Magic Lantern Cinema
More than a moviehouse

by Richard Kazis
for the Magic Lantern Cinema Collective

from Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 10-12
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

"Radio City Music Hall it ain't," is how the Washington Star described the Magic Lantern Cinema. "An anti-profit worker-run community film co-op" was the first formulation that Magic Lantern organizers came up with for themselves back in the fall of 1975. Lately, the catchword has become "DC's alternative film theater" — more vague but also more accurate. During its first five years, Magic Lantern has gone through a number of changes — in philosophy, politics, personnel and program. The general goals, however, have remained fairly constant. We seek to provide a showplace for independent and political films that do not receive theatrical distribution, and to do so in a setting that is "more than a movie house" and that supports and contributes to political education and activity in and around Washington, DC.

Before the Alternative Cinema Conference held at New York's Bard College in June 1979, Magic Lantern members were aware of ventures similar to our own in Philadelphia (Neighborhood Film Project) and Cambridge (Angry Arts) and perhaps one or two more. At the conference, we were happily surprised and a bit shocked to find over twenty other groups — in Vermont, East Lansing, Madison, Detroit, Long Island, and elsewhere — that were developing film series and programming along similar, politically aware and active lines. We have written the following history of DC's Magic Lantern Cinema as an attempt to aid groups considering similar work. We would also like to spur discussion of exhibition's role in that complex of functions which constitutes "alternative cinema."


Five years ago, Washington DC's worker-run cooperative community was still strong — a network of food coops, "anti-profit" bookstores, record stores, print shops, plant stores, etc.. At that time, two former film programmers at Catholic University who had become part of the network (one working at a food coop, Glut, and the other at the record shop, Bread and Roses) decided to set up an ongoing film series. Bread and Roses (bankrupted just twelve months ago by slumping sales and a whopping back tax bill) provided $100 as a loan for an experimental film series.

Initially, our concept was two-fold, and a bit naive. Half the films were to be repertory "popular" films to be shown at a low admission price. Receipts, according to the plan, would generate enough surplus so that films of "a political, social or countercultural nature" could be shown free as a community service. We thought our audience would be members, workers and friends of DC's alternative businesses. In fact, we'd planned entertainment and education geared to a small circle of friends.

The particulars of setting up the first series fell quickly into place. We rented two projectors from the Catholic University audiovisual department. The Osh Gosh Choo Choo day care center, located in the basement of an experimental high school on the fringe of downtown Washington, let Magic Lantern pay minimal rent for the use of its space on weekend nights. A large 8' x 8' screen was purchased at a government surplus warehouse (for $10, I think). The day care center's climbing structure became the first, temporary projection booth. An old speaker and amplifier made an adequate sound system. We found cushions for people to sit on, some folding chairs for the back rows — and we were ready.

Over 100 people packed the hail for the Grand Opening showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ. The mood was festive and alive — even though probably half the audience could not see the screen without somebody's head blocking their view. The rest of the first series included free showings of TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD (our October Revolution celebration) and a series of experimental short films; paid showings of several short women's films, the Washington Area Filmmakers' League film festival, and ANIMAL FARM. Although attendance was spotty, Magic Lantern organizers (all of whom worked, and continue to work, without pay) became sufficiently encouraged to continue programming, two months at a time.

One week before Christmas, Magic Lantern suffered its first programming bomb, one which forced the theater to reevaluate its strategy. We showed DIAL M FOR MURDER and THE 39 STEPS together, a double bill for a dollar. Only five people showed up. That loss, combined with fairly consistent losses in November and December (with the notable exception of a full house for the Cuban biography of Ho Chi Minh, 79 SPRINGTIMES) led to several changes. Prices were raised to $1.50 (they are now up to $2.50). More importantly, we made a decision to drop standard repertory fare. We could not hope to compete with the Circle or the Biograph, Washington's two repertory theaters, on either price or comfort, so we decided not to try. From then on, we placed an emphasis on showing a wide variety of "political films, Third World films, women's films, and independent films" not receiving theatrical distribution around the city. This shift led to our broadening our sense of our perceived audience and our beginning a generally more adventurous style of programming. We began to look for films to premiere in Washington and for ways to make Magic Lantern a unique experience, one that would put film exhibition and use in the broader context of political activity, education and support.


