The Screen as a Campfire: Salt Lake Film Society�s Conversation Through Film

Salt Lake Film Society's Executive Director, Tori Baker, sits in the Broadway Theater, a space dedicated to the cultivation of cinema as art. Photo: Barrett Doran

Shortly after I introduce myself to Tori Baker, executive director of the Salt Lake Film Society, she introduces me to Paul Liacopoulos and Andik Wijaya, who are members of the staff. Next, she introduces me to the concessions workers. She familiarizes me with the projectionist equipment upstairs in the Broadway Centre Cinemas, the SLFS offices and the Broadway’s lobby. She introduces me to a space in which I can converse with others about the medium of film, where I can ostensibly be introduced to even myself through the experience of seeing a movie and identifying the significance of film within our Salt Lake community. “We’ve become a place where people come in, and then they want to talk with Andik about the film they’re about to see,” Baker says. “And when they leave the film, they want to talk with anybody in the lobby … about the film they just saw. They want to have a conversation and a dialogue and they want to grow as people and they want to have a community experience.”

Though film is a relatively new conversation—as opposed to ballet or the symphony—the SLFS has fostered its historical development. Paul and his sister, Kris Liacopoulos, bought the Tower Theatre in 1998, seeking to present film as an art form to the Salt Lake community and surrounding areas for the sake of their love of film. They did not expect to make profits. The siblings thereby converted the SLFS into a non-profit organization in 2000 in order to practically provide an outlet for under-the-radar films without breaking the bank by siphoning all their revenues to big-wig distributors. The Liacopouloses then identified the Broadway, a multiplex that downtown developers built to replace the former Broadway Corners theaters in 1991, as an impeccable space for artistic cinema. They moved their headquarters to the Broadway in 2001, which became what Baker calls “the defining moment of the film society, where the Broadway began sustaining the viability of the Tower.” Thus, with its six additional screens, the Broadway provided the means by which the society could attain more diverse bookings from film distributors and sustain the historic edifice that is Tower Theatre.

Through her seven-year tenure as executive director, Baker has helped the SLFS assess its involvement with the community and tinkered with programs in order to strengthen the best methods to permeate Salt Lake with film. The society boasts 12 community programs that allow the SLFS to be our “local art house.” Baker says, “We are your town hall; essentially, for cinema, about cinema and through cinema, seeing our lives and cultures here in Salt Lake City.” With their primary focus being on film education, SLFS has focused on lives and cultures that may otherwise not have access to seeing themselves represented on the movie screen. A program that Baker seems most eager to discuss is Big Pictures, Little People, which brings underprivileged children to the film-watching experience from places such as low-income daycare, foster homes and shelters like the YWCA and the World Home. Other programs have come to fruition with the aid of the Film Fostering Initiative: Local Open Screen allows filmmakers to exhibit their work at an SLFS venue in an open-mic-like fashion, and a writer’s project and digital director’s project allow artists in the community to develop their work. The society nurtures film writers in their organic evolution to become directors and, ultimately, producers.

The SLFS pumps every dollar that comes in through ticket sales, concessions, membership revenue, grant funding and public funding back into programs like Big Pictures, Little People and The Utah Screenwriters’ Project instead of large-scale movie distributors like Warner Bros., who can take 90 percent of theater revenues. Regarding content, SLFS has always offered artistic, American-independent, foreign-language and local films to those in the community whom Baker refers to as, “film fans that were obsessed with cinema in its art form and had had that Apocalypse Now experience with movies where they saw a film in a communal environment that … changed their perception about cinema.” Baker cites Brokeback Mountain as a textbook case where thousands flocked to the Broadway from SLC, surrounding cities and surrounding states: Larry H. Miller cinemas banned Brokeback Mountain from its theaters, which barred those who wanted to see a controversial, yet popular, film. Although providing a venue for thousands of disaffected moviegoers is an extreme example, screening this movie demonstrated the need for a space in which a community desired to engage a film with like-minded members of a community. SLFS provides cinema access that remains crucial for those without the resources to view films that they feel need their reflection. SLFS inquires grass-root sources—friends, radio stations and print publications like SLUG—asking, “What are your needs in regards to the art form we love?”

You can answer this question at the end of January by attending Sundance films for the 2011 festival, which SLFS has screened since they became a non-profit, with three Sundance screening areas at Broadway and one at the Tower (visit to purchase tickets). You can also be a part of the society’s growing history as they celebrate their tenth anniversary in late 2011: The Global Film Initiative will bring ten films from directors from ten different nations for high school and public screenings. Stay hip to for further information in the upcoming months.

Salt Lake Film Society's Executive Director, Tori Baker, sits in the Broadway Theater, a space dedicated to the cultivation of cinema as art. Photo: Barrett Doran