The Little Theater that could

A local nonprofit keeps art alive and reasonably well in the film industry.

JAMIE HOOK, FILMMAKER and founder of WigglyWorld, is in it for the art. "Being exposed to great film and having a library to draw film from is so important," he says. "I think it's impossible to make a good film unless you're inspired, and that's what our cinemas are all about." With money from a King County grant given to finish a film production, he founded the Northwest Film Forum, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to helping filmmakers create movies by providing cameras, lights, and editing facilities at affordable prices. In 1996, Paul Doyle put the Grand Illusion, a veritable boutique theater on the corner of University and 50th, up for sale. "We didn't have any money, but he kept after us and accepted our paltry offer," remembers program director Michael Seiwerath. "So we began our all-volunteer policy, and six months later we were making enough to pay ourselves a salary."

Over the past two-plus years the Grand Illusion, under the aegis of Hook's nonprofit umbrella corporation, has provided an aggressively adventurous mix of foreign cinema, American independents, retrospective offerings, and a succession of funky film series organized around such themes as road movies, 1960s "Direct Cinema," and the inspired "Crackpots and Obsessives." Last year they replaced their platter projection system with a pair of traditional single-reel projectors, necessary equipment for showing archival prints, and initiated "The Sunday Series," a theme-oriented program of matinees dedicated to retrospectives and special events. The programs dedicated to Robert Bresson (from a nationally touring series that would have otherwise bypassed Seattle altogether) and Sam Fuller, and the showings of Krzystof Kieslowski's complete "Decalogue," are the most exciting film series here in the past year. "I like that it shows once a week," adds Seiwerath. "It gives you time to digest." The program has proven enough of a success to expand: The "Century of Cinema" series, a millennial celebration curated by local programmer Robert Graves, begins September 14 and will play both Saturday and Sunday matinees.

If they can make one theater work, why not two? According to Seiwerath, "the idea behind The Little Theater was to create a multipurpose space." Located on northeast Capitol Hill on 19th Ave near Mercer, The Little Theater also became the new home to WigglyWorld and the Northwest Film Forum, and it's always bustling: offices in front, editing facilities in back, and a theater that doubles as a rehearsal space and a studio for film shoots. All that's left is to find the LT's programming niche. "That's a question that's still being answered, and we think we're still figuring out," offers independent film programmer Deborah Girdwood. The next calendar features a series of undistributed independent films, and plans are in the works to make use of the video projection system in a series of video programs, including the best of the SIFF Fly Filmmaking program and a rare showing of shot-on-video Jean-Luc Godard works for French television.

The Grand Illusion has already become a self-sustaining program, supported by ticket revenues, memberships, and local sponsorship. "With the NEA funding drying up, it's been instrumental to get local businesses and community groups to help sponsor our films and series," offers Seiwerath. Surplus funds help support The Little Theater and WigglyWorld, which this year has embarked on a unique program dedicated to producing one local feature film a year. "Start to Finish" turned out its first completed feature this year, Money Buys Happiness (which played to an enthusiastic SIFF audience and is currently making the film festival circuit), and cameras start rolling on its second production in October. "It was always an idea that we would move from postproduction to exhibition to production to distribution," explains Seiwerath. "We're still working on the last two."

Read our fall film picks.

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