by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
'FISTS OF FURY'
February 27-March 5
Since reopening late last year after an extensive renovation, Seattle's venerable and iconic Cinerama Theatre has been quietly making plans to give the venue the type of decade and genre-spanning showcase it's long been known for ever since Paul Allen and Vulcan, Inc. took over day-to-day operations back in 1999. The fruits of that labor have finally begun to ripen, first with a Valentine's Day triptych featuring restorations of Gone with the Wind, Guys and Dolls and Some Like It Hot, then with a week-long celebration of this year's Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, culminating in Gay City Health Project and Three Dollar Bill Cinema's annual Oscar party on Sunday, February 22.
Next up is 'Fists and Fury,' billed as the Cinerama's, and thus Seattle's, first-ever mixed martial arts film festival, and the lineup couldn't be more explosive. Running February 27 thru March 5, the festival is a mixture of old school and new school, samurais, assassins and undercover operatives all sharing the screen together as they attempt to kick, flip, hack, slash and punch their way to victory. Films range from new 35mm restorations of Akira Kurosawa classics Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Rashomon, to a double-bill of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2. Four of Bruce Lee's action extravaganzas are screened, The Chinese Connection, The Way of the Dragon and Game of Death for the first time locally in over a decade.
Other notable films being showcased include Ang Lee's Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Jackie Chan's The Legend of the Drunken Master, Once Upon a Time in China with Jet Li, and Masaki Kobayashi's ferocious samurai classic Harakiri, while modern master Stephen Chow has two films - Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer - both in 35mm. Rounding things out are Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, Black Belt Jones, Samurai Rebellion, Iron Monkey and IP Man.
I had the opportunity to speak with Cinerama Director of Operations Greg Wood about a variety of things regarding the theatre ranging from current events to future plans. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation:
Sara Michelle Fetters: So...what's been going on? I feel like we haven't chatted in ages. For the life of me I can't put my finger on why. Thoughts?
Greg Wood: [laughs] Yeah. Gosh. I wonder.
Seriously, you're right, it's been a while; but as you can tell, we've been pretty busy. It's been a really hard stretch, what with the remodel, the renovation and the reopening. So much has been going on and happening. But I think we're finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Things have been going fantastically well. I really think people have been responding to the Cinerama's upgrades quite positively.
Sara Michelle Fetters: When you and I were emailing back and forth in November of last year, I felt so bad for you. You were just so secretive. Friendly, but secretive, and I got the feeling you didn't want to be. Every answer was some sort of a greeting and a friendly remark coupled with, 'I can't say anything more until January or February.' I imagine I wasn't the only one prying so saying that probably got old very fast.
Greg Wood: Right! It was craziness. There were just so many people involved. So many different voices that needed to be heard. We also didn't have all the pieces in place for upcoming events so we didn't want to jinx anything. But now I can talk. All is good.
I mean, the opening stuff right after the renovation went great. Everyone at Vulcan I think handled that so well. But, as far as my job and focus were concerned, I knew we were looking at a couple of different festivals at the time but I wasn't certain which was going to win out. It didn't make a lot of sense to talk about them. I didn't know 'Fists of Fury' was going to be our first one for 2015 until around the middle of December.
Sara Michelle Fetters: How crazy was all of that? The remodel. The reopening. When did you know just how extensive and massive all of that was going to be?
Greg Wood: We knew going on what we were doing. There were a lot of challenges, of course, what with the new technologies and concepts we wanted to potentially explore. But we were also really excited about it all. It was a lot to deal with, yes, but at the same time I feel like we were fully prepared. It was certainly a major renovation, though, that goes without saying.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I was certainly impressed when I walked back into the Cinerama for the first time post-remodel. What was your reaction when you saw everything you'd been talking about and planning finally come together?
Greg Wood: It was so hard not tell anybody! I mean, it was so stunning! You dream about things going well, but when they exceed those expectations you can't help but want to talk about it. I mean, going through the planning process and entering into construction we knew what we were doing and what the potential was in regards to all the upgrades and changes. I think, for me, the most exciting part was seeing the improvements in the picture quality and hearing the sound improvements. I mean, that, in the end, was most inspiring. You can guesstimate all you want what everything is going to look and sound like, but until you actually get to experience the finished product you never truly know how it is going to turn out.
We were always confident we were doing the right thing [with the renovation]. We had a lot of brains working on it. We talked about every issue extensively to make sure we were always on the right path. It was a really positive experience and the response to my mind has been even better than anything we could have hoped for.
Sara Michelle Fetters: In regards to 'Fists of Fury,' you and I have talked a number of times in the past about your excitement in regards to keeping the Sci-Fi Film Festival going, about hopefully making the Halloween Film Festival an annual affair and how you'd like to keep doing the Widescreen/70mm Film Festival, if serviceable prints can be made available to you. Yet, all that said, here you are kicking off 2015 with a martial arts festival. How did that happen?
Greg Wood: Interesting, right? Sometimes it's just how these things work themselves out. We have a number of ideas that we talk about all the time, and the concept of a martial arts/samurai film festival is one we'd been kicking around for a few years. With the recent renovation, we knew we wanted to do something new as far as festivals were concerned, and even Paul [Allen] had asked about the potential for this one as well. He has an affinity for mixed martial arts and samurai films that goes way back, so when he mentioned the possibility for this festival to finally actually happen we knew right then it was time to move it off of the back burner.
