen programmed “Mandy” in December and has screened it a couple more times.
“Fans have said [there’s] nothing like it on the big screen,” he says. “That’s always a really great thing when something like that occurs, where the fans just know that they’re going to get a better experience going to a theater to see that.”
Still, both Valen and Hammill admit that they can’t take too many risks.
“If a few movies were not to at least break even, we would not be doing well,” Hammill says. “We’ve been having to figure out how to take more chances.”
In this regard, Tarantino is in an enviable position as a programmer. Speaking with LA Weekly five years ago about the New Beverly’s overall schedule, which often consists of his own prints of classic and cult films, Tarantino said, “If you’re not worried about packing the house because you can’t make your rent, then you can have a lot of fun. If people come, fine. If they don’t, fuck them.”
Of course, some movies seem inexhaustible — like “Rocky Horror,” a Nuart Saturday night special. When Disney recently acquired Fox, there were some industry observers who worried that the Mouse House’s reluctance to allow its films to be shown in repertory would spell doom for the Tim Curry musical, which was owned by Fox. Valen is relieved to announce that this won’t be an issue and that other Fox evergreens like “Die Hard” and “Aliens” are also safe. (Now if he could just convince Disney to allow its own films, like “Rushmore” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”)
As for the concern that a midnight movie might be too late for some viewers, well, that’s part of the fun. Last November, Hammill programmed “The Lord of the Rings” movies over three straight Saturdays. Recognizing how long each movie would be, he asked Warner Bros. for the theatrical editions rather than the extended versions. But when the first installment, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” started up he quickly realized that the studio had sent the longer version by mistake — and feared he’d exhaust his crowd.
“So, four in the morning rolls around,” he says, “and I remember these two people stumble out 10 minutes [from the end]. And they’re like, ‘Hey, man, maybe next time start it earlier!’ And I’m like, ‘Oh no.’ And then everybody else came out cheering: ‘Just do extended cuts the whole way! That was fucking awesome!’ Everyone was euphoric.”
Hammill laughs at the memory.
“So now it’s, I think, in a weird way become kind of punk rock,” he says.
As Fischer puts it, “Dreaming through a movie is its own beautiful thing. The midnight movie is the one remaining cultural experience where it is accepted and even expected that you might nod off here and there — and that the experience might be better for it.”