Film school Fridays

Portland State’s local cinema house, 5th Avenue Cinema, has been a university staple for decades. Originally opening as the Cine-Mini Theater in October of 1970, it began as a first-run venue but quickly changed to an art house cinema. During the ‘80s, the cinema was shut down and acquired by PSU, where it was transformed into a nonprofit organization. What opened in 1989 was an entirely student-run theater, the only one of its kind in the state of Oregon. Since coming under student control, the cinema has emerged as a leading figure in Portland’s art house film scene.

For years, members of the theater have prided themselves on being “celluloid crusaders,” or advocates of traditional 35-millimeter film presentation. Despite this, the venue began the process of incorporating digital projection as an addition to film during the summer of 2013. While 35-millimeter is still the heart and soul of 5th Avenue Cinema, incorporating the digital medium allows them to expand their repertoire.

This quarter, 5th Avenue has plans to use the newly acquired digital projection to their advantage. No longer content with simply screening films, PSU’s cinema will be taking education out of the classroom and putting it in the theater. In a new ongoing digital lecture series, 5th Avenue Cinema is creating an engaging cinematic experience that both entertains and educates.

Special Features

The addition of a digital screening series at 5th Avenue is the first step in building a more community-driven theater. Breaking away from a passive viewing experience, the members of the student-driven theater are shooting to enhance the community’s involvement with a new digital lecture series.

“We’re calling it Special Features, and what we’ve essentially done is put together a time for PSU students and people in the community to come together,” said projectionist Evan Burchfield.

As an addition to their regular showings, viewers can come in several times throughout the term for the Special Features series. Regular film-projected movies will still play in the main auditorium, while the new digital lecture series will be held in theater two, free and open to the public.

What each Special Features event offers is entirely unique. Presenters will introduce the movie before the viewing, but what follows will be different at each screening. The film could be followed by lectures, presentations or question-and-answer sessions. Each Special Features event will be a uniquely crafted presentation that one will only be able to experience once.

“The digital screening series incorporates a moderated discussion about the film that can range anywhere from technical aspects of the production to analyses of themes and ideas the films may bring up. It really depends on who’s involved in the discussion and where they decide to take it,” said projectionist Leif Fuller.

Script to screen

The series is the brainchild of Cinema Coordinator Matt Ellis, who conceived it as a way to expand the scope of the cinema’s involvement in screenings while simultaneously spreading a film education to incoming viewers.

For the past year, there has been talk between members of the student-run theater about ways to enhance the public’s involvement during screenings. Seeking to create an interactive experience where moviegoers can be informed as well as entertained, Ellis turned to his fellow cinema workers with the idea, and the project began to take form.

“What I planned to do when I got the job was to do additional screenings beyond the regular screenings. The idea is that beyond showing films, we engage in a broader discourse with a wider audience and engage with people who want to talk about film,” Ellis said.

“We can be more than just a theater. We can have a greater conversation. We can use what we have at the university educationally. If our motto is ‘let knowledge serve the city,’ then we should do more than just provide a place for people to watch movies.”

In a time of mass streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, which provide instantaneous access to thousands of films, it’s all too easy to critically disengage during a movie and take a surface-level reading of the film.

With Special Features, the cinema hopes to alter this type of viewing by inspiring critical thought and film inquiry.

“For me, the digital lecture series came from our interest to involve students in discussions about film. We hope to broaden ideas about watching movies. With today’s easy access to cinema, it’s too easy to passively watch a movie on your laptop and forget about it entirely,” Fuller said.

“The goal isn’t merely to provide an opportunity to see important, canonized films or talk about them the way you might in a car ride home…We can do more than just talking about why a character did something. There’s a story, context. That’s something you can’t get just by talking about character development. The goal is to introduce people to these ideas through films,” Ellis said.

A reel test

As it stands, the project is entirely student-run. Students conceptualize, create and carry out each aspect. In the future, they hope to incorporate faculty members and outside commentators for particular projects, but students will continue to be the masterminds. If a professor is an expert on a particular film, director or topic relevant to what is being screened, the members of 5th Avenue Cinema hope to reach out to them to get involved with the discussion.

“[The] desire was to make something that is integrated with the film department, if we can. And we’re trying to get cross-involvement right now so people in the film department can see great films and we can expose them to students and show them on the big screen,” Burchfield said.

Fall quarter saw the group experiment with a test run for the Special Features series. Screening four films specifically chosen to align with the goals of the series—Nosferatu, The Seventh Seal, Martyrs and 8 ½—the group dipped their toes in to the lecture waters, gauging what it would take to craft the most intriguing and enlightening presentations possible.

On good nights, attendance for the digital screening was equivalent to that of the main theater’s showings. Each night proved to be a learning experience for those involved.

“Every one was a challenge. Nosferatu was good; there were about 30 people that went to that. Martyrs is the one where everyone left because it’s so extreme and shocking and we didn’t even have a discussion about that. It was all a test run,” Ellis said.

“[It was a chance to] see the audience and hear what they were talking about. It was definitely a trial run for sure. We were experimenting with group discussions so they weren’t intimidating,” Burchfield said. “I think I learned that the discussions have to be casual and encouraging for people to notice things and acknowledge things in the movie.”


Currently, the group is in the process of gearing up for the winter term’s Special Features run. The films selected for this quarter, In the Mood for Love, Rashomon, The Night of the Hunter, The Passion of Joan of Arc and a collection of short films entitled A Night of Anger: The Films of Kenneth Anger, were chosen for being important works in film history that the group feels demand examination and conversation.

“We planned [the lecture series] to be a little more than ‘Hey, here’s a few movies.’ We’re trying to build an audience and provide something that interests people. We want to design something that is meaningful and worthwhile. Otherwise we’re just standing around talking about movies, which is fun, but would be betraying the opportunity we have with this cinema,” Ellis said.

Kicking off on Friday with In the Mood for Love, the group sets to explore the importance of the film and examine the impact director Kar Wai Wong had on global cinema.

“Generally, these movies mattered in their time. Because they mattered in their time, they’ve lasted. And that’s something we’re trying to talk about,” Burchfield said.

This type of examination will continue with future films in the series. For spring term, Fuller has plans for a series that would examine films of the New Hollywood/American New Wave film scene of the 1960s through the 1980s.

“People didn’t know what to expect when watching films like Easy Rider, Badlands and Apocalypse Now. Not only were these films exciting and well-made, but they spoke to a new generation of people frustrated with the country’s social and political turmoil,” Fuller said. 

“Right now I’m interested in the overlooked films that brought the death of the New Hollywood era. While directors were given free rein to transform their passion projects into a big-budgeted reality, these films lost money and were ignored by the general public in favor of more traditional blockbusters. While they were still fantastic pictures, these films were virtually ignored for years but are now getting beautiful HD transfers from original negatives thanks to a growing support for specially treated video release, and we’re happy to feature them in our lineup.”

Coming soon

As time passes and Special Features evolves, the members of 5th Avenue Cinema hope to continue to do the best they can while expanding their audience, because creating a stable sense of community where film education is encouraged is their most important goal.

“The digital series is allowing us to be more of a part of the PSU community in an intellectual way. If you want to have a good educational and entertaining experience you can go to 5th Avenue Cinema,” Burchfield said.

For more information on 5th Avenue Cinema or for a list of upcoming showtimes, visit them online at: