This is not Los Angeles, so finding a theater in Ventura County that might show a small independent film can be a challenge. Fortunately for local film lovers, there are film directors, producers and a host of volunteers who have helped launch film societies. They work hard to preview and premiere what they think are the best in features, documentaries and short films. Where to find these societies? Ojai, Oxnard and Ventura. Take your pick as to which one might be the easiest drive (or bike ride or walk) from your neighborhood. So if you are less than thrilled with what’s showing at your local megaplex, odds are that from week to week you can find a good alternative.
Currently celebrating its 25th year, the longest-running film series in the county is the Ojai Film Society which premieres its movies at the Ojai Playhouse.
Its president, Jim McEachen, is a professional lighting specialist and cinematographer who works with commercials, special format films and documentaries.
McEachen believes that the film society’s goal is to provide an opportunity to view movies that local folks might otherwise miss. “As an arts organization, we try to get films that you might see only in L.A. and New York,” he stated.
To find good films, OFS often sends representatives to some of the more prominent festivals in the U.S., including Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Telluride.
McEachen admits that booking an independent film for a local premiere has become more of a challenge in the last few years. New formats, rising distribution costs, even the meaning of the term independent. As he explained: “Films that five years ago would be considered studio films are now independent films, and so there’s a sort of transformation period that we’re going through.”
Nevertheless, society members preview as many as 50 films during their yearly selection process and boil them down to a total of 36 films they will show during fall, winter and spring, plus nine films during the summer.
The society is fortunate enough to have the support of Khaled Al Awar, the owner of the Ojai Playhouse, who recently had the theater’s equipment upgraded to a digital format. “He’s a great arts patron and he made a substantial investment to upgrade the theater’s projection technology to the latest digital technology,” said McEachen.
The OFS shows a new film every weekend and has received such a positive response to its bookings, that the typical Sunday afternoon showing has been expanded to include a Saturday preview. “It’s because we’re a small community that we’ve developed a habit, and now our fans are fiercely loyal,” McEachen said. “I think we owe our existence and our success to the loyalty of our local audience.”
George Sandoval, director of the Oxnard Film Society, has worked in films for 30 years. He began the society in 2007 under the auspice of the Downtown Center for the Arts. Since last May, he has segued the film series into an independent arts organization. The society, which specializes in foreign films, has showings every first and third Monday at the Plaza Cinema in downtown Oxnard.
Sandoval started the society with a specific goal in mind. “My mantra was, there are 200,000 people here in Oxnard. All I want is 100 on a Monday night.”
He admits that it’s taken a while to reach that goal, but after six years of hard work, his group has become successful enough to expand to two Monday showings.
One of the reasons for Oxnard’s success is the partnership with Plaza Cinema. The arrangements include a fully digital theater with employees already on site to take care of viewers. “It’s a great venue,” he said. “The seating is great, the popcorn is great and the projectors are state-of-the-art.”
Currently, Sandoval serves as a one-man screening committee, but he has enough resources to let him know what’s good. He’s constantly on the lookout for quality foreign films, some of which have received critical acclaim, and more than a few of which are shown at bigger film festivals like Santa Barbara, Sundance, Cannes and Telluride.
Why the focus on foreign films? “It’s just the niche,” he said. “I think we’re trying to bring the world here to downtown Oxnard. For those who don’t get to travel, you get to spend two hours with another family in Turkey, Russia or Israel.”
Sandoval feels that the Oxnard film screenings have gained a strong foothold in the community. Describing his previews as “cultural events,” he thinks that the Oxnard Film Society has earned a solid reputation for showing quality films, and if his viewers happen to throw in coffee or dinner as part of the trip, so much the better. “My fans know they’re coming downtown,” he noted, “and they know they’re going to see a good movie.”
For executive director and documentary filmmaker Lorenzo DeStefano, bringing the Ventura Film Society to fruition has been a long journey. First launched in December 2008, DeStefano labored for two years (2009-2010) to produce an annual film festival in downtown Ventura.
After much work and some sporadic attendance, DeStefano and the VFS decided to change tactics. “The last festival made me realize that maybe Ventura wasn’t quite ready for such a concentrated dose of film like L.A. or some other metropolis,” he said, “so we changed the model.”
Rather than blitz the viewer over a single weekend, the VFS decided to spread out film viewings over a period of weeks and months. Having worked with this model now for almost three years, DeStefano thinks it’s more efficient and has more of a long-term impact. “It’s a lot more focused for the volunteers and myself to show 21 films over 40-something weeks,” he said. “It’s proven a much better model, and it works.”
The first film series was launched during fall 2010. Since that time, VFS screenings have had several different homes, but have now settled into the community center at the corner of Santa Clara and Oak Streets. Films are shown every first and third Tuesday.
For DeStefano, the survival of the film society has reached an important milestone. “We’ve passed the test that if you can last five years as a cultural organization, you’ve passed a test of veracity,” he noted.
The VFS screening committee searches for films that are unique and often surprising. The society shows a great variety of films, ranging from documentaries to locally produced shorts.
DeStefano thinks that the society presents a perspective similar to Sundance or Cannes to a local audience. Describing his film series as a “treasure hunt,” he hopes to provide a wide range of films that fall outside the normal mainstream. “You’re basically allowing people to do what they can’t afford to do, which is to go to film festivals.”
He credits the success of the society, in part, to strong support from the local community, including several cultural arts grants from the city of Ventura and sponsorships from the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Patagonia and individuals such as Barbara Meister, Micheline Sakharoff and many others.
When asked what he most desired from a VFS showing, he replied, “I’m excited about the fact that I don’t know what’s coming. The cinema world is like a Gulf Stream. It’s always pouring things out all over the world. These films are part of that whole process of discovering the world around you."
For more information about Ventura County’s film societies and their schedules, visit www.ojaifilmsociety.org, www.oxnardfilmsociety.org and www.venturafilmsociety.com.