With the recent demise of Blockbuster Video, the Tower Theatre collection still stands strong. Instead of closing their doors, the Salt Lake Film Society found a way to reinvent itself. They rent around 16,000 movies a year and offer free rentals to Film Society members.
During the 80s when video rental stores popped up on every corner, the Tower Theatre rented independent, historical and documentary films that weren’t always featured at local chain stores. When the Salt Lake Film Society took over the Tower they also acquired their extensive video library and changed it from a retail-based operation to a public archive.
The collection now contains about 11,000 films on either VHS, DVD or Blu-ray. Between 3,000-4,000 are available to the public on a rotating basis. Film Society Executive Director Tori Baker says the large library contains movies that have been out of print for decades and is the rarest collection in five states.
You won’t find the latest Avengers movie at the Tower, but what you will find is a rich selection of American and international independent cinema: documentaries, historic Hollywood films, cult and cultural films. There is a strong emphasis on movies that allow people from other cultures to see films in their native language.
“We’re lucky in Utah because we have a deep history of independent filmmaking. We are the birthplace of the Sundance Film Festival,” says Baker. Besides the video rental, the film society operates the Tower and Broadway Centre Cinema. With seven screens it makes Utah one of the more robust independent film outlets in the country. Last year they showed 237 movies on their screens of which 211 were exclusive to the film society’s two theaters. They are able to keep the program going through membership donations, rentals and money from Salt Lake County’s ZAP (Zoo, Arts and Parks) program.
Baker stresses that the society wants to give the public access to films and experiences they can’t find anywhere else. “People need communal experiences. Sitting in a dark theater with other humans and having an emotional moment watching a film allows people to engage in a dialogue and debate. It is getting harder to provide a place to find that outlet,” she said.
Another important use of the Tower film library is lending to educators. They work with East Hollywood High School and would love to see that relationship expand to other schools. With the proliferation of dual-language immersion schools in Chinese, Spanish and French, Baker thinks more schools should take advantage of the society’s foreign films. She says teachers and schools are welcome to call and find out more about what is offered.
With movies at home or at the cinema, the Salt Lake Film Society keeps us culturally independent.