Magic Lantern carefully considered ways to break through the passivity inherent in moviegoing. We handed out program notes for each show, either copies of reviews or original notes written by Magic Lantern volunteers. On the back of the program notes was a questionnaire asking people to suggest improvements and specific film titles. We sold Cineaste, JUMP CUT, The Velvet Light Trap, and Women and Film before and after each show.

The audience was not allowed simply to come in silently, go out silently and discuss the film in pairs over coffee at nearby fern-filled bars. We introduced each audience to Magic Lantern and to the film that they were about to see. The few minutes before a film began (which was usually about ten minutes later than planned) were used as an open Community Bulletin Board. We announced then those film and community events that we knew of, and people from the audience added others. After a film, when appropriate, Magic Lantern members would initiate and facilitate a discussion among members of the audience who wished to stay.

Most of these policies have been maintained. We dropped the questionnaires because few people actually filled them out. Program notes now seem the first thing to go when volunteers feel overworked. And discussions have frequently been dropped due to poor preparation or lack of interest. But our intent is there — to force the audience into a different relation to the theater, the "management" and, by extension, the film that they are about to see.

Other extras have contributed to making Magic Lantern unique in Washington. We try to have one show free in every series (usually a film on loan from the local public library). Magic Lantern also tries to have one benefit or co-sponsored film in each series. In benefits, a local political or community group procures the film and Magic Lantern runs the show. Magic Lantern takes expenses and a small percentage of the gross, and the benefit organization keeps the rest. In co-sponsorships, the organization and Magic Lantern split the cost of the film rental and also split the profit or loss from the show.

Benefits have included these films:

  • INTRODUCTION TO THE ENEMY for the Friends of Indochina;
  • A LUTA CONTINUA for the Liberation Support Movement;
  • BROKEN TREATY AT BATTLE MOUNTAIN for the DC Native American Solidarity Committee;
  • SALT OF THE EARTH for the striking pressmen at the Washington Post;
  • REDEVELOPMENT for the Citywide Housing Coalition;
  • THE CHICAGO MATERNITY CENTER STORY for the Washington Free Clinic;
  • an anthology of cartoons on SEXISM IN ANIMATION for the Washington Rape Crisis Center;
  • HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. for the Texas Farm Workers;
  • REBELLION IN PATAGONIA for the Argentine Committee for Human Rights;
  • THE LAST RESORT for the anti-nuclear Potomac Alliance;
  • and THE UNQUIET DEATH OF JULIUS AND ETHEL ROSENBERG for the Washington Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case.

As the above list shows, Magic Lantern has tried to serve several different communities — those involved in international solidarity activities, those working on domestic political issues, and those pursuing local alternatives and activism. In this way, we have attempted to broaden our base in the quite varied, politically active world in Washington. We have also tried to schedule benefits when they would be most appropriate: the Rosenberg film on the 25th anniversary of the Rosenbergs' executions; the Texas Farmworkers benefit on the eve before the Farmworkers' march by foot from Texas; THE LAST RESORT to coincide with the June 1978 anti-nuclear protests at Seabrook and Barnwell. We have learned that the more directly a film series is integrated into ongoing political activity, the more successful each show will be — both for the film series and the activism.

One other special project deserves mention. Twice, Magic Lantern developed courses of study based on two-month film schedules. The first was Ideology and Film: The Politics of the Fiction Film, an introduction to the politics of film language and narrative. We examined the Hollywood studio film (STAGECOACH, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE), contemporary European cinema (Godard's LE GAI SAVOIR, Tanner's CHARLES DEAD OR ALIVE), and Third World cinema (Sarah Maldoror's SAMBIZANGA).

