Once, there were palaces. The Capitol, the United Artists, the Riviera, the National, the Madison — glittery, awe inspiring shrines to the magic of movie-going that offered Hollywood's cream and curd alike to massive urban audiences.
Now, the thrill is gone, and like so many Detroit icons, so are the movie houses. In the midcentury glory days there were roughly a dozen theaters just in the loop around Grand Circus Park alone, and the neighborhoods were served by hundreds of smaller local, neighborhood one-screen affairs. Today there is just one.
Yes, there are still a few grand old gems, like the Redford, the Detroit Film Theatre, and the newly rejuvenated Senate that run weekend shows and special events. But with recent closing of the Ren Cen 4, the last remaining movie theater operating seven days a week in the city is Cinema Detroit, currently located in a former elementary school on a stretch of Cass Avenue that has remained mostly untouched by the resurrection happening nearby.
That the city has so many past tenses and so many abandoned projects and structures is an old story. But the new story being told about the now and the yet to be is largely thanks to people like Paula and Tim Guthat, the couple who opened Cinema Detroit two years ago, who are now poised to expand their dreams with a cozier and more modern location several blocks north.
Tim handles the business side — the HR, accounting, operations, front of the house, etc., while Paula is the creative director and programmer. It is her vision that has turned Cinema Detroit into a sustainable enterprise, and one that is swiftly building a loyal audience.
That vision involves eclectic but still accessible programming, mixing classics, first run, indie, and studio "prestige" releases, along with true underground and locally made films. Recently Cinema Detroit was the venue in town for where you could catch Kristen Wiig's weirdly absorbing dramedy Welcome to Me, scooping the suburban chains.
Paula works to balance her own tastes with audience expectations, to create an engaging and diverse schedule, without becoming too challenging or precious. "Growth comes from what your customers are telling you they want, and those that aren't listening are usually out of business pretty quickly," she says. The Burton Theatre's previous occupants, a maverick group of film obsessives (some of whom are now working as Corktown Cinema) tended toward the truly esoteric choices, and had an often contentious relationship with the property's owner and eccentric Cass Corridor mini-mogul Joel Landy.
The Guthats have seemingly avoided such pitfalls, or at least haven't publicly feuded with their landlord. Still, you can sense a tiny bit of relief in Paula's voice at the prospect of leaving the former Burton International School site — a compound not intended to be a film-going paradise, and a bit short of things like visible signage, and Wi-Fi access. "Well, it was used as a fallout shelter; it really was," Paula says. "The walls are thick. They built them to last back then, so it's kind of hard to get cellphone signals in there."
David Rudolph, Cinema Detroit's publicist, thinks that the new venue at 4126 Third St. will correct some of these quirks. "I think it's a cool feature, to have more of a 'loungey atmosphere,'" he says. "A more comfortable lobby area more conducive to the sort of post-movie conversations, or just where you wait while getting your concessions, pre- or post- director filmmaker discussions. Now the sky's the limit."
Nurturing those discussions is the aim of Cinema Detroit — to actively engage with the film fans, and to foster the culture of thinking. According to Rudolph, the presentation and environment only go so far in creating repeat business. "I say what the programming is, is what matters," he says. "It's more the programming that's offered that gets people in the door, and it's really the programming that Paula offers that stands out."
And the programming that matters most to Paula, and to the Midtown community, tend to be films focused on social justice issues — like Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears' documentary The Hand that Feeds that Paula says prefigured the movement to fight for the rights of food service employees and to raise the minimum wage. Another favorite selection was She's Beautiful When She's Angry, about the struggles of pioneering feminists in the '60s and '70s and the foundation of groups like NOW.
Paula speaks with passion about films like Citizenfour, Snowden, and Cointelpro 101 — about the activists who uncovered the FBI's surveillance program directed at private citizens — or Fresh Dressed, featuring the evolution of hip-hop fashion industry and rise of Shark Tank pitchman Daymond John, who founded the Fubu clothing empire.
Movies like these speak to what Paula calls "the NPR of going to a cinema experience."
"If it's going to be docudrama or a nonfiction film, I like films that really go into things and explain them," she says. "You have a public body that want to be educated. I think the Midtown area wants that, and I'll support that need. People in the city deserve to see a wide choice of things, but that doesn't mean we don't show entertaining movies." Case in point: the Nicolas Cage-themed Nic Uncovered event, which showcased many of the gonzo actor's cherished, over-the-top performances.
"Maybe I tend to overbook, but I want to showcase a lot of different kinds of filmmaking," Paula says. That mission appears to be ongoing, and Cinema Detroit hopes to keep on waging the good fight the best way they can.
Cinema Detroit will open Oct. 1 at their new location at 4126 Third Ave., Detroit; 313-281-8301; see cinemadetroit.com for more information.