Where movies are the gateway to the world
Randy Berler’s South Bay Film Society screens art house films at the AMC Rolling Hills 20
In June 2012, Randy Berler crossed his fingers and jumped in. Three years into retirement, the former urban planner for the City of Redondo Beach was hoping to sell 59 tickets for “Three Colors: Red,” by Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. If he reached that quota he could go ahead and screen the film at the AMC Rolling Hills 20 in Torrance. Reaching out to colleges and local publications (including Easy Reader’s Mark McDermott, who wrote a superb advance piece), Berler sold his entire allotment of 200 tickets. Seven and a half years later, he’s closing out 2019 with his 264th film.
Berler quit his job in 2009. “I was happily retired,” he says, sitting comfortably in his home near Riviera Village. He was performing in a rock band. But he was also a moviegoer, “a lover of foreign films and independent films that never played here. I just hated to drive up to Los Angeles to see them.”
One day in the L.A. Times he read an article about a company called Tugg, which helps people bring movies into their community. Berler outlines how they do it: “They’ll get the theater, they’ll get the film, and you promote it. People reserve tickets with their credit cards, and once a certain threshold of tickets is reserved to make the thing successful for them then the event’s a go and they charge the credit cards.” However, he adds, “You as the promoter get virtually nothing.”
Although Tugg was offering features, “they didn’t have new films; they had old films in their catalog.” Tugg’s foreign film selection was paltry, but “Red” caught Berler’s eye. Despite Kieslowski’s picture being from 1994 and available on DVD, it had earned awards and helped to secure the director’s reputation. So Berler went for it, thinking, “Maybe I can show the local theaters that there’s an audience for these films.”
If it didn’t pan out, fine; there was no financial risk involved. But Fate had a surprise in store.
“We sold out that first show,” Berler says. “I had no idea anybody would come.”
A few days before the screening, Berler got on the phone with Tugg. “Look,” he said, “I’m not going to show any more old films; I want to show new films, and I need to be able to announce two new films at this show where we’re going to have all these people.”
What are you interested in? they replied, and Berler’s response was the French-Canadian “Monsieur Lazhar” and the Norwegian “Headhunters.” They told him they’d work on it.
“The day before the show they got back to me and said, ‘We got those films for you.’ So I said, ‘Great, I’ll announce them. We’ll start selling tickets for them.’ And we just took off. Those shows sold out two theaters each.
“But the thing that I discovered even before the first screening was that it really didn’t matter if I could show there’s an audience for this, the theaters were not going to book them. And it became very clear to me that the decisions aren’t even made locally on bringing films here.”
With regard to Tugg, it dawned on Berler relatively early that he really didn’t need their services, that everything they were doing for him he could do himself. “But I felt obligated to them,” he says. “They were really good people, they had gotten this thing going with me, and so I stuck with Tugg for about six months.”
During that time Berler formed his own relationships with distributors, “and so I started booking films myself, booking the theaters myself, and it just kept growing and growing. It was completely unintentional. I mean, I’m still retired, but it’s many, many hours a week. I love doing it, but after a while people would not let me stop doing it.”
Yes, the past is prologue
In the early 1970s, Berler attended the University of Wisconsin, from which he graduated with a bachelors in English and a Masters of Science in Urban Planning. But let’s bypass the academic side for now, because the best things about college usually happen away from the classroom. Even then he was with Linda, the future Mrs. Berler (they married in 1973).
“Linda plays a very important role in helping to decide which films we do,” They discuss each picture, and how it’s likely to be received. “We watch many films that we like, but that we know aren’t going to work for the audience.
“When Linda and I went to college,” Berler continues, “there were a number of film societies on campus. We joined one of them and got into all the films of all the other film societies. Every night of the week there were probably 10 films playing and we went to a film virtually every night of the week. And you wonder, how did we do our college work, but we did.”
Those who attended college during the ‘60s and ‘70s might be able to relate to what Berler and his colleagues were doing. This writer had similar experiences, even appearing in one student film and later attending its premiere screening.
But you know the saying, technology giveth, and technology taketh away.
“When VCRs came out,” Berler says, “it killed all the film societies. Because, well, ‘We can get them on video,’ even though we were only charging a buck.”
And now, several decades later? “I never thought I’d be doing what I did back then.”