It's just a good fit for Seattle and something new for our customer base. It's exciting, I think, and I'm looking forward to finding out what the response is going to be.
Sara Michelle Fetters: It's a terrific lineup, to be sure, but it's not like a lot of these titles are guaranteed to sell a ton of tickets.
Greg Wood: It's pretty risky. It's pretty outside the box. These festivals, it's so hard to convey to people how much work goes into them all. On top of that, you just don't know what it is people are going to be excited to go and buy tickets for. But, that aside, it was really difficult to learn about the genre, to chase titles, to see who held the rights to various titles and what formats - if any - they were willing to let us exhibit them in. It was exceedingly hard to chase all of that stuff down. But also kind of thrilling, especially when we were able to get our hands on certain titles we didn't initially think it would be possible to do so.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Such as?
Greg Wood: By far the hardest titles to acquire were those Bruce Lee titles, excluding Enter the Dragon, of course. Those were the ones we were most thrilled about. They've been out of circulation for quite a long time. For me, that was the most victorious moment, when we got confirmation that we could screen them. It was really difficult. Getting the okay took a long time for us to negotiate and work out. The current rights holders as far as distribution go are in Hong Kong, so you can imagine in some ways what those conversations must have been like.
It's kind of funny. When we first started looking at titles we obviously had Enter the Dragon on the list. Between that film, and then three Kurosawa titles - which we knew were available thanks to their 2009 restorations and the freshly struck 35mm prints - we knew we had the basis for a fairly solid festival. It was rounding it at all out where our conversations centered around, and we kind of felt if we could get the other Bruce Lee films, along with some other iconic, important titles like Once Upon a Time in China, we could create something audiences would be excited about attending.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Showing 35mm prints of Akira Kurosawa classics, as a veteran programmer and someone who obviously loves the Cinerama and all it stands for, that just has to make your heart all aflutter, I'd imagine.
Greg Wood: It does. Obviously. I think you hit it on the head. I mean, we're the biggest fans of the Cinerama that there are, so when we program these events we start by thinking about what films we'd want to buy tickets for and see ourselves. Movies like Seven Samurai epitomize that.
It's so difficult, though, to find time to program festivals like this when dealing with the rules and regulations as far as the first-run film industry is concerned. It's hard to find that time of year where the studios are okay with us taking a week or two off from showing new releases. It's a massive job, so when we do get the opportunity to shut things down and program a festival like this one we definitely want to make sure the films we're showcasing are ones that get us excited and those Kurosawa titles do just that.
Sara Michelle Fetters: When you look at what's coming up, when you eye the future, what does 2015 have in store for the Cinerama?
Greg Wood: I think the renovation reclaimed the movie theatre as being the premier venue to showcase motion pictures in Seattle. With 2015, I look at the titles we have coming in I think the energy and excitement they are going to generate, especially when viewed at the Cinerama, will undoubtedly speak for themselves. I feel like this is going to be a big, big year for the theatre. Most definitely!
Sara Michelle Fetters: As part of that, do you look forward to being part of various outside festivals like SIFF, the Jewish Film Festival and the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival?
Greg Wood: Without question! Of course! We always want to be involved. Sometimes it's hard, especially in regards to SIFF as it takes place right in the middle of the summer where we have contracts to run a lot of new release features like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Tomorrowland. But even if we wind up only being the closing night venue, we still love being a part of these festivals, giving them the Cinerama as a showcase venue. If it were possible to do more we definitely would, as we really like to maintain those strong cinematic community ties.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Speaking of new first-run releases, will the Cinerama continue its tradition of showcasing a certain series of films taking place in a galaxy far, far away?
Greg Wood: I would take it as a pretty safe bet that the latest Star Wars film will play at the Cinerama.
Sara Michelle Fetters: And what about the Sci-Fi and Halloween Film Festivals? Any status report as far as those are concerned?
Greg Wood: We always have to figure out how to put the schedule together based on the contracts we have for those first-run titles. We are looking at doing four festivals this year. We think we have slots on the calendar for those. We just don't know exactly what those will be as of yet and I wouldn't want to make a statement about what films will be playing before we know for certain which direction we are going to go in. I love both those festivals, though, so we'll see what happens.
I will say, the widescreen 70mm festival is getting harder and harder to put together. Studios just don't like lending out those prints anymore. They're getting really hard to get a hold of. We'll still show those prints when we can. I'm just not sure right now when we can craft an entire festival around them.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Anything coming up you're excited about that we might not have thought you'd be excited about?
Greg Wood: I love showing everything at the Cinerama. I really mean that. It's not just a P.R. statement. I mean, the Valentine's Day festival, showing Gone with the Wind, Guys and Dolls and Some Like It Hot, who wouldn't be excited to see those at the Cinerama? But, I mean, Chappie is the next first-run film we're showing, so I'm excited about that. We've got some great films planned for Emerald City Comicon and I'm excited about all three of those. And, I mean, this summer is just loaded with great titles. It's just a wait-and-see to find out what we can book.
And Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It's a Star Wars film. At the Cinerama. So I'd be lying if I didn't claim to be excited about seeing that.
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