Clifton’s Esquire Theatre is primarily known as the city’s premier art/indie/specialty cinema, a place where the more critically praised narrative and documentary films like Echo in the Canyon, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am and The Last Black Man in San Francisco play alongside the more thoughtful and/or edgy Hollywood releases.
Now it is also seeking to expand its audience of Cincinnati theatergoing film buffs by booking at least one special presentation daily. It can be a familiar Hollywood classic, like Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca; an avant-garde cult release, like David Lynch’s ominous Eraserhead; or a new documentary aimed at educating cinephiles, such as Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, an overlooked early filmmaker.
Essentially, the Esquire has turned one of its six screens into an “event house” that offers a repertory-like calendar. The other five screens are continuing to present the new first-run indie/art/documentaries, as well as appropriate Hollywood releases like Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, on a week-by-week basis.
While the Esquire has long booked occasional special presentations, it only decided to have a full-time event house in mid-March. It is committed to this programming format at least into December and beyond if the audience warrants it. As word gets out, the theater says attendance has been growing.
“The reason we brought repertory back is to have another way to reach people; to offer another way for people to connect with a brick-and-mortar theater,” says Diane Janicki, operations manager for Theatre Management Corp., which also operates the Mariemont and Kenwood theaters. She handles the event booking with consultant Joe Horine, an adjunct film professor at the University of Cincinnati as well as the associate director of The Underground Academy of Cinematic Arts for high school and middle school students who love to make or watch films.
“If they don’t want to see a current run, but have that connection to Some Like It Hot, this gets them to the theater,” she says. “If they realize they enjoy that experience again, they can see what else is playing and perhaps come back.”
There are also themed series, such as Action August and, coming up, Star-Studded September and Noir November. Janicki is trying as much as possible to schedule guests for introductory remarks and post-film discussions.
“We’re trying to have as many of our (event) films as possible have some kind of special element to them, whether it’s an introduction and talkback with professor Horine, or having The Cinema Guys (local) podcast involved,” Janicki says. “We’re now working with (Clifton’s) Torn Light Records, doing Rock ‘n’ Roll High School with them on Sept. 4. We did Repo Man with them last month. They’ll find a vinyl record of the soundtrack to auction off.”
For Horine, involvement in this experiment is personal.
“I have few missions of my own in life and one is to get millennials to realize a benefit to seeing movies on something other than a small streaming device,” he says. “In other words, go to a real theater and see movies they may have heard about but never seen with a box of popcorn and a bunch of other people.”
He also finds that older audiences like to see favorite movies again, or catch ones they missed, and talk about it afterward.
Booking the events is something like scheduling boats in and out of a busy harbor. Meeting recently at Sitwell’s Coffee House, Janicki brought a calendar with so many possible choices written into spaces for dates that it was difficult to read. But here are some of the so-far booked special events for September. For a full schedule, including showtimes, go to esquiretheatre.com and click on “Events.”
• Some Like it Hot, Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy classic featuring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, screens on Sept. 1 and 3.
• The Cindependent Film Festival presents its best short films on Sept. 1 and best feature on Sept. 7.
• A double-header of 1960s movie musicals occurs on Sept. 2 — the 1963 movie adaptation of Broadway hit Bye Bye Birdie and the 1964 Elvis vehicle Viva Las Vegas. Both films feature actress Ann-Margret.
• Two of the Best Picture Oscar nominees from 1967 are being shown in September. The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft plays Sept. 5, 6 and 7; In the Heat of the Night is on Sept. 16 and 17. (A third 1967 nominee, the culture-shaking Bonnie and Clyde, is part of the Action August offerings on Aug. 26, 27 and 29.)
• On Sept. 27, the theater will honor Cincinnati native Doris Day — who passed away in May of this year — by screening 1960’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.
• A condensed Jack Nicholson Festival occurs in September with Easy Rider, celebrating its 50th anniversary, on Sept. 11; 1975’s Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Sept. 15; and 1974’s Chinatown on Sept. 21 and 22. The 1 p.m. screening of Chinatown on Sept. 22 is what Horine calls a “Deep Dive” — over the course of three hours or more, he stops and starts the film repeatedly to comment on how onscreen occurrences further the film’s overall impact.
After that, the schedule is still a work-in-progress and will eventually be posted on the online event calendar, but some of October’s highlights include Rosemary’s Baby, Eraserhead, The Exorcist, silent film actress Theda Bara’s A Fool There Was with live musical accompaniment, and a night of films by Ya’Ke Smith, Taft Museum’s Duncanson Artist in Residency.
For November, selections include films by the Coen brothers — Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Hudsucker Proxy and The Big Lebowski — and such film noir classics as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and Body Heat. Thanksgiving weekend brings Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and The Big Lebowski in rotation.
“Obviously, we are always looking for ways to increase attendance and to keep our patrons engaged. Diane has had great success with programing ‘event’ films and series over the years,” says Gary Goldman, Theatre Management Corp.’s president, via email. “Based on the success, we decided to take a shot at dedicating a screen and expanding the program.”
Janicki wants people to use the Esquire’s website to propose ideas for other films. There may even be sponsorship opportunities.
“I’m happy to hear anything,” she says. “Whether you made a film and want to premiere it or just want to see something, we’ll find out what’s possible. We’re open to telling stories and showing films of all kinds.”
For more information on the Esquire Theatre (320 Ludlow Ave., Clifton), visit esquiretheatre.com.