With New Film Center, SIFF Goes Uptown

SIFF's Carl Spence and Deborah Person

When I spoke with Seattle International Film Festival‘s Artistic Director Carl Spence and Managing Director Deborah Person a few weeks ago, the two were having trouble keeping some big news under their hats. Since the interview was taking place in their freshly moved-into offices at Seattle Center, I couldn’t imagine what else they’d be announcing. At the time, SIFF was still working on raising about $160,000 to close out its Film Center capital campaign of $2.8 million.

Then this weekend, this press release showed up in my inbox:

SIFF is excited to announce the acquisition of the historic Uptown Theater in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. The historic neighborhood theater will re-open to the public beginning October 20, 2011, in conjunction with the Grand Opening of the new SIFF Film Center at Seattle Center, ushering in a new era of film in the Northwest.

The Uptown Theater, courtesy of our Flickr pool's Great_Beyond

A landmark neighborhood cinema since 1926, The Uptown was subdivided in the 1980s to compete with the multiplexes springing up. Its three theaters seat 480, 275, and 175 (the new jewelbox SIFF Film Center cinema seats 100). Last operated by the AMC movie theater chain, it was closed in November 2010. Now SIFF has negotiated a five-year lease with AMC.

Says  Spence, “We couldn’t have scripted a better opportunity for our organization than to have SIFF Cinema at the Uptown and the new SIFF Film Center in such close proximity and located in such a vibrant part of the city.”

The Uptown’s 35-mm projection system will be accompanied by the digital system (a Sony SRXR210 digital projector) that now resides at SIFF Cinema in McCaw Hall–providing four times the resolution of HD. The sound system meets or exceeds LucasFilm THX Sound specifications, featuring JBL 3-way speakers and surround system powered by Dolby Digital Sound processing with Crown’s DSI cinema amplifiers.

In retrospect, our conversation makes a lot more sense with the Uptown in the picture. Spence and Person were throwing out a lot of great ideas–documentary series, revivals, family films, all-night movie marathons, filmmaker residencies–but so far as I knew they just had the one SIFF Cinema, with the new jewelbox theater coming online–with full concessions, by the way, “probably” beer and wine as well. (The screen for the new theater hadn’t arrived yet.) All the options they were mentioning would take three new jewelbox cinemas.

But they were clearly looking for a better fit. At McCaw Hall, they needed audiences of 75-100 people to even make opening the doors pay for itself, and they had to share the space with the ballet and opera. Spence has visions of, like MoMA, films showing on any given day–whenever you’re around, you just drop in. It’s a shift for the organization, one that takes advantage of their Seattle Center location, and the enormous amount of foot traffic now at their door–12 million people each year.

Already, “people are wandering in” to the Film Center, said Person. The Center is now home to 20-some year-round full- and part-time staff (it more than doubles in size, to 50, during the Festival), but SIFF wants to leverage their Seattle Center presence to be a destination for tourists and students, as well as local film buffs. (Currently, SIFF has about 3,000 members, who receive perks like special invitations to screenings and half-priced tickets. Memberships start at $55 annually.)

Recently, SIFF was one of eight independent non-profit cinemas selected by The Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to establish “Science on Screen” programs–screenings that use popular films to explore the science underlying them. So, suggested Person and Spence, they might show WarGames, and then invite someone from Bungie to discuss where game technology is at these days. It’s not hard to imagine that being the afternoon part of the field trip to the Pacific Science Center.

Nothing programmatically, the two assured me, is set in stone yet. The first thing is simply to open the doors. There will be a “soft” opening in September, with the Film Center’s grand opening coming October 20th through the 24th.