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10 Years at The Frida Cinema

The Santa Ana indie theater has endeavored to become a ‘museum of cinema’ with curated films, themed events, panels and community partnerships over the past decade. 

The Frida Cinema marquee advertising its Camp Frida: 24 hours of horror in 2020. Credit: Photo courtesy of The Frida Cinema/Logan Crow
 

The past few years have not been kind to movie theaters – and yet The Frida Cinema in Santa Ana is still here. 


In fact, the independent theater recently marked its 10th anniversary on Feb. 21. Programming for the evening included a “Donnie Darko” film screening – symbolizing its own mission to celebrate young artists – with actor James Duval speaking at the sold-out screening. 


“For the night of our anniversary, we selected 2001’s ‘Donnie Darko’ as the film to celebrate this milestone,” said The Frida Cinema’s executive director Logan Crow. “For one, we wanted to present an independent film that has identified itself to be a Frida Cinema audience staple – one of a handful of films that is very often requested, particularly as newer folks continue to discover the cinema, and that always brings in a devoted crowd. 


“We were also reflective of the fact that ‘Donnie Darko’ marked the directorial debut of a young visionary filmmaker, 25-year-old Richard Kelly, who was fresh out of USC when (he) started shooting the film, which touched on our own endeavors to celebrate and give space to young artists and filmmakers.”


Special screenings, partnerships with local artists, businesses, advocacy groups and nonprofits, and themed events are all regular staples of the nonprofit theater’s schedule. These types of add-ons to the typical movie-going experience are part of the reason the theater has a base of guests who keep returning. 


The Frida Cinema executive director Logan Crow said the nonprofit has averaged anywhere from 65-80 active volunteers at any given time. Photo courtesy of The Frida Cinema
 

Mark Coyan of Costa Mesa started going to Frida Cinema in early 2021 and has been attending ever since. He said he keeps coming back because of “the eclectic mix of movies that run the gamut from classics to grindhouse to foreign films to new releases as well as great film festivals, themed months – such as Michael Mannuary and New York November – and special Q&A events. Also the wonderful, knowledgeable staff that add to the experience.” 


Christopher Spencer of Long Beach said he’s been a Frida Film Club member for about three years. He’s attended several events, including Film Club and advance screenings, over that time.


“The first time I visited The Frida Cinema was shortly after David Bowie died,” Spencer said. “The Frida added a special screening of ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth.’”


Since opening its doors on Feb. 21, 2014, Crow’s mission for The Frida Cinema included a strong focus on the arts. 


“The Frida was founded with the mission to ‘enrich, connect and educate communities through the art of cinema,’” Crow said. “From the beginning, it was important to me that we include ‘art of cinema’ as opposed (to) just ‘cinema,’ as I am a dedicated advocate of the recognition that cinema has always been, and continues to be, an art form – and with that, one of a number of art forms that a community art house cinema like The Frida should serve to complement and support. That tenet has led to evolutions such as the art shows we display in our lobby, our production of the monthly Downtown Santa Ana First Saturdays ArtWalk community event, and various partnerships with arts organizations and events throughout our community, year after year.”


Local artist Alicia Rojas curated the first art show at The Frida Cinema in 2014. 


“The first art show was an all-women show highlighting local artists,” Rojas said. “It was a total success and it was great that Logan invited us to not only participate but have a seat at the table about what art shows and ideas we had to collaborate and build upon.”


Prior to The Frida Cinema’s debut in 2014, Fiesta Twin Theatre operated there from 1985 through 2013, showing mainstream films with Spanish subtitles.


“When Logan came into our community, he really took the time to get to know us and he opened up the doors of The Frida, also a community gathering space for art shows, gatherings, building community through that,” Rojas said. “It was an important step since many artists have been losing spaces in downtown. It felt genuine and caring to understand the community he was coming to be a part of.”


Rojas said The Frida is not only an art cinema but also a community gathering space for advocacy, activism, events and festivals. 


“It is important to keep these spaces open and accessible to local residents and creative cohort,” Rojas said. 


