"Thank God for film archivist Dennis Nyback. If not for his encyclopedic knowledge of rare films and his tenacity for acquiring them, we would never have the privilege to view some astounding works of cinema." Kim Morgan


Dennis Nyback takes his films around the world. Find out how to book a show, what programs are available, how to arrange for custom programming, and just about anything you would like to know about Dennis Nyback.

pike street cinema

KVP.001 \\ Sept.1995 KVP // INDEX
Interview: Dennis Nyback of the Pike Street Cinema
by Galen Young color photos by Lara Swimmer
black & white photos by William Isenberger
Since opening the Pike Street Cinema (at 1108 Pike Street, not in the Pike Place Market!) in 1992, owner Dennis Nyback has built Seattle’s finest venue for alternative film programming, showcasing an incredible variety of works dating from the beginning of this century to up-to-the-minute, fresh out of the lab independent films that no one else in this town would dare touch. So why is he moving his immense film archive and unique business to New York City? I wanted to find out…
Dennis Nyback magnify
Dennis Nyback: Can I tell you about my day?Galen Young: Sure.The phone calls today. I got four phone calls today where the people just hung up. I’ve gotten three phones looking for the movie Mortal Kombat.

Opening today, right?!

I got one phone today looking for Theatre Sports in the Pike Place Market. I got one phone call today from the CBC in Vancouver B.C., looking for Craig Baldwin to interview him.

The television network?

Something. I don’t think I’ve gotten anybody calling to actually find out what is playing at the theatre. So that’s my day so far.

How many theatres have you owned/operated/programmed in Seattle over the past decade?

If you count the Jewel Box Theatre, only three.

They were?

The Rosebud Movie Palace, 79-81; The Belltown Film Festival in the Jewel Box Theatre from 88-92 and the Pike Street Cinema from 92 to the present. Although originally this was called the Dream Theatre.

It was? I thought it was the Queen City Theatre.

Oh, it was called the Queen City Film Festival.

What got you interested in playing risky independent films in your programming?

Originally, I did revival. Hollywood revival mainly, just because I love old movies so much. But I went broke with that, so I thought, I have to branch out. I’ve come to really champion independent filmmakers because there is so much Hollywood garbage being produced. I still think there is hope for movies, that good movies can be made, and I think independents are the way its going. I don’t think there’s much hope for Hollywood producing anything of value.

A lot of your revival programming is from a film archive of your own; what got you into doing this?

Cause it was cheaper to buy the stuff than to rent it. There were things I wanted to show that, buying the films made more sense than renting them. For example, I’m going to show this film Little Murders. I paid fifty bucks for a print of Little Murders. I can show it as many times as I want now. Anyway, if I was going to rent it, it would cost me at least one hundred dollars to rent it once. Of course, I am infringing on a copyright here, I’m just buying the thing and showing it. But no one will show these films anymore on the screen, there’s no money for the filmmaker anymore theatrically; if they’re going to make any money off these films their making it in video, cable tv…

Considering that a film like that is not in the public domain, is it conceivable that somebody could come after you on it?

Film Library magnify

Oh they could, yeah. They definitely could. But my defense would be that they have surrendered the theatrical end of it. That they are not pursuing the theatrical usage of this particular film. I don’t think anybody cares actually. I’ll find out. Maybe when I’m in New York and I have a higher profile I’ll find out.

I recall you once remarking to a customer that you stopped listening to popular music in 1973; can you imagine yourself saying the same kind of thing about film, and prefer to watch and show only older works?

I stopped listening to the radio in 1973. I could say, I’d quit going to Hollywood garbage right now and it would be analogous to that. I still listen to music. Its just that I choose what I listen to. I don’t turn on the radio and listen to the lousy junk that I think is out there for the mass appetite. And in movies its a very similar.

What was your original goal in opening the Pike Street Cinema?

To not have a job. (laughs) My goal is to never have a job again. And showing movies is something I like to do. So I’d like to think, in this world you can make a living doing something you like to do.

So what is inspiring your move to New York?

I’m not making a living. (more laugher)

So what is wrong with Seattle?!

