Capitol Hill’s Egyptian Theater — or SIFF Cinema Egyptian, as the organization behind the venue likes it to be called — is a hard worker, bringing independent and art house cinema to the neighborhood day in and day out. Starting this week, the old Masonic temple will, again, be part of the annual SIFF Seattle Independent Film Festival, this year 25 days of movies and the people who love them across the city. It’s this mix of showcase spectacle and the steady drumbeat of daily and nightly screenings and events through the year that makes the Egyptian special.
“We love the fact that we’re back at the Egyptian Theater as the operators year round,” festival director and chief curator Carl Spence tells CHS. “It’s a full circle that we’re able to save it as a cinema and keep it going as a working cinema.”
The 2016 SIFF takes the screen starting Friday, May 19th and runs through an epic schedule leading up to this year’s June 12th finale. There are the numbers: 421 films representing 85 countries: 181 features (plus 4 secret films), 75 documentaries, 8 archival films, and 153 shorts. The films include 54 World premieres (29 features, 25 shorts), 56 North American premieres (42 features, 14 shorts), and 27 US premieres (15 features, 12 shorts). And there are the stars. This year, Viggo Mortensen will be at the Egyptian June 11th to follow Kevin Bacon (2015) and Laura Dern (2014) as the latest recipients of the festival’s annual Award for Outstanding Achievement in Acting.
But, most importantly, there are the movies:
Both Opening and Closing Nights include period comedies: hearkening to the golden 1930s heyday of Hollywood, Opening Night film Café Society from master filmmaker Woody Allen stars Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, and Blake Lively; the 1950s-set Australian revenge comedy-drama The Dressmaker closes SIFF 2016 on Sunday, June 12 with an acclaimed cast including Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, and Hugo Weaving. The emotionally wrenching documentary Gleason, follows Spokane-born NFL star Steve Gleason’s battle with ALS using intimate footage masterfully assembled by director Clay Tweel, and will screen at the Festival’s Centerpiece Gala on Saturday, June 4.
The Northwest premiere of Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic, filmed in Washington, will screen as part of a tribute presentation to Viggo Mortensen on Saturday, June 11, where the acclaimed actor will be presented with the Festival’s Outstanding Achievement in Acting Award and interviewed on stage at the flagship SIFF Cinema Egyptian. Selections from Mortensen’s rich and diverse career are slated during SIFF 2016 in celebration of his work, including A Walk on the Moon, Eastern Promises, and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
On Sunday, May 22, An Afternoon with Molly Shannon will feature an on-stage interview and a screening of four-time Emmy-nominated SNL and Broad City writer Chris Kelly’s feature directorial debut Other People, an unflinching, emotional seriocomedy starring Shannon as well as Jesse Plemons, Maude Apatow, Zach Woods, Bradley Whitford, and June Squibb. Shannon’s latest film, Miles, will make its World premiere at SIFF 2016 on Saturday, May 21 with director Nathan Adloff, Molly Shannon, and other cast in attendance. Miles is a sweet tale of a cleverly resourceful mother and son making the best of a tough situation.
Following the exit of Landmark Theaters from the Egyptian during the summer of 2013, the Egyptian went through a period of uncertainty as the owner of the 1916 Masonic Temple building, Seattle Central College, began searching for a new tenant. SIFF, the organization that originally converted the auditorium into a functional cinema back in 1980 before the Landmark takeover, eventually signed off on a lease with SCC for the next ten years, so that film nonprofit can not only maintain usage of the theater for the annual film festival, but hold regular matinee, evening, and midnight screenings seven days a week.
Relative to the rest of the city — and, really, the world — our area is rich in film. Last year, 12th Ave’s Northwest Film Forum marked 20 years of screenings and education. In 2013, 21st and Union’s Central Cinema raised funds to transition to digital projection. But it’s a tenuous cinematic wealth. The Harvard Exit screened its last film in 2015 and is currently under construction to be transformed into a new restaurant and office development.
Spence said SIFF’s reopening of the Egyptian in late 2014 gave the nonprofit an important asset despite the ongoing challenges of operating an independent movie theater. “It’s not easy but we have a flagship theater for the festival,” Spence said.
2015 marked SIFF’s first full year of planning and screening films and holding events at the Egyptian. Spence called it the completion of “phase one” after SIFF put funding toward upgrading the theater’s electrical and installed a digital projection system and sound system. The strongly supported nonprofit also made sure it had sufficient funding to operate the theater on a daily basis, Spence said. Phase two is beginning.
“Now we know it works,” he said.
After a full year of mixing new releases, special programming and series, and community film events at the single-screen venue, Spence said the recipe has been successful and that SIFF is now looking at building on some key elements. He hopes to see more community events mixed into the film programming and SIFF sees the Egyptian as the appropriate showcase for an expanded — and restored — calendar of events. In July, Spence said SIFF will bring back a noir film festival to Seattle with a week of restored 35 MM cinema at the Egyptian. And watch for even more Pride film events at the theater this June after a successful run in 2015.
But maybe the most important thing about the Egyptian’s new life are the days without international film festivals and special screenings. Spence said, with only one screen to work with, some weeks at the Egyptian are about the art and responsibility to independent cinema. Some weeks are about broader appeal. “We’re nimble in terms of we’re not set in our ways,” Spence said. SIFF’s “strong marketing apparatus and strong support base,” also helps, he added.
But, in the long run of the day to day, the Egyptian seems fully capable of holding its own even as the culture of cinema continues to rapidly change.
“The Egyptian is pretty majestic,” Spence said. “It is what a movie experience should be.”
The 42nd annual SIFF opens May 19th and runs through June 12th. You can learn more and purchase passes and tickets at siff.net.