The Frida hosts events that bring in the community. PHOTO 1 and 2: Panels and Q&A sessions, like these ones during the Viet Film Fest and Sikh Arts and Film Festival, help expand the screening experience at The Frida Cinema. PHOTO 3: The Red Door Improv Fest uses the stage in one of the Frida's theaters. PHOTO 4: The Frida Cinema’s Camp Frida is an annual, all-night horror movie marathon. PHOTO 5 and 6: All sorts of characters visit The Frida Cinema to help bring movie screenings to life. Photos courtesy of The Frida Cinema


Building Community 

Community partnerships have played a large role in The Frida’s development over the years. OC Film Fiesta was The Frida’s first collaboration.


“And actually, that came early, before The Frida even technically opened,” Crow said. “The OC Film Fiesta team had been in talks with the chain that used to run the space prior to The Frida, and their festival was scheduled in the window between when those owners were moving out, and we were scheduled to move in. Fortunately, the owners were very gracious and we were all able to work together to ensure OC Film Fiesta could take place that September 2013 as planned, and with a live-score presentation of Fritz Lang’s silent classic ‘Metropolis' performed by a collective of local artists, we partnered in offering folks an early peek at the independent, nonprofit art house to come.”


There’s a long list of other partnerships with film festivals, nonprofits, advocacy and cultural groups and more – from Horrible Imaginings Film Festival and the Viet Film Fest to LGBTQ Center OC, Orange County Children’s Therapeutic Arts Center and Sexual Assault Victim Services. 


“Such partnerships have always been an integral part of my initial vision for The Frida,” Crow said. “Films have the power to engage, inspire, educate, illuminate, connect, break walls – and sometimes, all it takes is a little context to shift the experience of watching a film from simply being engaging, to being truly revolutionary and inspiring.”


Adding guest speakers, a panel, a performance or some other relevant activity to a film screening can expand its educational value and elevate the overall experience.


“You can watch a film documentary like 2015’s ‘Landfill Harmonic’ and find its story of music director Favio Chavez, who founded and guides a Paraguayan group that creates and plays instruments made entirely out of rubbish, deeply touching,” Crow said. “But when it’s paired with a conversation and performance with a Santa Ana-based group with a similar mission, as we did with Dr. Ana Jimenez-Hami and her extraordinary organization Orange County Children’s Therapeutic Arts Center, one might become inspired to learn more, or donate to such a worthy organization, or consider enrolling their own child in the program.” 


Delilah Snell owns Alta Baja Market in Santa Ana, located a block away from The Frida Cinema, and collaborates with the theater. She said for the past two years, she has been partnering with the theater for the Rancho Gordo Bean Encuentro weekend, including Mexican food and Mexican film screenings with panels. 


“The Frida has also hosted a film series for my husband (L.A. Times columnist and former OC Weekly editor) Gustavo Arellano, and for one of the screenings for ‘Aliens,’ we had Jenette Goldstein (Private Vasquez) ... it was amazing,” she said. “We love Logan, we love cinema and for Rancho Gordo – Steve Sando, owner of Rancho Gordo – partnering with the Frida is a natural fit. Steve has the second largest collection of vintage Mexican movie posters, and so film was obviously going to be a part of the weekend.”


The Frida has also become known for its assortment of themed screening events like the interactive “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” annual all-night horror movie marathon Camp Frida and last year’s Showa Godzilla Weekend. 


“The Godzilla Weekend marathon is a perfect example of a programming idea that our team came up with internally, and then reached out externally for partners to ensure it would be as dynamic and engaging as it could be,” Crow said. “What was initially thought up as a two-day marathon ultimately evolved into a five-day, 15-title event, in partnership with arts and cinema groups Creature Bazaar, Atomic Art and Music and Santa Ana’s Mission Control arcade, and complete with vendors, giveaways and live speakers. Some of those sorts of events happen that way – the idea gestates from within, then we put feelers out to see where other like-minded folks might be inspired to take and enhance it.”


Sam Robertson, owner of Arvida Book Company in Tustin, said her business began its partnership with the theater in 2022.


“We started partnering with The Frida at their ‘Twilight' Movie Marathon in July of 2022. The Frida invited us to pop up as a way to support our independent bookstore and we have been collaborating ever since,” Robertson said. “We have some exciting plans in the upcoming year to partner on some events for authors that have had their work adapted to the big screen. 


The Frida Cinema's "Twilight" movie marathon is one of many themed screening events. Photo courtesy of The Frida Cinema

“When local businesses collaborate, they leverage each other's strengths and foster an ecosystem where innovation thrives and community members benefit. Partnerships like this not only encourage economic development but also strengthen the communities overall.”


Robertson said the theater offers cinema lovers the opportunity to see films on the big screen that they missed. 


“Their ability to constantly curate a blend of classic films, cult classics, the avant-garde, foreign films and current releases that are top-notch is something no other theater does quite like Logan and the crew at The Frida,” Robertson said. “The Frida is a foundational part of the cultural experience of Orange County and we are fortunate to have them in our community.”


Rising to the Challenge

Crow said The Frida Cinema has dealt with some challenges over the years. 


“Our first and immediate challenge was one that is a common one with newer community art house cinemas: defining what makes an art house cinema different than the AMCs and Regals one might be used to,” Crow said. “I knew that would be a challenge going in, and I knew the only thing I could rely on to speak to that difference was our programming and our outreach – what we selected to show, how we communicated how that programming was selected with intent, and our efforts to reach out and partner with community educational, arts and cause-based groups to let them know there was a new space in town that was genuinely interested (in) identifying ways to partner with them.” 


He refers to The Frida as a “cultural center” and a “museum of cinema.” 


“Because that’s exactly what I think we, and any movie house that is serving its neighbors as a community art house cinema, are,” he said. “Like a museum, we curate artistic works from other artists, hang them up on our walls for our community to be entertained and enriched by, and then rotate those works consistently. Our large canvases just happen to display moving pictures. But also like a museum, we don’t stop at the art we hang on our walls. We look for opportunities to welcome schools, community engagements, film festivals, education lectures and anything else an organization in our community could use our space for.”


Of course, the biggest challenge the theater has faced was its 15-month closure due to the COVID pandemic. 


“We were so fortunate to have the resources to pivot our programming to socially-distanced, drive-in screenings, which took place at several locations throughout Orange County,” Crow said. "That unplanned chapter in our history is one I am particularly proud of, as we discussed early on that if we were doing drive-ins, the programming would have to reflect the principles, programming and focus on partnerships of our standard operations. 


“By the end of those 15 months, we’d presented over 160 drive-in events, and many of them were in partnership with schools, community groups such as OC LGBT Pride and Viva La Vida Santa Ana, festivals such as Viet Film Fest, and various other organizations. We were also able to continue many of our series through the drive-in, such as our annual Science on Screen series, and welcome guest speakers out to discuss their films in-person, with their audio coming live straight out of your car’s FM radio. It’s really so surreal to look back on, as it all came together very quickly, and it wouldn’t have been possible without so much love and support from our community.”


Even as Crow celebrates the accomplishments of the past 10 years, he’s actively working on plans for the years ahead.


“We are already hard at work restoring two vintage, reel-to-reel 35 mm projectors, which will allow us to showcase rare and classic titles to our community that haven't been transferred to digital formats, and therefore very rarely seen by new generations,” he said. 


Crow said The Frida has recently launched a new Film Club Membership level specifically for students, and is working on special events and screenings exclusively for the Student Film Club member community. 


“Our vision for these events is to provide our community's students with opportunities to not only take in great films with their classmates, but to meet other like-minded, film-loving students from institutions and communities other than their own, allowing them to expand their social circles and forge new friendships and collaborations,” he said. 


The Frida’s Outdoor Cinema program is another area of focus for Crow. 


“It continues to be such a rewarding experience to work with partners to transform an open space into an evening of cinema under the stars,” he said. “We look forward to continuing to establish new partnerships with cities, schools, and arts and culture institutions in the effort to identify new opportunities and locations to take cinema outside of our four walls, and bring it right into local communities.”


He said ultimately, it’s the theater’s audience that will guide the way for future programs. 


“The diverse interests and passions of our community of film lovers have steered the way toward so many new and exciting programs and initiatives. We look forward to continuing to take this journey with you for another 10 years, and to seeing where you lead us next.” 


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