UPDATED 2/22 9:45 a.m.
Photo courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter
The rumors have been swirling around for a couple of years now. The first I’d heard of Quentin Tarantino’s possible involvement in keeping the New Beverly Cinema operational was around the time of the release of Grindhouse (April 2007), when Tarantino curated a massive two-month Grindhouse Festival at the New Beverly in order to both celebrate beloved B-movie (and below) fare and also promote Grindhouse itself. But it was just a whispered rumor, and I certainly had no solid information on which to base anything but wishin’ and hopin’ that it was true. Then a few months after the big splash of the Grindhouse Festival (and the relative box-office disappointment of Grindhouse) the New Beverly’s longtime owner, Sherman Torgan, passed away while riding his bicycle in Santa Monica, and suddenly the fate of the theater, so tied up in the Torgan family, who had more urgent and pressing matters of grief to deal with, was suddenly very much in doubt.
But last summer Sherman’s son Michael Torgan, who supervises the day-to-day operation of the New Beverly after seeing the business up close and personal under his dad’s tutelage, wrote publicly of Tarantino’s involvement on the Cinema Treasures web site in a post dated August 19, 2009:
“By purchasing the property, Quentin Tarantino has saved the New Beverly Cinema from facing the same fate as the NuWilshire and so many other single screen theaters - conversion into retail space. Shortly after my dad Sherman's sudden death in 2007, our then landlord decided to sell the building to a real estate investor, and the property's future as a single use movie theater was uncertain. There was the possibility the property would be divided into two separate retail spaces. Mr. Tarantino's heroic purchase assures that the building will remain a movie theater for many years to come.
The business known as the ‘New Beverly Cinema’ has been a tenant of the building since 1978, and I continue to run the business my dad and some other partners started 31 years ago. Had another landlord purchased the building, the New Beverly would have likely closed due to either a major rent increase or the conversion of the space into another use.”
This was the first public confirmation I was aware of that Quentin Tarantino had effectively stepped in and put his money where his mouth and his movie love reside. And it’s why I felt comfortable in pointing out and honoring Tarantino’s unusual move within the year-end piece I recently posted. (Scroll down just past the end of the top 10 list and you’ll see it.) But according to John Scott Lewinski, writing in a new piece in The Hollywood Reporter dated February 19, Tarantino’s involvement actually began not with the outright purchase of the heater, but with monthly contributions to ensure its survival long before Sherman Torgan died.
“Since I'm a print collector and I screen movies at my home, I heard from other collectors and projectionists that Sherman might have to close down," Tarantino told Lewinski. The director then contacted Torgan and flatly asked him how much money was needed every month to keep the lights on and the projector humming. “The answer was about $5,000," Tarantino revealed to THR. “So, I just started paying him that per month. I considered it a contribution to cinema."
When Sherman died, Michael’s mother, distraught over her loss and agonizing over what to do to preserve the elder Torgan’s legacy, reached out to Tarantino, who offered to buy the cinema outright. It wasn’t an easy process, and there were a couple of attempts to block the sale, along with other legal entanglements, that made sure no one could breathe easily until the final papers were signed. But those days are past and Tarantino now is the sole owner of the theater, leaving programming decisions to Michael, excepting those occasions when the director just has to see something special on the big screen of his own choosing. “"I can make programming suggestions when I want to," Lewinski reports Tarantino as saying with his customary cinematic ardor. “It is cool to have a theater that I can use to show what I like." Even cooler, I’d imagine, is having a landlord who understands the vibe and intention of the cinema and is as interested in preserving its legacy and integrity as the average real estate genius would have been to turn the theater into a SuperCuts or some other commercial blight on Beverly Boulevard. "Quentin couldn't be a better landlord," Michael Torgan has said on more than one occasion, and it’s not difficult to see why. The New Beverly got new seats and digital projection capability over the past summer, and is currently undergoing renovations to the façade and marquee.
