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
“The Frida is a home for everyone. We’re a safe space here to bring people up through the art of cinema and through the art of connecting people."

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 bed post 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 passerbys 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 a local cinephile 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, 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. We play a lot of retrospectives, and things you’d be hard pressed to find on the big screen.”

This is something that Logan 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.

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 even 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 Cinema, you’re walking into a hands-on museum of cinema 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. Completely different from night to night, no one can predict what festival or tribute will come up next. While some theaters may play a film by campy horror-sci-fi director Ed Wood on occasion, The Frida turns it into a month-long film festival. Where theaters show the Lord of the Rings trilogy on anniversaries, The Frida does the entire extended cuts with 4k resolution and breaks between each film for meals, regardless of the time of year. When no other theater in Orange County is showing the latest indie film starring Nicolas Cage, The Frida jumps on it. And when that showing sells out, they do 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. 

The lobby’s mural is a beautiful, hand-painted tribute to all genres of cinema. / el Don / Isa Bulnes-Shaw

“This is our bonding time. We’re like the weirdos, so we come here to watch the weird movies,” say Raylyn and Debra, two Frida regulars in full costume attending The Frida’s monthly Rocky Horror Picture Show interactive screening and live performance. “And plus to see masterpieces we couldn’t see back in the seventies because we weren’t around. So you know,  A Clockwork Orange on the big screen coming to life is just a really awesome experience.”

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

But being a community resource is about more than just the movies themselves. In addition to collaborating with local charities, colleges, cultural events, and businesses in their programming lineups, The Frida’s calendar goes far beyond film. Sometimes, it means taking a political stand.   

During the Women’s March after the 2016 election, The Frida hosted a lineup of seminars and workshops educating Spanish speakers and immigrants about documentation, knowing their rights and how to stay safe under the new administration. During OC Pride, The Frida showed free LGBTQ+ movies all day, and often holds free live premier parties of Rupaul’s Drag Race, hosted by local drag queens. In November, there was a showing of Frida, the Kahlo biopic with all the proceeds from the film going to Noche de Altares, Santa Ana’s massive annual Dia de Los Muertos festival, and a setup in the lobby for local children to display their own altars. When President Trump called actress Meryl Streep “overrated”, The Frida held a month-long tribute to her films, proudly using the adjective as the program’s title. 

“The Frida is a home for everyone,” Terry says. “We’re a safe space here to bring people up through the art of cinema and through the art of connecting people. That’s something we lose track of these days. I’m very happy and proud that we continue to strive to be that.”

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

After Camp Frida’s finale screening of Poltergeist, the bleary-eyed campers who survived the night 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 of them said.

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