Most Influential 2015: Logan Crow turns Santa Ana theater into community beacon

The Frida Cinema in downtown Santa Ana doesn’t have reclining seats. It has just two screens, neither of which is an IMAX.

Still, founder Logan Crow is determined to make the most of the space.

For Crow, the Frida is more than just a theater.

He links movie screenings with art shows featuring local artists. Camp classics such as “Rocky Horror Picture Show” are paired with charity drives. Sikh and Vietnamese communities have partnered with the Frida to host film festivals, and other organizations have used the Frida – and movies – to raise awareness about suicide and sexual assault.

And Crow has kept things fun. A screening of “Edward Scissorhands” at the Frida included a prom-style Winter Formal.

What doesn’t play (much) is mainstream cinema. The new “Star Wars” won’t show at the Frida, though Crow knows it would help make ends meet.

Instead, one of the theater’s screens recently presented “Mediterranea,” a well-reviewed drama about African migrants trying to adjust to life in Italy. One weeknight showing drew an audience of one.

That happens. Still, Crow believes it’s an important film, so he shows it.

“We look for the films that are being buzzed about, that are winning awards … (but) that for whatever reason are having a hard time getting on screens,” he said one recent morning in the empty Frida Cinema lobby.

“We want to give the community access to things they won’t get.”

Often that means presenting films that get people thinking – and talking – about issues close to home, such as immigration.

Sometimes, it means not showing movies at all.

Santa Ana resident Crow has divided his venue’s mission into two parts, one as a place for cinema you might not see anywhere else, and the other as a host of “non-cinematic engagements of community and art.” Earlier this year, as the political campaign season kicked into gear, Crow opened the Frida as a place for people to watch presidential primary debates.

“If we’re not serving a local community,” Crow said, “we’re not doing our job.”

As a kid of the ’80s, Crow, 40, grew up watching the young adult classics such as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “The Goonies” that marked that era. But it was “Blue Velvet” by David Lynch that sparked his interest in films outside the mainstream. “Blue Velvet” was dark and twisted, and Crow was just 10 when he saw it for the first time. Still, for Crow, it “changed everything.”

“I became obsessed with watching more movies like ‘Blue Velvet’ that seemed to come out of some other place than Hollywood,” he said.

He saw “Blue Velvet” at the Bijou Theater in Hermosa Beach and watched everything the art-house theater had to offer until it closed in 1997.

Later, Crow’s college plans to become a filmmaker morphed into volunteering for the American Cinematheque, a nonprofit that hosts classics at Hollywood’s historic Egyptian Theatre.

“More than anything, what I really enjoyed was just the sharing of films and the conversation of film,” he said.

In 2006, Crow launched a MySpace page called Mondo Celluloid, where he posted movie reviews and interviews. In August 2009, he began his own cult cinema series, renting the Art Theatre in Long Beach for midnight shows.

Through his Mondo Midnight series, Crow turned movie screenings into events. For a showing of “Killer Klowns from Outer Space,” the theater was transformed into a circus.

In 2009, he started a nonprofit, Long Beach Cinematheque, which added events to the Art Theatre shows such as outdoor screenings in Sunnyside Cemetery and the hugely popular Long Beach Zombie Walk.

But Crow was frustrated that Long Beach Cinematheque didn’t have a place of its own.

In 2012, Ryan Chase, the landlord of Santa Ana’s Fiesta Twin Theatre on Fourth Street, got in touch. The theater was running mainstream movies with Spanish subtitles, but attendance had fallen.

When Crow walked into the Fiesta Twin, he saw dirty carpets, broken mirrors – and possibility.

Shortly after opening as The Frida Cinema in early 2014, as part of his Long Beach Cinematheque, the theater offered a set of movies by Danish director Lars von Trier, including the controversial but well-regarded “Nymphomaniac.”

The sex epic made a splash, Crow said. “We got some attention. … People came. They were excited. They were like, ‘Oh my God, Lars von Trier in Santa Ana. … This is amazing.’”

Crow coupled the series with art in the lobby based on the theme of other controversial cinema, such as “A Clockwork Orange.”

Since then, Crow and Frida Cinema’s staff have tried to reach a broad range of audiences, from camp-movie fans to kids to aspiring filmmakers.

Crow has opened doors and built a community to include everyone, Chase said.

“Orange County is always kind of looked upon as not having a lot of culture,” Chase said. “(Crow) is really bringing culture and obviously film and art … to an area that really wants and needs it.

“From the beginning, we were hoping he’d build that cultural hub. … He’s executed that and then some.”

This month, students at Orange Coast College were set to hold their semiannual film festival at the Frida.

A year ago, Crow helped launch OCC’s festival by offering his theater for free.

“They don’t have any money to rent a theater. And I know that,” Crow said. “But they want to put their films on the big screen; that’s their dream.”

He also knew that first festival could have ended up with just a few dozen people in the seats. Instead, he sold 171 tickets.

“That made me really happy.”

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