What’s wrong with Seattle…well, someone said to me the other day, “well you’re always complaining about people not coming to your theatre, but people go to the Freemont Outdoor Cinema, so people are willing to go out and watch films. Your just upset because they’re not seeing the films you want to show.” Well, that’s what’s wrong with Seattle. They call it the Fremont “almost free” Outdoor Cinema and they charge five dollars. They’ve got a caveat, its five dollars “suggested donation”, but people are such sheep they give them the five dollars. So anyway, they’re going someplace that’s advertised as almost free which costs five dollars. They’re going someplace where, there is so much ambient light you can’t really see the picture. There’s so much noise from the street and the sound system is so second-rate you can’t hear the dialog. So what are they doing? They’re being sheep! They’re just being herded into a place, they’re not going to watch a movie. And that’s Seattle for you.

Pike Street Cinema magnify

Do you think the Seattle audience is really driven by advertising?

No, well that’s it, they’re not really driven by advertising. They’re more being driven by a…I don’t know how to really explain this, but its almost like an anointment thing, the Seattle audience. There is some way that certain things get anointed, and once they’ve been anointed they are supported. The (Seattle) International Film Festival; its not really through advertising that they get their audience. It gets this audience that re-creates itself year after year after year. Eight hundred people showed up last week at the Freemont Outdoor Cinema. That’s not through advertising. That’s through this weird osmosis or something that occurs in this city.

Kind of a “hipness” factor?

Kind of hipness factor–why to people flock to Bumbershoot? (a Seattle mainstream arts festival) I don’t get it.

It sounds like you’re almost worried this Fremont Outdoor Cinema might become a Seattle institution!

It is! It is a Seattle institution. And anything that is a Seattle institution is generally going to be mediocre and dull. That’s a reflection on the city, the things that become institutions in the city. Robert Fulghum lives in this city. He made a fortune with a book called All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, well, what a ridiculous thing to suggest. That your intellect stops at the age of five. And then I heard this on the radio, the wit and wisdom of Robert Fulgham, every Sunday morning on Sandy Bradely’s Potluck. These are things people support in this city. They support mediocrity.

I know you were the projectionist at the first Seattle International Film Fesitval.

The first three years, yeah. 1976, 77, 78 I guess.

What was the experience like?

Oh those guys. The day I walked off the job, working for Dan and Daryl at the Seattle International Film Festival was one of the happiest days of my life. I ran one festival, the third I think, all by myself. I was the only projectionist. I would just sleep at the theatre. There were bugs there too, you’d get like bites and stuff.

Do you remember any of the films on the roster?

I remember only the ones that were good actually. There was a movie called Hot Tomorrows, a Canadian film that I really liked. Isn’t that funny, you asked me if I could remember any of the films. No, I really can’t. I would run a press screening at ten in the morning and run another press screening at one in the afternoon. I’d eat dinner. I’d run the evening show at seven and the evening show at nine and I’d run a midnighter on Friday and Saturday and I did that for a month.

What do think of the SIFF these days?

Well, I think its really gone down hill, because Rajeeve Gupta, who was responsible for the greatness of the programming at the film festival, died. I don’t think they have anybody with his vision to sort of oversee the operation. They just show too much mediocre garbage, I don’t know why they show all these films that open a week later. Why they would show Braveheart with Mel Gibson —

On the opening night!

— at the opener, kind of puts the stamp of averageness… Getting back to the film festival in my business. You would think that the people who attend the film festival are interested in seeing interesting films. I thought that. So one year I printed up six thousand film schedules for this theatre. Little ones with eight or ten films on it. Stuff that should have connected with the people. I remember, they were showing the Leni Reifenstahl biography, so I was showing Leni Reifenstahl films. Real rare ones, like silent films. They were showing Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and a lot of gay stuff, so I was showing this CBS documentary, which I got illegally, The Homosexuals with Mike Wallace, in 1963. So it was stuff that would connect with these people right? I handed out those six thousand schedules, by hand. Everyday, I wouldn’t eat dinner, I’d be in line at six o’clock. I couldn’t believe how long the lines were, I would hand them – here’s film schedule, here’s a film schedule… Six thousand of them. It didn’t help my business at all. Those people going to the Seattle International Film Festival, that’s what they’re into. They’re not really interested in seeing films. They’re interested in going to a film festival. The event that is the film festival. And they give themselves a pat on the back. “I have attended the film festival.”

