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Hollywood Comes to Lancaster Pike

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Just as you would expect of an industry insider and emerging Hollywood mogul, Juliet Goodfriend has just gotten back from the Toronto Film Festival. Not that she is at all comfortable with descriptions like that.

“My eyes need a rest from watching so many movies in so few days,” she says. “I saw 30 movies, or enough pieces of them, that I was just able to finish up 28 reviews.”

Yes, 30 films is a lot of movies to watch; what she leaves unsaid is the fact that it’s also a great many really bad movies, too. But, that’s what film festivals are all about – pretension, self-indulgence and, just maybe, if you are lucky enough to be in the building when it happens, when proverbial lightening does strike, cinematically speaking, festivals are also about the creation of soaring, inspiring, enduring art, thanks to some of the most unlikely geniuses on the planet.

Yet, self-effacing Juliet Goodfriend is exactly the kind of opinion-setter and tastemaker in the world of films that events like the Toronto, or Venice, or Cannes Festivals are aiming for. These glamorous gatherings have little to do with making sales or hitting budgets, and everything to do with creating buzz, pre-selling reputations and lining up votes for the Oscars and other similar awards.

If their movie is big enough and glitzy enough, and offers enough brand-name stars, the producers and exhibitors at the festivals will eventually pull in all the candy-eating-teens-at-the-suburban-multiplex that they can handle. There might not be too many Dark Knights among them, but Hollywood will make its money, just the same. That’s all but guaranteed.

However, Juliet Goodfriend and her followers are something entirely different. They represent the critical mass of word-of-mouth spokespersons, review and blog writers, and uber-discriminating movie-buffs with money, friends in high places and enough free time to really work the upward trajectory of an art house or independent release. They are among the most prominent of the grown-ups who can certify a film as a genuine find and a director as a person worth watching. That’s power. And, you can’t buy it, not even in Hollywood, because these kinds of film institute third-party endorsements are seldom for sale.

Ms. Goodfriend is the president and founder of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute (BMFI); and she is a refreshingly old school boss, with a cubicle of an office and a busy desk – she does the writing and the typing herself, goes and pulls out the documents she needs, and worries through the details like everyone else on the small staff.

Ms. Goodfriend and the approximately 10,000 people (including an astonishing 80 percent retention rate) who have become members or patrons of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute since its opening just a few years ago represent the best of all possible worlds for the ego-driven players in Hollywood.

“Our audience (approximately 130,000 a year) is primarily educated adults who are either flourishing in mid-career, or are enjoying busy, active retirements,” explains Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., director of education at Bryn Mawr. “Through our classes, we reach these people, plus students of film, ranging from third grade through graduate school.

“Our role is to help them make sense of what they see. They already love film; they are serious students of the art form. We’re giving them the opportunity to see some very personal works, signature pictures that can invest a director or screenwriter a reputation for quality and well-crafted storytelling.”

The Reasons Behind the BMFI

“I’ve always believed that movies are the American art form,” Juliet Goodfriend explains.
“Great stories are what propel social opinion and social action. They emerge from great visuals and great narrative. Making movies is more collaborative and involving than any other art form. But so is watching a great film; that’s also a collaborative undertaking. There’s nothing like watching it with an audience. That’s the way the best writers and directors want to watch it.”

What Juliet Goodfriend is worrying about right now is both the quality and the quantity of those film festival movies. “I think we’ll be all right,” she says, sounding just a little wary. “There were some very good films this year, not as many as last year, but we’ll be fine, I think.”

The Bryn Mawr Film Institute specializes in independent, documentary, art house and classic films – as well as new first-time screenings by local filmmakers.
“We’re not the most ‘mainstream,’” adds Andrew Douglas.

But the BMFI and its theater also screens a surprising number of first-run Hollywood biggies. For example, the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt, is on the screen at Bryn Mawr right now. That’s no accident because the very idiosyncratic Coen brothers are festival and film institute favorites.

Last week, on the occasion of the BMFI’s biggest fundraiser of the year, the Institute celebrated the career of Steve Sabol and NFL Films, with the presentation of its Silver Screen Inspiration Award. That’s a fine choice of a local filmmaker to honor, but, more importantly, it also demonstrates the BMFI’s willingness to break away from the art house mold to better reflect the interests of its very wide audience.