The second course was a nine-week series on Hollywood and the Cold War, beginning with the Washington premiere of HOLLYWOOD ON TRIAL end proceeding through MISSION TO MOSCOW, CROSSFIRE, I MARRIED A COMMUNIST, JOHNNY GUITAR, ON THE WATERFRONT, RED PLANET MARS, SALT OF THE EARTH, and a double-bill of OPERATION ABOLITION and OPERATION CORRECTION, and the HUAC and ACLU film versions of the demonstrations against HUAC's 1960 San Francisco hearings. At many of the shows, DC residents who had been politically active in the 1950s made presentations and answered questions.

Thematic series and courses of this kind greatly help fledgling film groups. A creative thematic program is more likely to receive media coverage than a series of unrelated films. And although preparing for and teaching a course requires a good deal of time and effort, the additional revenue from tuition can help a group's usually borderline balance sheet. Moreover, a thematic series with good program notes and presentations can spur audience members to their own political and cinematic education. This is, of course, one of the central goals of running a film series like Magic Lantern.


Any report on an organization's activities written by a member of that organization — such as this article you are now reading — runs the risk of being a puff piece, a promotion that avoids discussing real issues and problems. Now that I have painted a fairly bright picture of Magic Lantern's successes and innovations, let me turn quickly to the rough edges, the problems that can do in a fragile, all-volunteer organization like Magic Lantern.

First things first. Money. Magic Lantern began with a cushion of $100. Needless to say, that is like having no cushion at all. Pay $150 for a film, have 12 people show up to see it — and there goes your capitalization. We were lucky though. Good relations with Catholic University through the Lantern's two founders, good relations with the local activist and alternative community through the work and ongoing activities of Magic Lantern volunteers — and the personal resources of several Magic Lantern members — made up for undercapitalization.

Several of us had excellent carpentry and electrical skills, so we ourselves were able to build fairly sophisticated projection booths and sound systems. Others had good press contacts and writing skills, helping us to get publicity and recognition. Others had a little extra money to loan to Magic Lantern in lean times. Although the checkbook has been in the black for four years running, we have been in debt to ourselves for as much as $800 at a time.

We've also had other "hidden subsidies." Several people active in Magic Lantern bought their own vintage Bell and Howell Filmo sound projectors (I got mine at a government surplus warehouse) and have loaned them to the organization, splitting the cost of repairs and maintenance with the group. Others have provided old speakers and amplifiers. Local non-profit organizations have helped Magic Lantern by buying advertising space on the back of the series calendar, and by enabling Magic Lantern to mail the calendars at a bulk non-profit rate. One Lantern member is a graphic designer and prepares the schedules. Another has access to free typesetting for the calendars. The space that we now use to show films is a performance loft above a downtown restaurant. We pay no rent because our show attracts business to the restaurant. Generally, Magic Lantern does not benefit from any outside funding or from connections with a university (the Catholic U. equipment connection ended within the first year once we bought our own projectors). We have to keep operating costs down. Otherwise we'd never be able to afford films that cost over $100.

The second recurring problem is people. An all-volunteer organization runs the risk and the inevitability of high turnover. Moreover, a film group needs dependable volunteers. If someone volunteers to project a film and then forgets to show up, the results could be disastrous. Magic Lantern's lowest point was in the summer of 1978. Knocked out from the energy that it took to put together the Hollywood and the Cold War series, the core of Magic Lantern members had been whittled down to four. When we found out that our basement space would be permanently closed in late June and that we would have to move the theater, the four "survivors" did not have enough energy to pursue leads for a new space. It took over six months before we relocated above the restaurant and began showing films again. Luckily, better outreach for volunteers (including the incentive of a "projector school" for those eager to learn to run the equipment, do switch-overs, troubleshoot the sound system, etc.) has brought in almost a dozen new volunteers. This has enabled organization members to spread the work around, to pursue it more thoroughly, and to avoid burning out from the effort. For our purposes, a core of ten solid, dependable, and energetic volunteers is critical for group cohesion, morale, and effectiveness.

