The Frida Cinema Is the Only Art House Theater in OC

Frida Mural
Murals inside the lobby of Frida Cinema pay homage to the art of film. Photo by Nikki Nelsen / el Don

Moviegoers watched through tired, sleep-deprived eyes on the edge of their seats as the iconic scene of Poltergeist unfolded before them. Some knew it like the back of their hand, others were mesmerized as six-year-old Carol Anne hung onto her bedpost for her life as the glowing vortex manifesting in her closet tried to suck her in. Despite her screams and mother’s hand just out of reach, the force was too strong and she’s ripped into the swirling portal and seemingly into the static-ridden television screen downstairs.

It’s about 7:30 a.m. — well into hour 11 of the all-night movie marathon known as “Camp Frida,” held every year around Halloween.

Camp Frida is the largest annual event presented by The Frida Cinema, the only nonprofit art house theatre in Orange County, located in Downtown Santa Ana. Far from just a movie marathon, Camp Frida puts you in your very own horror movie, transforming the theater into a caution-taped forest of trees leading to a foggy, cobwebbed lobby lit by string lights. The Frida’s twin theaters become rebranded as “The Graveyard” and the “Main Lodge”, and volunteers and crew become zombies in full makeup, serving popcorn and bursting out from curtains to give passersby a scare.

Even the food fits the fright-night theme, with brain-shaped cupcakes and cocktails packaged in blood transfusion bags. No detail is overlooked. The Frida doesn’t do anything halfway.

These campers go all the way with their costumes for Camp Frida. / el Don / Isa Bulnes-Shaw

Immersive events like Camp Frida are setting the Santa Ana community-minded theater apart from traditional movie houses, which have been slow to adapt to moviegoer’s needs in the age of streaming and Red Box. Opened by local cinephile Logan Crowe in 2014, The Frida is changing how the art of cinema is presented to audiences by focusing on bringing people together.

According to researcher Box Office Mojo, domestic movie theater attendance in 2017 was the lowest it’s been since 1992, thanks to streaming services like Netflix, sequel fatigue and rising ticket and concession prices. When people are going to the traditional theater, research shows, it’s to see the latest blockbusters — familiar franchises and big-budget flicks — leaving foreign and independent films without screening opportunities.

Streaming offers content for people of all ages, but browsers often need to know what they’re looking for, and results are often limited based on what’s available and algorithms.

Bryan Terry, the volunteer coordinator at The Frida, knew there needed to be something more engaging that could get people in the seats, somewhere to watch independent and obscure films you can’t find anywhere else.

“I’m very much a believer of the show; the movie starts when you walk into the theater, and the show starts when you walk into the lobby,” Terry says. “[Film] is an art form that’s permeated society like nothing before. You may not be into art, but I guarantee you have a favorite movie. It is the art form that touches everyone.”

This is something that Crowe, the founder, director and chief programmer of The Frida Cinema knows well. He’s been bringing people together through immersive cinematic experiences since 2007. 

Before The Frida, Crowe founded Long Beach Cinemateque — a roving nonprofit film organization with goals similar to The Frida, which hosted hundreds of film showings of all genres, from the classic to bizarre to foreign to banned.  The Cinemateque did it all, from Q&As with filmmakers to America’s largest Zombie Walk, where crowds of people dressed as the undead groaned and staggered their way along the streets of Long Beach — after a screening of Shaun of the Dead, of course.

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A Camp Frida volunteer becomes zombified at the concessions counter. / el Don / Isa Bulnes-Shaw

In a world of mobile devices and small-screen viewing, watching your favorite film (or one you’ve never seen before) in a movie theater like The Frida can be life changing, even for the experienced staff.

“I have watched The Secret of NIMH so many times. [That’s] the movie I wore the VHS out as a kid,” Terry says. “I got to see it on the big screen for the very first time here at The Frida, and it was like watching for the very first time ever. It changes the experience, the gravity of it.”

When you step into The Frida, you’re walking into a hands-on film museum, one that honors the past and embraces the present, capable of changing how you view film entirely, or simply providing a community to riff with while watching terrible films.

No one can predict what festival or tribute will come up next at The Frida. While other art theaters might organize a screening of a single film by campy horror-sci-fi director Ed Wood, The Frida decided to host a month-long Wood-inspired film festival. When other theaters showed the Lord of the Rings trilogy on anniversaries, The Frida screened the entire extended cuts with 4k resolution back to back to back.

When no other theater in Orange County would show the latest indie film starring Nicolas Cage, The Frida jumped on it. And when that showing sold out, they dis it again with an encore. From midnight cult classics like The Room to anime like Cowboy Bebop, the programming reflects the diverse tastes of Southern Californians of all ages. 

Rocky Horror’s shadow cast brings the party every second Friday of the month. / el Don / Isa Bulnes-Shaw

“This is our bonding time. We’re like the weirdos, so we come here to watch the weird movies,” said Raylyn and Debra, two Frida regulars in full costume attending a recent installment of The Frida’s monthly Rocky Horror Picture Show interactive screening and live performance.

“And it’s a plus to see masterpieces we couldn’t see back in the ’70s because we weren’t around. So you know,  A Clockwork Orange on the big screen coming to life is just a really awesome experience.”

After Camp Frida’s finale screening of Poltergeist, the bleary-eyed campers who survived the all-night movie marathon celebrated their triumph with a group picture. Exhausted but smiling, a line of people lugged their blankets and pillows out of the theater and into the daylight of La Cuatro. One group ahead can be heard, 13 hours of sleep down the hole, chatting amongst themselves.

“We’re definitely coming back next year,” one said.

Rocky Horror lets people of all ages serve looks while experimenting with gender expression. / el Don / Isa Bulnes-Shaw

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