I’m doing something culturally “good”.Yeah!

The Pike Street has developed its own, small supportive audience don’t you think?

Oh yeah. It’s too small. And its not just Pike Street. You know, I guess maybe you need public funding for support to make something like this go, I hate that, I’m against public funding. There just aren’t really enough people to pay the bills. Yet there are these people that say oh, this is a worthwhile enterprise, something that deserves to be supported. But it can’t be supported just by people coming in the door. The (Seattle) Art Museum shows a lot of films, they’re public funded.

Do you have any advice for independent filmmakers trying to get their work seen in theatres?

It’s a tough racket. It almost seems like every year, there’s one independent film that is the “chosen” independent film. This year it’s going to be The Brothers McMullen. The year before it was Clerks. The year before that was El Mariachi. This goes back to Stranger than Paradise. I’ll bet there’s been one independent film every year that has made a splash. And the rest just go down the toilet. So, getting an independently made film seen, it is hard.

Do you often book the independent films that you show from the filmmakers directly?

Quite a bit actually.

Do you think that’s a good route to try?

Yeah, I think it is a good route. I have a copy of a list of like every film venue in the United States that is not average, like this (Pike St. Cinema) would be on that. Contact the people at the theatres directly, theatres are looking for something good to put on the screen. Especially if they haven’t completely sold out and are just going to put up the same old garbage on the screen. I’ve shown Craig Baldwin films, because Craig called me.

You’ve had people “four wall” the theatre.

Yeah, I’ve had filmmakers actually guarantee that they would cover the cost, really, that’s sticking your neck. But that worked out all right, that was The Seven Mysteries of Life (by Seattle filmmaker Gregg Lachow) that four walled the theatre; paid for the rental of the theatre and made some money. But on the other hand, I would contact people. I contacted Robert Mugge for example, when I wanted to run a Robert Mugge film. I contacted Harrod Blank because I want to run a specific Harrod Blank film. I know the secret though! To an independent filmmaker, to get the independent film seen: make a real good movie. I still think that excellence can be recognized. I didn’t think Clerks was all that good.

Dennis Nyback with Jack Stevenson, June 1993 magnify

Afraid I haven’t seen it.Yeah, I thought it was okay…but, if you’re going to make a real good movie, start with good writing. Steal something, an old short story that you really like, something that has good writing to begin with. I think that the majority of films fail because of bad writing.

When you open in New York, do you see yourself operating on the same size scale as you do here?

Yeah, I think I can get a bigger audience. That’s what I’m looking for is just more people.

Will you try to grow, and show newer, bigger films?

No, I think I’d show the same films. I’d show what I’m showing here. I think the people who show up like what they see here, its just that not enough people are showing up. I think I can show the same sort of things in a bigger market. Ten million people live there. And there’s mass transit. People can get to places if they want to. You know, there are three million people that live in Puget-opolis, but they all live in Kent. Kent just incorporated and its the sixth largest city in the state.

Kent? (laughing) Wow, I didn’t know.

So, there’s all these people in Kent; they’d have to get in their car and drive to get here. Driving. I thought it was a joke when I saw it in the movie Repo Man when that guy says: “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.” I think there’s truth to that. I think there’s something that kills your braincells when you drive a car. And the more you drive, the duller you become. So anyway, in New York I plan to be in the lower eastside, somewhere maybe even south of Houston Street. Maybe in an industrial area or something. Someplace where a lot of people can get there without too much trouble. I can survive that way.

You are moving when–September, October?

October. I was originally going to close the doors here on the 4th of September, but I going to squeeze another month out of it and close the 1st of October.

Pike Street Cinema magnify

NEWS FLASH!
Dennis has indeed opened his new theatre!
You can find him and his unique programming at:

The Lighthouse Cinema
116 Suffolk Street
New York, New York 10002
phone 212-979-7571

…the best people all shave twice a day… © Kulture Void Pictures 2008