The third potentially divisive issue is process: How do decisions get made? Who actually makes them? Where does the power lie? Magic Lantern has always considered itself to be a collective, made up of the entire crew of volunteers. Each volunteer participates to the extent that s/he chooses in meetings where programming and policy decisions are made. There is, in effect, a hierarchy of "elders", of informal and crisis decision-making by those people who have participated the longest and who have accepted the most responsibility. The two co-founders have eased themselves out of the "elders" position during the past two years. Two others who were with Magic Lantern almost since its inception gradually took their places. Some quick decision authority is critical. What if the weather looks bad? Who decides to cancel a show? Who decides what to do when the wrong film shows up, and there are only three hours before the show time?

In the last year or so, the authority and workload (since they seem to go together) have been more broadly distributed than ever before. One person has sole responsibility for lining up the calendar ads, another for designing and printing the weekly flyers, another for radio promotion, etc. Each week, one member of the collective is responsible for coordinating all the many details that go into a successful show: Has the film arrived? Are enough volunteers signed up to project, collect admission, and sell magazines? Will they all remember to come? Are program notes ready? Are there two projectors at the theater? Only if the person in charge has a problem that s/he is not sure how to handle do the two veterans enter the planning and decision making for that week. In this way, everyone who so desires is able to learn the step-by-step of running a film series. There are probably eight or nine different past and present members of Magic Lantern who could now begin a similar venture on their own. It is exciting to watch people who, at first, had hesitated even to get near the equipment now become proficient in running shows and preparing whole series.

There are, of course, problems that arise from a fairly loose, collective structure, especially when a group is concerned with maintaining a distinct policy and politics of programming. Magic Lantern's programming and politics have always gone through subtle changes in the past five years as collective members have come and gone. There was, in the beginning, a distinct countercultural style to Magic Lantern. We showed MONTEREY POP, YELLOW SUBMARINE and other favorites. More people sat on pillows at the front of the hall than on the folding chairs behind. But new collective members have brought new concerns and interests to the organization. During the past three years, more leftist European films became part of the programming — also more films by and about women — and somewhat less emphasis was put on experimental and animated film. One volunteer who joined the group in its second year and then became quite active influenced the organization as a whole toward showing more documentaries, more explicitly Marxist-Leninist films, and more international (Japanese, Korean, Brazilian) films. After he left the group, the programming changed again. The nix of drama and documentary swung back toward more dramatic films. The interest in programming independent American films grew. And the rhetoric and political fervor of Magic Lantern programming seemed to ebb a bit.

These changes, it should be emphasized, were only partly due to the cinematic and political preferences of collective members. The group also tried to gauge the interests of its audience. In the first two years, a large segment of our loyal following was comprised of members of well-organized (and disciplined) Marxist-Leninist groups in Washington. Sometime in 1977 or 1978, many of these people, spurred by the correct analysis that Washington was a white-collar town with no industrial base, left Washington en masse for Baltimore, Pittsburgh and other more industrial cities to pursue their politics. Our audience began to change. We now attract a more eclectic group, perhaps less politically active, active in the public interest and non-profit circles in Washington — but still from activist or 'sixties' backgrounds. The programming has changed continually to meet the needs and interests of both the audience and our own collective.

In effect, the politics of Magic Lantern have ended up being quite ad hoc — and certainly not articulated in any coherent "line." We show films that we can afford, plan premieres that will attract. We rarely agonize over whether or not to show a particular film. This is perhaps due to a certain consensus: to avoid repertory, to avoid racist or sexist films, to avoid rhetorical and/or boring films and to show films that are suitable for the audience that we tend to attract.

