We had the good fortune of connecting with Logan Crow and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Logan, how do you think about risk?
The Frida Cinema was essentially born out of a long history of risks taken, and continues to be as we focus on post-pandemic survival and growth. Looking back, I think it was all driven at first by a combination of Vision, and a sense of Mission. From a very early age I was an avid devotee of art house cinemas, starting in my early teens with the Bijou Theater in Hermosa Beach, CA. I was an anxious kid who felt like he couldn’t relate with the kids around me, and the Bijou was one of few places where I would feel completely comfortable in my skin. When it closed I was devastated, but by then I had gotten my driver’s license and discovered the American Cinematheque, New Beverly, Nuart, all these amazing spaces for repertory and art house cinema in Los Angeles. I moved to Los Angeles to be closer to them, and spent a very formative three years volunteering at the Egyptian Theater. I was going to college in Long Beach at the time, and would regularly post all these theaters’ calendars in the art building quad, eager to support these spaces whose work meant so much to me. This ultimately led to the formation of Mondo Celluloid, a Myspace page that was initially established to serve as a calendar of all repertory screenings in Los Angeles, but which quickly grew to become a website and social hub where L.A. cinephiles would share stories and suggestions and reviews. Every once in a while, folks would write to me and ask if I would program a particular title, and I would reply that I am not a programmer, I don’t work for any of the theaters, I just want to make sure they are all supported and that their amazing programming is spread far and wide. But all these great correspondences ultimately unlocked something within me — since I was maybe ten years old, I’d always dreamed of owning and operating a community art house cinema, but I’d never allowed myself to face that dream head-on because I had more than likely convinced myself it was silly or impossible.
At that point I was living in Silver Lake, and with just the limited knowledge of programming an art house that I’d picked up at the Egyptian, I reached out to Lance Alspaugh, owner of Silver Lake’s Vista Theater, and asked him if he’d be interested in a monthly midnight movie series. Lance was so incredibly supportive — he pretty much immediately recognized that I was wet behind the ears, but rather than let that scare him off, he not only embraced the idea but served to mentor me through the process of my first film booking. For my first screening I decided on “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!,” and when I let Lance know, he candidly told me that I would need to reach out to Russ Meyer’s office. Russ had just passed away, but I found contact information and reached out, and got a call back the same day from his assistant. She was so warm and enthusiastic about the idea, and next thing I know, I’m driving up to Russ Meyers’ house in the Hollywood hills. The whole experience was so surreal — here I am at Russ Meyers’ house, the Hollywood sign is beaming overhead, I’m being handed the first of what would become hundreds of heavy 35mm cannisters to lug to my car, and Meyers’ assistant is sharing stories about him, and how happy he’d be to hear that his film will be playing at The Vista. As I left, she mentioned that I should reach out to Haji, one of the actresses in the film, and she gave me Haji’s number. I reach out to Lance, who gave me a quick primer on riders and honorariums; then I reach out to Haji, and she drove out from Arizona to be at the show. The event was a wonderful success, the house was packed, folks were thrilled to meet Haji, and by the end of it I felt like something had landed for me. This is my calling. This is what I’ve always wanted to do — and I’ve done it. The rest should be easy, right?
I do have to say, I often look back and wonder if I would have continued on this trajectory if either Lance or Russ’ office had been anything but genuinely warm and supportive. It’s a lesson I still take with me to this very day; whenever a fledging event coordinator or artist reaches out to me or The Frida, we make an effort to be as friendly and supportive as possible. I genuinely shudder to think of what my life would be like if either Lance or Russ’ assistant laughed me off due to my lack of experience. It’s so important that people who have found success in their trade be nothing but helpful and encouraging to new generations who have been inspired by their work.
So that experience led to a few midnight films at The Vista. Then, a series of midnight screenings at Long Beach’s Art Theater; the launch of a cemetery screening series at Long Beach’s Sunnyside Cemetery; and the formation of Mondo Celluloid’s Long Beach Zombie Walk, which in 2012 had over 12,000 people descend into Downtown Long Beach. During those five years in Long Beach, my vision for an art house cinema of my own continued to grow louder and more demanding. It got to a point where I wasn’t enjoying merely programming films anymore, because what I really wanted to do was program great films in the service of building up an institution that would serve a community as its safe-space, community-based art house cinema. Then in 2013, I received an email from the property owner of a movie theater in Downtown Santa Ana, who explained he was looking for ideas as to how to best operate the cinema to complement Santa Ana’s thriving arts and culture scene. I headed out for a site visit, and as soon as I stepped into the space, it’s almost like I recognized it. This was the space.