Long before her foray into the movies, Juliet Goodfriend spent about 30 years growing a very successful business in the cut-throat field of pharmaceutical marketing research (Strategic Marketing Corp, Bala, London, Beijing) and serving a very broad community, including Bryn Mawr College, as an active and astute member of over a dozen non-profit boards.

In fact, it was that intense board experience that prompted her into taking action in 2000 to save the old Bryn Mawr Theater, on Lancaster Pike in Bryn Mawr. As it turned out, she discovered that the only way she could save the building (now on the National Register of Historic Places) was by founding the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and thereby taking on Hollywood, not to mention several real estate investors who were salivating over the space that the BMFI and theater now occupies.

“They wanted to gut the theater, which had really fallen on hard times by then,” she says, “and use it to house the Philadelphia Sports Club, which is now in Ardmore. I thought we couldn’t allow that to happen.”

The best part of the story is that she did not allow that to happen. The hard part of the story is that for this to come to pass, she had to become the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

The Glory of the Seville

The Seville Theater opened in 1927. It was one of six local movie houses constructed along the Main Line in that optimistic era. Four of them are still standing and still operating, some a little fitfully, as neighborhood theaters.

William Harold Lee, master of the non-downtown movie palace, was the architect. It’s an easy argument to make that he probably peaked when he created the Seville.

It sits as the most imposing building on that part of Lancaster Pike, dominating the Main Street, USA, feeling of commercial Bryn Mawr. The theater has been described as “exotic escapism, high art and imagination.”

The Seville opened as a destination in itself. The style is Mediterranean and roaring 1920s revivalism. The movie part of the Seville is set back from the street, behind a once-magnificent plaster and paint arcade and atrium that includes a high, arching skylight that seems to go on forever.

Back in the 1970s when I first discovered the place, as the Bryn Mawr Theater, this enticing interior had a strange, cruise-ship feeling to it. Once inside, you almost dreaded knowing that eventually you had to emerge back on bust Lancaster Pike.

The arcade is two-tiered, with boutique-style stores lining the walkway from street to turn-styles. In the 1970s one of the shops was an art gallery, another briefly sold rare sets of toy soldiers to a steady stream of collectors who came from near and far to spend too much money on the brightly painted little marching armies.

Ornate banisters offer still more depth and definition to the upstairs. The ruling architectural detail is tile, from walls to floor to storefronts. There’s plentiful light and glass. The effect is one of totally enveloping visitors as they amble through the arcade on their way to the magnificence of the old theater.

By the time the investors were ready to turn the Seville/Bryn Mawr into a big private gym, the entire edifice had an abandoned, Third World look to it. A Dollar Store would have been an improvement. Considering the fact that the surrounding neighborhood of Bryn Mawr is home to hundreds of million-dollar houses and condos, this was not only unforgivable, but also pretty hard to figure.

“I blame it on absent landlords,” Ms. Goodfriend says. “You can’t get them to appreciate what’s happening here if they’ve never even been in the state.”

She created a non-profit band of civic leaders to rescue the old Bryn Mawr. “It would have been such a tragedy to lose this,” she says. “Just from the aspect of maintaining some kind of an open community building on Lancaster, this was really important. As it is now this is the only public cultural building on the en tire length of Lancaster Pike.”
That’s a disgrace, too, considering the income levels, the education backgrounds and the upper class demographics of most of the people who live in those Main Line towns, by she has the good grace not to mention it.

They ended purchasing the Seville/Bryn Mawr for $2 million and then putting over $ 4 million-and-counting into the renovations. The negotiations weren’t easy of quick. But Ms. Goodfriend had no intention of losing.

Since then, the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts has come up with some grant or matching funds money to kick in to the enormous task of trying to restore the property to its former glory.

The mission of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, with its snug offices and single large classroom in the warm warren of the arcade, is to “exhibit and educate.”

“The state has designated us as a cultural anchor for the area,” Juliet Goodfriend says proudly. “I think that’s a very good definition of just what this building is and what the Bryn Mawr Film Institute is all about.”

Learn More at http://www.brynmawrfilm.org

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