Actually, if things had taken yet another turn, we might be seeing Berler’s cinematic work on the big screen instead of him standing in front of it. Graduating college, he landed a job as an urban planner in Appleton, Wisconsin. However…
“After five years I wanted to try something different,” he says. “I wanted to see if I could get into film, and I applied to only one film school, which was USC.”
Berler points out that he didn’t have anything to show them, and apparently his hopes were not excessively high. Only about 2-3% of applicants are admitted. Nonetheless, while he and Linda were vacationing in Yellowstone, word got back to him that he’d been accepted. One condition, though; he’d have to be in California in two weeks.
“So we went back to Wisconsin, got our stuff together, and drove out to Los Angeles.”
They stayed briefly in San Pedro with a friend of Linda’s father, who recommended they look for apartments in Redondo Beach. The found a place, and Berler began commuting to USC. Linda, an attorney, found work closer to home, at the Torrance courthouse.
When Berler completed his courses the couple purchased a house in Torrance.
He’d specialized in film editing, and though he secured a few editing jobs in noncommercial films, Berler knew that getting more than a foot in the door wouldn’t be easy. Just when a tempting opportunity did present itself, to work as an assistant editor with someone he’d known back in Wisconsin, “I got offered a job with the City of Redondo Beach.”
Berler had come out to Los Angeles in pursuit of a dream. But now?
“We already had our daughter, and the life of being an editor, being away from home a lot, working really long hours, and sensing that being an assistant editor can take years and years to become an editor, which is the creative work… So I decided I didn’t want to live that lifestyle at that time and I went back to planning. That’s the story of how I never ended up in film. But I still loved films.”
In time, Randy and Linda were able to relocate to Redondo Beach, close to the water where they can walk to the beach and ride bicycles along the strand. “You can’t beat it,” he says. “We’re very happy.”
To date, the partnership with AMC has worked out well. “They’ve been very good,” Berler says, “but when I first started they didn’t consider me significant.” Sometimes the sound was off or the subtitles were too low, things like that, and the company ended up giving out free vouchers so patrons would be mollified and could return for another film later (I experienced this also with the Met Live in HD series, operas broadcast from New York). After this happened a couple of times AMC allowed Berler to come in and do the equivalent of a soundcheck.
He does this in advance of the screening. In fact, he says, “I usually need a couple of trips to the theater, but now I make sure everything is working.”
Initially, Berler’s screenings took place in two of the smaller auditoriums. “Then we grew to three theaters and needed bigger rooms and they gave us bigger ones.” But even with three theaters, screenings are often sold out in two days. One might logically think, Why can’t AMC throw him one more?
“Only once have they allowed me a fourth theater,” Berler says. “They tell me that they’ve got obligations with the film companies, that they have to have so many theaters available even if nobody is going to show. So they’ve told me three is the maximum they can give me.” And yet one time, and it may have been for the Oscar-nominated Live Action Shorts, when tickets were selling like proverbial hotcakes, they made an exception. Recently, when L.A. Times critic Justin Chang popped in for an after-film Q&A about “Parasite,” tickets were gone in a flash.
Perhaps AMC corporate, based in Kansas, has been indifferent, but the film distributors have taken notice. “They’re always amazed,” Berler says. Some of the little films that he’s screened have drawn more people than when they played in Los Angeles or New York. How do you do that? these distributors ask him. Can you franchise what you do?
And often it’s more than just buying a ticket and watching a movie, perhaps having dined first at one of the many eateries in the Rolling Hills Plaza.
“I always ask the distributors if the director’s going to be around,” Berler says. Usually, they aren’t at the time of the screening, but there have been notable exceptions, for “Give Me Liberty” (Kirill Mikhanvosky), “Maude” (Aisling Walsh), and “Skid Row Marathon” (Mark Hayes), for example. Recently, 92-year-old producer Arthur Cohn, renowned recipient of many honors, including six Oscars and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, stopped by to talk about “The Etruscan Smile.” Also, after-film discussions have been led by L.A.-based filmmaker Jim Ruxin, an editor, producer, and writer for TV since 2001; Dr. Pravina Cooper, who teaches film and theater at Cal State Long Beach; and formerly by Joshua Peck who ran his own film program at the Peninsula Center Library.
“It would be great if I could get other people who are good at doing discussions so we could do it more often,” Berler says. “That’s also something I love doing. It adds to the whole experience. When you’re with a group of people talking about the films you realize things you didn’t pick up on and you go, ‘Oh yeah, I see that now,’ and that makes the film richer. I notice that sometimes there will be small groups of people who will talk as much as half an hour after the show.”
Knowing whether an after-film discussion is appropriate, and then arranging for it, isn’t so easy however. “First I’ve got to make sure it’s a film that deserves a discussion, and that these people are available and want to do it.”
As someone who frequents Berler’s screenings, I can say that there have been numerous features that have merited discussions. Sure, you could say this about the “Star Wars” sequels and prequels, but you’d run out of words for “trite” and “formulaic” pretty darn fast.
Bonds have been formed
It does seem rather odd, as Berler points out, that the South Bay, with its educated, worldly, and mature population, lacks a movie theater focusing on alternative cinema. “Virtually every area in Los Angeles with [a similar] demographic has an art-house theater, but there’s none here.”
That there’s a demand for one is now evident, but there’s also an unexpected result:
“It was serendipitous that we ended up with this audience that became this community theater in a sense. The experience is totally different than going to a movie with your friend, and that’s it. But here, you’re all in the theater together, this whole big group of people that you see week after week. You start talking with people, and you develop friendships. It’s not just showing films. And that, I never expected.”
It’s communal, in the best sense, like being in a classroom where everyone is excited to be there.
“Film needs to be entertainment, that’s understood,” Berler says, “but the best films do more than that. They allow us to see the world in new ways. They challenge us and they inspire us. What’s happened is that we’ve created something sorely lacking in communities everywhere in the United States where you’re able to connect people to the world, and make connections across political divides and across cultural divides.”
He doesn’t mention this, but, albeit on a different scale, this communal spirit is reminiscent of what united the film societies that he and Linda enjoyed when they were in college and attending nightly screenings.
Forging this bond, this almost-collective of like-minded filmgoers, was not something that Berler anticipated. “But that’s why people love this so much and why they come together. There are people who can’t drive at night and other people will drive them to the film. There are people that are handicapped that other people will sometimes pick up and bring to the theater. At the same time, they appreciate that we’re culling the films, screening them all in advance, and very carefully picking out films we think are important. Maybe they’re not all going to go over, but audiences know they’re going to be at least good films, whether they like them or not.”
The Berlers watch four to five films for each one that they show at the AMC.
That sense of trust that Berler has earned is also what has enabled him to book films that would have difficulty getting booked elsewhere. He mentions several pictures, like “Fire on the Hill,” about black cowboys in Compton whose stables had burned down, and “Phil’s Camino,” about a man with stage 4 cancer. “We can do that,” he adds, “and we can bring films like ‘Slay the Dragon,’ which hasn’t yet screened in the U.S., about gerrymandering, and ‘Hail Satan?’ about the separation of church and state. Who would have thought you could show those films and get 450 people to come?”
He manages to do this, on average, about 33 times a year.
But do you want to know what’s lacking?
“We get some younger people, but not too many. And that’s my biggest disappointment. I’m always asking, How can I reach younger people? Because I think if they gave these films a chance they’d find them interesting.”
This isn’t a strict generation divide, of course. Some people in their late teens or early 20s are savvy enough to know that the Marvel franchise is a pleasant diversion at best, tasty but as nutritious as popcorn.
“Every once in a while, we’ll show a film where people will bring their grandkids or kids. We did ‘Science Fair’ and we had a lot of middle schoolers for that. We did ‘Maiden’ and we got some young kids.” But college students? Seriously, where are they? “You’d think we’d get some of them,” Berler says. Yes, but how?
When the world opens up
Many of those 264 films that have already been screened are international award-winning dramas, originating from at least 45 different countries. Significantly, there have been several from the Middle East, the superb “Foxtrot” and “The Cakemaker” from Israel, for example, Lebanon’s “Capernaum,” and Palestine’s “The Report on Sarah and Saleem.”
“We’ve shown numerous films from Iran,” Berler says, and these include “Taxi” and “The Salesman.” These films and others, he notes, give us an insider’s view of the culture that we don’t see when filtered through the lens of the American news media. The Syrian documentary “For Sama” takes us into Aleppo’s war zone; it’s a harrowing look at that country’s ongoing civil war.