But the lack of debate may also be due to a lack of political rigor and concern. We are weak on internal theoretical discussions on politics and cinema — the politics of cinema, of particular films and of particular ways of showing films. Because we show films weekly and volunteers may go a full month without attending a show, we have been unable to develop an adequate group criticism/self-criticism process for dealing with questions of politics, process and technical competence. At times when organizational morale has flagged, this has adversely affected the quality of our shows (program notes left unwritten, discussions weak and uninformed). This would cause Magic Lantern to slip back sometimes into being not much different from a passivity-inducing movie theater. As more new people get involved, the problems of maintaining a coherent sense of purpose among collective members is becoming all the more critical. How Magic Lantern deals with this issue in the next year will, in large part, determine just how unique a service Magic Lantern can continue to provide for Washington residents and for Washington's activist community.


Magic Lantern seems to be heading in two distinct directions as we move into our fifth season. On the one hand, we are undertaking more ambitious theatrical programming. And, on the other hand, there is the desire among several collective members to expand our services to the community beyond the film series format.

In the fall of 1979, we premiered in Washington the thirteen-film American Mavericks festival of independent U.S. films, packaged by Entermedia in New York. Running double features two nights a week for six weeks, American Mavericks was the most demanding series that we ever attempted. The publicity was pursued aggressively, including radio spots and press screenings. We mailed out three times as many schedules as we usually do. We hoped that by making a big splash with a program like this we could broaden our audience, increase our visibility, and build momentum for the coming season.

We learned a useful lesson. Attendance was strong for the opening weekend, which featured Penny Aliens PROPERTY and the series big drawing card, John Carpenter's DARK STAR. But we could not sustain the sell-out crowds. By the end of the series, only ten people were coming to each show.

There are several reasons for this failure. We switched from weekend to midweek showings partway through the series. The films being shown in the last weeks were unknown, and the effect of the early publicity for the series had already worn off. More importantly, though, we found that the audience that came in the first week came not for Magic Lantern but for DARK STAR. They were not really interested in U.S. independent films that they had never heard of. They just wanted to see the sci-fi spoof.

By branching out with this series of films that were not more than marginally political but that did fit Magic Lantern's broadest program criteria of not receiving much theatrical distribution, we hoped to reach a new audience. We knew that the programming had little that would attract the politically active members of our constituency, for whom film is only of ancillary interest. But we thought that by providing a service to the Washington film community, we could increase our visibility and impact. The strategy did not work. We crossed over, but we came up with neither old nor new audience.

The lesson was a positive one. We learned that, as a group, we are capable of ambitious projects. And we also learned a bit more about our niche and our usefulness in Washington. The lack of enthusiasm for American Mavericks among the people that we reach swung us back toward a more traditional Magic Lantern style and philosophy of programming — development of program themes and ideas by Magic Lantern members themselves and continuation of programming that serves the needs of those political and community-oriented constituencies with whom we have been able to develop trust and close ties over the past five years.

Our two most recent series have been on films about labor — the first series focusing on documentaries and the second on dramatic films. The first series was kicked off with a special presentation, arranged in conjunction with the National Capital Labor History Society, of films of the Thirties made by the Film and Photo League and other independent left filmmaking groups. This show attracted a full-house audience of 225 (with 75 turned away at the door) and gave us the momentum we needed to make the following six weekends of films a success.

The second series, The Union Makes Us Strong, Part II, marked the first outside funding for Magic Lantern. We received a $2000 grant from the District of Columbia Community Humanities Council that we used to pay for publicity, higher priced film rentals and travel and honoraria costs for speakers to introduce the films. These included the following: Philip Foner on THE MOLLY MAGUIRES, Dan Georgakas on THE ORGANIZER, and Leo Hurwitz on his 1942 film, NATIVE LAND. Other films in the series were BLUE COLLAR, SALT OF THE EARTH, ROOTS OF BLOOD, and ALAMBRISTA. Screened on weekend evenings at a dance studio in downtown Washington, this series has been Magic Lantern's most successful by far — in terms of audience, programming creativity, admission receipts, and group morale. We have even been able to repay all outstanding loans. As a result, we are looking forward to similar sophisticated thematic programming when we reopen in the fall of 1980.

