With its midnight-blue velvet curtain and snazzily dressed elderly ushers, the newly opened SIFF Cinema at McCaw Hall strikes a refreshing chord somewhere between pretension and impertinence. It's a smart showcase for the seventh art—not because of the fancy Sony digital projector (four times the resolution of HDTV, complementing two new 35 mm projectors) or gently raked house (impeccable sightlines everywhere), but because cinema was always a slightly tawdry enterprise, with one foot in commerce and the other in experimentalism and austerity.
Are the movies getting a promotion, when they're allowed onto Mercer Street with the highbrow opera and ballet next door and the Seattle Rep and Intiman (both Tony Award–winning theaters) just down the block? Or are the performing arts being brought into line, their private enclave on the northern side of the Seattle Center invaded by their bastard niece? (Not to mention the Vera Project's new rock venue in the old Snoqualmie Room.) Whatever the case, SIFF Cinema certainly isn't leaving commercialism behind. The new venue is intended to provide a year-round source of income for the voracious behemoth known as the Seattle International Film Festival.
It's a tricky proposition. According to artistic director Carl Spence, the theater will have screenings only 200 days in the first year, with no shows on Mondays and Tuesdays and additional days blocked out whenever the opera or ballet wants to host talks (SIFF Cinema is taking over the space of the former Nesholm Family Lecture Hall). Several weeks over the course of the year will be given over to special-interest festivals (the Polish Film Festival, at the end of April, is the only one confirmed so far). And during the festival, the venue will be dedicated to SIFF screenings. The remaining dates don't leave much room for adventurous programming. On the other hand, SIFF is getting a sweetheart deal from the city: In addition to a matching grant of $150,000 for start-up costs, SIFF won't be paying rent for the space, except during the festival. Instead, SIFF will split any net profits accrued at the end of the year.
This hard-to-read arrangement is making competitors wary. With 282 more seats than Northwest Film Forum's larger theater, and preexisting relationships with distributors and other sources for film prints, SIFF could really throw its weight around Seattle's independent exhibition scene. Nonetheless, NWFF executive director Michael Seiwerath acknowledges, "When we're putting together a calendar, there's always way too much stuff. I think the city could support another screen." In addition, he says, "The independent exhibition landscape in this city is extremely volatile. It changes every two years."
After every shakeup, however, a new pecking order is established. At the moment, there's a clear hierarchy. Landmark Theatre's veteran booker Ruth Hayler has her pick of new films and restored classics, because films that start on the Varsity calendar can hold over for additional weeks, potentially earning far more money for the distributor than they could at the smaller and less flexible Northwest Film Forum or SIFF Cinema. Hayler also books films for Landmark markets beyond Seattle, giving her greater buying power. At the moment, Northwest Film Forum is next in line, followed by Grand Illusion. Seattle Art Museum's Greg Olsen has a separate niche with his excellent series on individual directors or genres.
SIFF hasn't hired its full-time programmer yet, but Carl Spence is trying to sound deferential: "The hope is that an additional screen will add to the vibrancy of the Seattle film scene—we don't want to take away from what Landmark is doing, and more specifically, what Northwest Film Forum and the Seattle Art Museum are doing." Asked what sort of films would accomplish that goal, he cites An Unreasonable Man, the Ralph Nader documentary that's screened in Portland and Olympia but was passed over by programmers here.
Adam Sekuler, the programmer for Northwest Film Forum, isn't particularly impressed by that choice: "The only reason you'd play those [lefty documentaries] is if they're relevant to what's going on now." He wishes SIFF would focus on the kind of expensive, undistributed films that reach ambitious festival-run spaces like Toronto's Cinematheque Ontario but are beyond NWFF's budget. Still, he says, "As it is, we take sloppy seconds from Landmark. If SIFF wants to take our sloppy seconds, they should feel free."