“We need to see that sort of stuff to understand what’s going on in the world,” Berler says. “These films make you think; they don’t hit you over the head.” And they supply us with an emotional connection when we understand that the people in faraway lands are essentially just like us.
This is not meant to denigrate American films or to elevate all foreign films. Berler has screened “Moonlight,” “Citizenfour,” “Lady Bird,” “Mudbound,” “The Wife,” and even the charming but somewhat quirky “California Typewriter.”
“There are good Hollywood films that I like,” he continues, “but many American films are heavy-handed, with a lot of computer effects and action and weapons and violence. Some people want films to be just entertainment. Sometimes a purely entertaining film is great, and there are times when you want to see that. But for the most part, I want the film to be illuminating, opening me up to the world in some way. That happens often with foreign films. I’m sure there are many, many awful foreign films. But we’re seeing the best of them.”
“The film distributors know our audience talks about these films,” he says, referring to the word-of-mouth that often helps to propel a movie’s box office success. “Which is why they let us show so many films before they even open.” Pedro Aldomovar’s “Pain and Glory” was screened two days before its release in New York and the rest of L.A. “Four of the five foreign-language Oscar nominees last year, we showed them a little before they opened. They let us show ‘Maiden’ before it got to New York and L.A.” And there are other examples as well.
“So I want to give a call out to our audience and thank them for making all this possible. As I’ve said from the beginning, I never imagined this happening; it was never my objective: I was just looking forward to a very easy retirement. But they’ve really had a big impact on my life, and our lives, by supporting this and allowing us to do all these things we never thought we would do.
“Ideally,” Berler continues, “the South Bay will someday get an art-house theater, and I’d be very happy because I’d love to be able to go to shows and not have to do this. On the other hand, I love doing it. But unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any prospect of getting an art-house theater here any time soon.”
What about Laemmle? This small, family-run theater chain specializes in the kind of fare that Berler often screens. They have theaters in Glendale, Encino, Pasadena, and Claremont, etc, but nothing south of Santa Monica.
“I talk to Greg Laemmle periodically,” Berler replies. “He’s a great guy and he loves what we do. When I asked him, When are you coming to the South Bay, he said it’s kind of complicated because he will only do theaters where he owns the land and the theater.”
In that case, what does the future look like for Berler and his arrangement with AMC?
“In terms of longevity,” he says, “the only thing I ever worry about is modernization of the theater, and hopefully that won’t happen for a while more. The biggest room we had, they turned it into the Dolby room and they replaced most of the chairs with recliners. And the only way we can function is by having large crowds that fill up these theaters because otherwise, it doesn’t pencil out for me. So, if they start converting other rooms I think that would be the end. “
AMC is the largest theater chain in the world and they’re in the business to make money. I imagine they’ve profited nicely when Berler draws a full house, and let’s not forget what they pull in at the concession stand. We also shouldn’t forget that the AMC Rolling Hills 20 has twenty rooms, 18 if we subtract the Dolby and IMAX theaters, which is quite a few auditoriums to fill, especially on non-holiday weeknights. If it only had four or six screens there wouldn’t be any wiggle room, but having 20 (okay, 18) gives some flexibility, one would think. AMC could, for example, give Berler a fourth room, and not ding him if it doesn’t always fill to capacity. Right now, because the films tend to sell out, people are arriving up to an hour early in order to snag choice seats.
The South Bay Film Society has been wildly successful, there’s little doubt about that, but who can say how long the good times will last. One distributor, who came in to do a Q&A with Berler’s audience, didn’t seem optimistic about the future of art houses or foreign film in U.S. theaters. Or rather, he did say yes, he was optimistic, but only “for the next 10 years, until you people die out,” Berler recalls. “These films are still okay in foreign countries, but in the U.S. he was saying that I’m still not sure if these films will survive after this audience is gone.”
This assessment would probably surprise most of the 450 people who rush to find seats more than 30 times a year when Berler is screening his movies. I figure that most of them will still be kicking in 10 years. In the meantime, there are many others waiting to get in. There have always been people who crave this kind of cultural, cinematic fare. No, the ranks won’t thin out so fast; they’ll keep replenishing themselves. It just took someone like Randy Berler to throw open the doors and get the ball rolling.