Filmmaker forum: New cinema connects independent filmmakers to local audience

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Jayson Whitehead (left) and Jason Lappa team up to help small filmmakers break through at the Bantam Theater. Image: Elli Williams Jayson Whitehead (left) and Jason Lappa team up to help small filmmakers break through at the Bantam Theater. Image: Elli Williams

For years, the number of small, independently owned movie theaters in Charlottesville has been in decline, as is the national trend. But, as recent entries in the Virginia Film Festival have shown, there are now more aspiring, amateur filmmakers here (and everywhere else) than ever. So, where can their films be seen? 

Jason Lappa and Jayson Whitehead hope to provide an outlet through the Bantam Theater, which opened in the Michie building’s Market Street courtyard, a space recently occupied by Club 216 (and before that, the original location of Live Arts).

“Jayson and I have been working together for years, since Gadfly magazine,” Lappa said. “I had recently bought a Super 8mm projector, and an old print of Star Wars. I was shopping around for a place to have a party, where we could just hang out and watch it with our friends, and I also had a 16mm projector, and a print of Alien. I was thinking it was something we could do regularly—we couldn’t charge for it, but I was thinking we could have popcorn and beer. I kept talking to Jayson about it, and he said, ‘You know, we could really do that.’”

The Bantam Theater is an inauspicious space, but a large one. Keeping the bar and chandeliers from Club 216, the new owners have redesigned it as a theater, retaining a bar and an assortment of café tables and chairs, while adding a number of cozy couches. “The couches are all donated,” Lappa said. “Some of them we donated ourselves.”

They’ve also done minor, but crucial, renovations to transform the space into a theater. “The screen and curtains we put together ourselves,” Lappa said. “We ordered some material, and had it cut for the size of the screen we wanted. We stapled the curtains to the plywood and hung it ourselves. We had to tear down a little barrier that was in the space, but we used all the wood from that to build the platform for the projector mount. All the stuff that came from 216 was repurposed; the wood, and the stage. All the A.V. equipment is ours.”

Rather than focusing on well-publicized features that will run for weeks at a time, like Charlottesville’s two chain Regal Theaters, or at locally-owned Vinegar Hill Theatre (full disclosure: this writer is an employee at Vinegar Hill), the Bantam Theater will show smaller, less famous independent productions; films that might not be screened elsewhere in Charlottesville.

The Bantam opened its doors on January 19 with The Battery, an independent horror production described as “Old Joy meets ‘The Walking Dead,’” a film without support from a distributor, but one that Lappa and Whitehead were excited about.

“We didn’t have huge expectations, but we had high hopes,” Whitehead said. “Thirty minutes before showtime, we only had a handful of people. And then with about 10 minutes to go, they suddenly started showing up. We were hoping for about 30 or 40.”

“When we had about 30 people, I was thinking ‘O.K., we’ve got it,’” said Lappa. “And then every other couple who came through the door after that…it was amazing, it was great that so many of them were showing up.” Ultimately, they drew a crowd of almost 100.

“We spent a lot of time thinking about how big the screen should be, where we wanted to put it,” Whitehead said. “There wasn’t a bad seat in the house, we got a lot of compliments.”

After the screening, the film’s writer and director, Jeremy Gardner, participated in a question and answer session, which began as an interview with Whitehead and eventually turned to a discussion with the audience. “We had a lot of people say they actually preferred the Q&A to the film,” Lappa said. “The response to the film was mostly positive, but the Q&A was really interesting to them.”

With one successful event under their belt, Lappa and Whitehead are looking forward to future events. Rather than using a booking agent for week-long engagements, Lappa is hoping to book a schedule of one-time events himself. “That’s how we’re doing it,” he said. “If there’s something we like, we’ll reach out to the filmmaker every time. And if they tell us to talk to their producer, or their distributor, that’s how we’ll do it, but we’ll always go to the filmmaker first.” They began by scheduling a second weekend of The Battery. “We always give a percentage to the filmmaker,” Lappa said. “So the more screenings, the more money thrown their way.”

“We’re sort of making it up as we go,” Lappa said.

“We put so much into that first event, Whitehead said, “and it went so well. But we’re only just now looking ahead to the next part, trying to build that momentum.”

“People have been supportive, but how do you keep them interested?” Lappa asked. “You keep showing great films, but we’re going to have to be really smart about how we run the place financially, because the rent ain’t cheap!”

As for their next step: “There’s nothing confirmed for the rest of January,” said Lappa, “but we’re lining some things up for the start of February. We’re looking to do another ‘Bantam premiere,’ where someone involved with the film will come and answer questions. We’ll probably have the premiere events once a month, but as far as week-to-week goes, we’re going to try to show different things Thursday, Friday, Saturday every week, once we get going. We’ll probably only do one-time shows unless something really resonates with the audience.”

In terms of the type of films they’re likely to bring to Charlottesville, Whitehead says, “There’s a level below like what [Vinegar Hill] shows—films that never get seen.”

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