The second new tendency in Magic Lantern is an eagerness to move beyond a set film series. Inspired in part by the example of the Neighborhood Film Project in Philadelphia (perhaps a similar profile of their organization and program would be of interest to JUMP CUT readers), many Magic Lantern members would like the organization to catalyze a variety of film exhibition programs across the city. We are beginning to formulate what a Magic Lantern consulting service would look like — a service that would provide local community, arts, and political groups with accurate information on films, distributors, exhibition spaces, equipment, etc., in Washington, DC. We want to share our knowledge and our five years of experience with local organizations that might set up their own series or run their own benefit programs. We want people to think of Magic Lantern as a community resource, not simply as a film theater. Rather than simply have individuals come to us to see a movie, we want to take film into the community, to begin to reach those groups of people who would not travel downtown to an alternative film theater.

The shape of such a service is still quite unclear in our minds. We must be realistic. Such a service, were it to work, would be a time-consuming task needing a salaried coordinator. That would mean doing some fundraising. Having a salaried coordinator would also raise serious questions about power and control within the organization. Moreover, in a city that is 70 percent black, an organization like ours, whose members and audience are both almost totally white, is limited in the direct community work that it can hope to do. However, the possibility exists of establishing closer working relationships with the Black Film Institute and Black arts organizations like the Miya Gallery. At the very least, we plan to do more informal networking with local artistic, political and community organizations so that they know that we are here and so that they might, as the Washington Women's Art Center has already done, call on us to assist them in their use and exhibition of films.

Being involved with Magic Lantern, like involvement with any small, struggling organization, is like an endless roller coaster ride. A show bombs and you hit a personal and organizational low. But get 100 people to fill the hall for a film — especially for a benefit or premiere — and the electricity and good feelings keep you going for weeks. Still, no matter how things are going, you always fear that the worst is just around the corner. Excitement and sense of purpose and usefulness must be pretty strong at Magic Lantern, though. All-volunteer organizations do not stay alive for four years if the pervasive mood is one of disillusionment and disappointment. As Magic Lantern begins its sixth season, a definite sense of momentum and enthusiasm pervades the collective. We can only hope that the audiences will catch the spirit, too, and will join in active participation and growth.


  • People may like you and your purpose, but they still don't like poor sound quality, uncomfortable seats, overheated rooms, amateurish switchovers, etc.
  • No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to guess which films will draw a good audience and which will not. But you will be able to come up with endless hindsight theories as to why, for instance, only three people came to see the premiere of a new Cuban film on a cold rainy night the week before Memorial Day on a night when Holly Near was performing in another part of town.
  • Do not program for an audience that you have never been able to reach previously — unless you have figured out a way, such as an agreement with an organization that can reach that audience for you, to attract that target group. That is, do not, as we once did, try to show METHADONE: AN AMERICAN WAY OF DEALING if your audience consists primarily of white left/liberals for whom methadone is hardly a burning issue. (We did — and two people came.)
  • Don't ever ever start an after-film discussion with the deadly opening question, "Well, so wadya think?" A five-minute prepared presentation of salient issues that merit discussion is a much more fruitful way to begin.

  • The stronger your ties to the local activist community, the better your audience, programming, and service to the community will be.

  • Whenever you think that you've done enough publicity work, you are wrong.
  • Whenever you think you've seen everything possible go wrong with a show, you are wrong again.


Note: Special thanks to: Pat Dowell, Philip Gaudette, Ray Heinrich, Steve Barnes, Connie Rosen, Michael Jacobs, Maura Gregory, Danny Schecter, Dena Trail, Shelley Harris, Suzanne Chollet, Paul Heinrich, Paul Littman, Pat Weiss, Lance Richter, David Wildberger, Linda Fry, Hank Zangara, Kee Malesky and the other members and friends of Magic Lantern Cinema.