By Rachel Ahrnsen

In April 1938, the new Bama Theatre was unveiled to the fanfare of the parading Million Dollar Band. The Public Works Administration had commissioned architect David O. Whilldin to design the building, which would be used as a theatre and city hall. He modeled the building on the Italian Renaissance; the design of the lobby is based on the Davanzati Palace in Florence. The atmospheric interior of the theatre was intended to look like an Italian courtyard at night. Its ceiling has twinkling lights dotted among  painted clouds, and the walls are lined with handpainted murals and false balconies.

As buildings surrounding it have fallen and risen throughout the decades, the Bama has remained constant. Bama Theatre manager David Allgood says the fixtures in the building are, “all original. Nothing has been changed, and everything inside is unique. The false balconies are different on each side, the original murals are still there, the same star lights are there.”

As the film world goes through rapid changes, the historic Bama is negotiating the modern era’s challenges through new series such as the  Bama Art House.

Filmmaker Andy Grace sparked the series in 2009. “At the time, they were doing a cinema nouveau series with a movie showing all week, which was poorly attended. When I went to graduate school in Wyoming, there was a film series that was one night a week. Because it was one night a week, it was an event… I told David this would galvanize an audience, and he could also bring a ton more movies throughout the year. I just figured it would work.”

The cinema nouveau series was then changed to the art house series, to showcase contemporary, independent films that would not ordinarily be shown in Alabama. Allgood says, “You won’t see these films anywhere else in Alabama.”

Grace, Allgood, and other members of the Arts Council, pick six to ten films for each of the fall, winter, and summer series.

“I’d love to sit here and tell you we scour the very best films from Sundance, Tribeca, etcetera and find the ones that are best for our audience. But the truth is that film distribution for a little town like Tuscaloosa is a hard sell for a lot of distributors,” says Grace.

“We say, ‘We’d like to bring your movie, which is made by these world-renowned directors, and has all this Oscar buzz. Well, we’d like to bring it to Alabama. For one night.’ They’re like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ We kind of have to program based off what distributors are willing to give us. I feel we have strong programming every year because we’re able to work with small distributors, and sometimes we’re able to work directly with the filmmakers. I, as a filmmaker, like this because then the filmmaker gets all the money.”

Another issue the art house series faces are the technological changes of the industry; even the medium of film is changing. Only three of the eight movies in this series have been traditional 35 mm, and the rest have been digital. “The change from 35 mm to digital, we will make in the spring. The last movie in the series,”Wadjda,” might be the last 35 mm ever seen in the Bama Theatre,” says Allgood.

Grace is more concerned with a different technological issue, that of online distribution.

“Here’s another problem: a movie has been on itunes for two months now. That’s happened in the last year or two. It used to be there would be at least year, between when an independent film was first shown and when it was released to the public. Now, that space is much shorter. There were films at Sundance that were released on demand the day they premiered. That’s the way the market is shrinking.”

However, Grace believes that this series offers more than a movie.

“The Bama Art House, it requires that your audience believe this: we have a product they can’t get on their individual screens. We’re saying to them, look, you can watch this movie on your computer, but you can’t watch it with 200 people. You can’t watch it with a beer sitting next to your neighbor. You can’t have that communal experience, which I think is the beautiful part of cinema, on itunes.”

Grace believes that the art house series provides a rare opportunity for connection.

“I think there are fewer and fewer avenues for community in modern life. We get collapsed into our machines sometimes. I think going outside of your comfort zone to a theater, with friends and a whole bunch of strangers, and hearing that  collective laugh, collective sorrow, and collective joy is something really vital. It’s something that gets lost when we turn increasingly into our computers.”

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Public Works Administration in 1933, one of its stated goals was to, “benefit the community.” The Bama Theatre still fulfills this ambition.

The Bama Art House series takes place Tuesday nights through March 11. Doors open at 6:45 p.m, movies begin at 7:30 p.m. The remaining movies are “The Best Offer”: A master auctioneer becomes obsessed with a reclusive heiress who collects art, “Una Noche”:  Two Havana boys dream of escaping to Miami, and face the biggest challenge of their lives, and “Wadjda”: A Saudi girl signs up for her school’s Koran recitation competition to raise money to buy herself a bicycle.

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