And speaking quite personally, the New Beverly has become for me, as it has for many of the people I see there every time I go (which is not nearly as often as I’d like), a place that feels like home. I’ve met more people and made more new friends by attending the New Beverly Cinema over the past four years than I can even keep track of. Every time I go, especially when I bring my daughters or any of the rest of my family with me, Michael and Julia and Phil and Brian and all the rest of the core New Beverly-ites make us feel very special, like they’re really glad to see us. And the programming there has really lit a fire beneath my eldest daughter’s aspiring cinephilia—after a year of seeing Preston Sturges and the Marx Brothers and Randolph Scott and Billy Wilder and Abbott & Costello et al. at the New Beverly, she now loves black-and-white classics as much as any movie-loving adult would and has learned a truckload about cinema history in the process. She loves the theater so much that she’s drawn two pictures, one memorializing the marquee, the other capturing the snack bar in all its glory-- Michael has honored her by placing them in the box office window for every patron to see. And in two weeks we’ll celebrate her 10th birthday within the walls of the New Beverly—a magician, pizza and a movie of her choice, courtesy of Michael’s generosity and desire to reach out and imprint the legacy of classic and repertory cinema on a brand-new generation of kids like my daughter.
Clearly Quentin Tarantino and Michael Torgan both care about not only the theater, but also about the people who flock to the old-school repertory programming (which changes approximately three times weekly) with almost religious regularity. "As long as I'm alive, and as long as I'm rich, the New Beverly will be there, showing double features in 35mm," Tarantino proclaimed to The Hollywood Reporter. For a cinephile in Los Angeles, few more reassuring and wonderful words have ever been spoken, words that will ensure that, whether I like his subsequent films or not, I’ll be patronizing Tarantino movies for the rest of my life as a way of saying “thank you” for this astounding act of movie-fan generosity. As long as the New Beverly is there, I will be too.
UPDATE 2/22 9:45 a.m.
After reading the reactions here and from other sources over the weekend, I feel like commenting further and saying that this all makes me feel pretty lucky and happy as a Los Angeles filmgoer for several reasons. First, it's so rare to see someone of Tarantino's stature in the film community step up and do something on this level of generosity. Sure, if you're a cynic you can say that he imagined that he might receive a lot of acclaim and positive reaction from news of the purchase (as he should). I've even heard someone suggest that Harvey Weinstein somehow orchestrated the public announcement of Tarantino's purchase in order to sway Oscar voters, who have until March 2 to return their final ballots. (Frankly, I have very little problem with that, if it's true. What Tarantino has done for the film community with Inglourious Basterds AND the New Beverly purchase is about as good a reason to vote the man an Oscar as any I can think of. What's James Cameron done for you lately?)
But the legal red tape to go through in order to buy a building that houses a theater that will probably never be a profit-making machine would be a pretty big hurdle if a burst of admiration were your only motivation. In much the same way that Tarantino's own movies can point in the direction of the various sources of inspiration that he openly acknowledges, in his work and in his relentless promotion of that work, buying the building and ensuring that Michael Torgan and the New Beverly can continue to provide the opportunity for new generations of film buffs and potential film buffs to discover the classics of cinema on the big screen is a real world extension of what he's already doing with his movies. (As someone in the comments following Devin Faraci's article noted, it's a shame that another filmmaker couldn't have done the same to preserve Forrest J. Ackerman's extensive collection of sci-fi and horror memorabilia.)
It should be noted, though, amongst all the accolades Tarantino is receiving for stepping up in such a big way, that he has only (only!) provided the foundation on which the New Beverly can continue to operate. The real day-to-day work of creating and maintaining of that operation is being done by Michael Torgan, Julia Marchese, Phil Blankenship, Brian Quinn, Eric Caidin, Adam Trash, Marion Kerr and all the others who are in there booking the films, manning the box office, running the projectors, keeping the place clean (and that includes picking up the trash less considerate patrons leave on the floor of the auditorium) and just generally creating the atmosphere that has kept people coming back to this place for years. QT may suggest a movie now and again, and no doubt he's put the place in a very enviable position, one that probably no other revival cinema in the country shares-- that of an assured future-- but it's not like he's in there actually programming the films and balancing the books. The theater is being run essentially as it has been ever since Sherman began his revival run in 1978, and that's why QT's contribution is important. He didn't buy the building so he could step in and rename the place the New Tarantino. He bought the building so Michael Torgan could independently continue his father's legacy and keep the projector and the marquee bulbs burning. That in itself is pretty astonishing-- QT isn't busting down the door and demanding to come in and screw around with the New Beverly's formula, to put his stamp on it. He just wants to make sure Michael et al get to keep doing what they're doing. Absolutely we should thank him for that, but more importantly we should thank Michael and the staff for being there every night.
(The original comment from which these additional thoughts were adapted can be read below.)