All I had at that time was a clear Vision, and a renewed sense of Mission. Mondo Celluloid had evolved to a non-profit, then called Long Beach Cinematheque, and we maybe had $2,500 in our account. We wouldn’t be able to pay rent, we wouldn’t be able to pay for a staff, and we certainly wouldn’t be able to invest the hundreds of thousands of dollars that it would take to convert the cinema’s two auditoriums from 35mm to digital, which was a must if I was going to be able to present student films and many of the micro-studio and independent films I’d want to program. But I didn’t say No; I didn’t say, “We’re just not in a position to do this right now.” That was certainly true fiscally, but my vision about this space was too strong and clear to be discarded. So I let boldness of vision lead the conversation. I spelled out, in detail, everything this space could do, and the impact it would make on the community; and then I spelled out exactly what I would need to make it happen. Sure, there was a part of me that recognized that I could be laughed off; looking back, I think that was fairly sure that would happen. But — what if it didn’t? This vision was too strong and specific to not go for broke and give this a shot.
I still find myself dumbfounded by the decision that the property owners made. I still think it was insane of them. But maybe they recognized a certain level of insanity in me. If this guy is so sure that if we lend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make this happen, he’ll build a successful art house theater and eventually pay us back, maybe he’s on to something. So that’s what they did. They’re a pretty big operation, I’m sure it wasn’t the biggest risk they’d ever taken, but it was certainly the biggest risk I’d ever taken. But my vision was palpable, intense, specific. My vision was as much a part of my reality as my flesh and bones. A guy who had spent his entire life dreaming of being handed the keys to an art house was now sitting across from two men who were interested in handing him those keys; these things just don’t happen. So if they do, it has to be for a reason.
I opened The Frida Cinema on February 21, 2014, and we just celebrated our eighth birthday as Orange County’s sole non-profit art house cinema. We’ve made it through a number of challenges, the biggest of which was of course a 15-month closure due to the pandemic. Just last month, the last of our repayments went out to our landlords; they have often stated over the years that they are glad they took the risk on a young dreamer who had no money but heaps of vision and determination, and now on top of that their loan has been repaid in full. No doubt there were moments when they thought that would never happen, starting with the moment they first cut me a check. The Frida is the result of two entities taking a monumental risk, alternately putting money and vision on the line, and it paid off. It all still feels so surreal to me. It feels like the kind of thing that can only happen in dreams.
Over the last eight years, a combination of vision and mission have led every risk The Frida continues to take. When the pandemic closed our doors, we invested a huge chunk of our reserves to establishing a drive-in cinema series. My mission was to ensure that we could continue to keep and engage our staff, and to continue our mission by providing safe opportunities for folks to leave their homes and watch movies in community; my vision was a roaming drive-in series that would pop up in various locations throughout Orange County, and whose programming would serve to reflect The Frida’s programming by offering not only avant garde and art house titles, but also support independent filmmakers, schools, and community organizations by providing them safe alternatives to hold their student screenings, premieres, multimedia classes, and fundraisers. Once it was on paper, once we knew exactly what we wanted to do and how it would work, the rest was connecting the dots. Looking for venues, advocating for the value and potential impact of community drive-in screenings, getting the word out, taking the internal reality of the vision and positioning it externally. This, like all risks that had come before, was led by a real and uncompromising belief in the vision, and the mission that led to it. It’s somewhere at the intersection between faith and a sort of insanity. If I can see it so clearly, and I can see all the steps that it would take to make it happen, then isn’t it already sort of done? It’s like being handed a screenplay, then setting out to act the part. Hit your marks, say the lines you already know you have to say, execute the play. Don’t take No for an answer; No’s not part of the screenplay. If you run into an actor that won’t say his lines, find another actor. If you can’t, challenge your actor to act their part. Move forward with utmost commitment to your vision. When you do that, the idea of “risk” doesn’t even enter the picture. More often than not, you find you don’t even recognize the gravity of the risks you took until you look back at how you got to where you are.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I’d like to give a hearty shoutout to Lance Alspaugh, Brian Quinn, Phil Blankenship, Anna Feder, Jan Van Dijs, Kerstin Kansteiner, Mark and Helen Vidor, Howard Linn, Billy J. Estes, and the late, great Sherman Torgan. Your efforts and spaces have served to do so much more than simply entertain — they enrich, inspire, and truly change lives. Thank you for keeping the community art house cinema experience alive.