Santa Cruz Made Me Love Movies

Four Downtown Theaters Within a Square Mile of Each Other Showed Me How Films Can Bring People Together

I only made it through the first few minutes of The Great Gatsby before I knew something about the film was off. The 1920s world it portrayed looked glossy and chic, and the music sounded snappy and fresh. But watching it felt jarring. Annoyed, I began to count how long each scene lasted. I realized the camera hardly ever spent more than two seconds on a shot. This onslaught of quick cuts seemed intended to add energy and excitement, but left my brain gasping for air.

Counting the seconds in a movie scene sounds weird, I know. But as a film minor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, I’ve spent more time than I care to admit crafting punchy loglines, wrapping my head around the 180-degree-rule, and convincing people that watching three-quarters of Citizen Kane doesn’t a movie buff make. I’ve dabbled in script writing, and proudly marathoned entire film series with the commentary on.

My love for cinema didn’t sprout from film theory or Adobe Premiere tutorial clips, however. It came from a cluster of movie theaters bunched together in downtown Santa Cruz.

I grew up in Watsonville, a small town just outside the northern California city. Santa Cruz is a place you can find local substitutes for well-known chains (Betty’s Burgers instead of In-N-Out, Bookshop Santa Cruz instead of Barnes and Noble) and cars plastered with “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” bumper stickers. People loiter on the sidewalks downtown—sitting on benches, strumming guitars under trees, gazing into shop windows as they stroll by.

While the city is mostly associated with surfers, potheads, and hippies, I never fell into any of those categories. As a kid, I was quietly creative and eager to make art—so, yeah, pretty nerdy. Whenever I could wrangle a ride downtown with friends, we’d rush into the independent bookstores, buy ice cream cones from Penny Ice Creamery, and gawk at the fudge in Marini’s. But first and foremost, we would watch movies.

Whenever I could wrangle a ride downtown with friends, we’d rush into the independent bookstores, buy ice cream cones from Penny Ice Creamery, and gawk at the fudge in Marini’s. But first and foremost, we would watch movies.

The downtown area has four theaters within one square mile. If you began at the Riverfront 2, hit the Regal 9 and the Del Mar, and finished at the Nick, your path would form a small zigzag through downtown and take less than 10 minutes to walk.

After a few years of going to the movies in Santa Cruz, I started to figure out the vibe and purpose of each theater. The Regal Cinemas Riverfront 2 on River Street only shows a few (usually older) films at a time. It’s where I go to see the comedy that got a 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, has already been out for six and a half weeks, and is no longer playing anywhere else. A short walk down Front and Cooper streets brings you to the Regal on Pacific, which is your standard modern theater—with an escalator and plush recliner seats that make the movie-going experience feel a little like naptime. This is where you go to see Hollywood hits and blockbusters—your Harry Potters and your Hunger Games.

The Del Mar and the Nick are both Nickelodeon theaters, a small chain that’s locally owned and operated. The Del Mar, two minutes south of the Regal on Pacific Street, has a small but ornate lobby with ceilings decked in red, gold, and green. Their big screen has a fancy red curtain that adds a bit of whimsy to a run-of-the-mill movie outing, and the overhanging mezzanine contains comfy, vaguely Art Deco furniture. The Nick is just 0.1 miles away, and can be called cramped or charmingly intimate, depending on your mood. I used to think it was a snack shack before I realized it was a theater. The Nick serves organic popcorn and shows films that aren’t playing anywhere else in Santa Cruz County. It’s where I saw my first Wes Anderson film (Moonrise Kingdom) and watched Oscar-nominated movies with my father.

While I still regularly went to the theater in Watsonville to catch its basic selection of Hollywood flicks, the 30- to 50-minute drive to downtown Santa Cruz was always worth the trip because of all the movie options. My friends and I could drive down to see a blockbuster at the Del Mar, and change our minds at the last second and head over to the Nick instead.

With these theaters at my disposal, I became interested in film as a creative outlet—a way to bring people together and spread ideas. I found my life filled with movie references, ticket stubs, and memorized matinee prices. I kept movie release dates in my calendar. I filmed my friends, and spliced the clips together to turn the footage into short music videos and theme-song montages.

I thought my frequent visits to the theaters were the habits of a casual moviegoer with nothing better to do, because I assumed everyone had easy access to a theater smorgasbord. But when I got to college, I kept ending up in film classes, and I found myself missing the tight-knit group of theaters back home.

Art elicits an emotional response that’s not unlike a gravitational pull. When it’s good, it grabs you and stays with you.

My studies have taught me entirely new ways to look at films. I wouldn’t be as tempted to count the seconds of film shots if it wasn’t for a mini-lecture I heard in my freshman year. But even so, I’m convinced the Santa Cruz theaters had a hand in laying that groundwork. Understanding a lecture on story arcs is much easier when I can think back to perfect examples that I saw at the Del Mar. Growing up watching all different kinds of movies has helped me to predict how films will end, recognize the influence one filmmaker had on another, and understand how scripts can uphold certain film conventions while breaking others.

Even more importantly, the downtown theaters have taught me what art can make me feel. Last summer, Boyhood came out during my family’s annual Tahoe camping trip. No movie theater within a 100-mile radius ran the film. But the Nick did. The very evening my family and I returned home, I threw my belongings in my house, ignored my very real need for a nap and a meal, and drove with a friend to Santa Cruz. The theater was as small and unimpressive as always, but most of the seats were filled, and many of the audience members were teenagers and college kids. We all chuckled together whenever we heard a familiar song from the main character’s childhood that we associated with our own. The movie felt so real, even though it contradicted story structures I had been taught for years in school.

Art elicits an emotional response that’s not unlike a gravitational pull. When it’s good, it grabs you and stays with you—similar to how I still dwell on my trips to the Santa Cruz theaters, even when I am miles and years away. As my friend and I stumbled out of the Nick and into the night, I asked him what he thought of Boyhood. He said, “I feel like I just watched my life.” I told him, “I want to make art like this.”

I haven’t made it yet. But if I reach that level, even if what I come up with isn’t a film, even if it’s barely acknowledged by anyone, I want to create the sort of art that I most enjoyed viewing in Santa Cruz’s theaters—the sort of art that, regardless of form, makes people feel as if they have just connected with something real. Real, like 16-year-olds loitering on Pacific Avenue, scrounging up quarters to feed the parking meter, laughing together as the theater lights dim.


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