Local cinema enthusiasts with a thirst for indie films, foreign features and documentaries likely already know that such fare can be found in our area, provided one keeps their eyes and ears open, and plans a bit in advance.
While the overwhelming majority of quirky, fringe programming in our neck of the woods comes courtesy of independent organizations like the Psychotronic Film Society, CinemaSavannah and the Lucas Theatre - as well as from institutions of higher learning, such as SCAD and AASU - of late, one multiplex has regularly (if somewhat inconsistently) offered the opportunity to see something other than the latest intellectually challenged and visually exhausting car theft spectacle or juvenile, computer-animated snark-fest. That would be the Spotlight Theatres Eisenhower Square Cinema 6, located on the Southside of town at the corner of Eisenhower Drive and Waters Avenue.
This slightly threadbare six-screen theater had previously been operated by Regal Cinemas, but a few years back, it was bought by the tiny Spotlight Theatres chain (they only operate four multiplexes), and since that change, one of their auditoriums has occasionally been used for screening first-run titles that would otherwise pass our market by. From time to time, CinemaSavannah partners with Spotlight to help promote particular indie features, but by and large, most of Spotlight's own bookings of this type go largely unnoticed.
That's likely due to several factors, chief of which must surely be the lack of quality control in regards to projection and sound that have plagued the Spotlight almost from its opening.
While this was partly due to the poor quality of 35mm prints which wound up routed to this venue, there was also a general perception that local management simply did not particularly care how things looked or sounded. That openly slack attitude, coupled with a lack of advertising and a spot in a shopping center which despite its high visibility has always seemed a "cursed location," made Spotlight a forgotten destination.
Most film lovers I know tend to think of it last when considering a cinematic outing, and in the past, I could not say I blamed them. Truth be told, I'd estimate that 90 percent of the times I've seen a movie there, I was one of less than eight people in the entire audience. However, I'm told that in recent months, they've finally completed the transition to digital projection in all their auditoriums, which is a good sign. It demonstrates the corporate owners felt Savannah worth such an investment (many underperforming cinemas across the U.S. are simply closing their doors rather than pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into this new gear). It also means - in theory, at least - that many of the more common projection problems which plagued their facility in the past (such as films being shown out of focus, in the wrong aspect ratio, with incorrect matting or with distorted, warbly sound) are now automated, and simply out of the control of inexperienced - or poorly trained - employees.
It's also worth noting that according to local Spotlight employees I have spoken with, "virtually everyone" who shows up to see a film there has already bought their tickets in advance. This would seem odd were it not for the fact that over the past few years, Spotlight's business model has changed. They now rely on pre-paid, heavily discounted deals sold exclusively through the online retailer Groupon.
These deals, which are offered regularly through direct marketing, include a single-use pass good for admission to any film, plus a large popcorn for as little as $5. Considering that a large popcorn can cost upwards of $6 at most area multiplexes, with an evening show ticket usually at least $10, this is something of a steal.
As a result, these discount packages have quietly become one of the most popular items available on Groupon in our area, with well over 5,000 sold every time they're offered. Now you may ask yourself, if Groupon takes 50 percent of that $5 as their cut of each transaction, leaving Spotlight with only $2.50 to pay for both admission to a first-run movie and a large popcorn, how can such a small amount of money possibly pay for all the overhead and expenses involved in running a massive, six-screen, first-run multiplex?
Well, I'm pretty sure that it can't. Not in the long run, anyway.
Frankly, I'm a bit surprised they've held on this long. But then again, popcorn does make people mighty thirsty, and soda pop is a precious commodity at the multiplex. Perhaps the idea is to simply acclimate folks to making this theater their initial thought when searching for a place to catch a movie, and then to phase out these crazy-cheap deals at some point (the passes do expire after a few months). Regardless, at present it's possible to see a film and have a bunch of popcorn there for an insanely low price, provided you're able to grab some of those Groupon deals before they vanish.
Plus, paying so little for the entire experience can make the possibility of less-than-stellar picture and sound quality much easier to take, don't you think?
On March 21, Spotlight opens the acclaimed documentary "Tim's Vermeer," directed by the famously non-verbal illusionist Teller from the magician duo Penn & Teller (his partner, Penn Jillette, is one of the producers). It's a grainy, low-budget look at their friend, the obssessive, celebrated inventor Tim Jenison.
Jenison put his analytical engineer's mind to solving one of the fine art world's greatest mysteries: How did 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (he painted "Girl with a Pearl Earring" among other iconic canvasses) create such photo-realistic images, 150 years before the invention of photography?
Tim's theory is a fascinating one, and this film captures his efforts to not only identify Vermeer's secret techniques but to attempt to utilize them himself.
It's been hailed as a thoughtful, provocative rumination on the value of art, creativity and talent, and is considered one of the most enjoyable and intriguing documentaries of the year. Check Fandango.com for complete showtimes.
And last, but certainly not least, the Psychotronic Film Society holds a Special Mystery Screening on March 26 at The Sentient Bean. The exact title of the film will not be revealed until showtime, but the PFS has announced that it's a highly entertaining, low-budget "Giant Monster Movie" from the 1970s, which was a minor hit at drive-ins back in the day but has since fallen into obscurity. Filled with amateurish acting and unconvincing special effects, it's a guilty pleasure for fans of unintentionally funny films that are "so-bad-they're-good." Showtime is 8 p.m. with $6 admission for ages 14 and older. Come prepared to laugh.
See you at the movies, and remember to turn off that cell phone.
Jim Reed directs the Psychotronic Film Society of Savannah. Read more at www.filmsavannah.com.