As it approaches its first decade, the Frida Cinema abides

Guests line up outside the Frida Cinema on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023 in Santa Ana.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

White Russian cocktails flowed and bathrobe-wearing moviegoers milled around the lobby of the Frida Cinema on Feb. 21 for a 7:30 p.m. showing of “The Big Lebowski.” The themed movie party celebrated the theater’s nine-year anniversary.

Located on 4th Street in Downtown Santa Ana, the Frida Cinema is Orange County’s only 501(c)(3) nonprofit art house theater.

Trevor Dillon, left, and Logan Crow, with the Frida Cinema.
Trevor Dillon, left, the programming director, and Logan Crow, the executive director for the Frida Cinema, stand inside the Santa Ana movie theater.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“Our mission is to enrich, connect and educate communities through the art of cinema,” said Logan Crow, executive director for the Frida Cinema. “We are basically a safe space and cultural center.”

The Frida Cinema is a humble theater, with two screens and a small snack bar where popcorn and a soda are still priced under $10. While it may not have the plush reclining seats found at some of Orange County’s larger multiplex theaters, patrons say the Frida has something more.

“The movies that they play are classics that you can’t see anywhere else,” said Holly Marshall, standing in line with her friend Chris Ciscanada.

The Frida screens more than two dozen curated films monthly, ranging from award-winning classics to audience-favorite cult films. On any given night, you might find a foreign film, an under-the-radar independent short or a buzz-generating analog horror film like 2022’s “Skinamarink.” Screening the Coen brothers’ film about the Dude and his bowling buddies seeking compensation for a rug that really tied the room together from a bunch of nihilists is an example of the cult favorites with a fan base the theater is partial to. The Frida Cinema abides.

Besides regular showings, the theater hosts multiday film festivals, supports filmmakers and partners with fellow cultural, nonprofit and educational organizations in Santa Ana and beyond.

“We take a curatorial and mission-based approach to arts programming,” said Crow.

It isn’t uncommon for the Frida to accompany cinematic offerings with other arts programming, like discussions, live music, art shows and other interactive activities.

Tuesday night’s white Russian cocktails, the preferred beverage of the Dude, were provided by Santa Ana’s local Blinking Owl Distillery for 21 and over guests, while a free soda was offered to under-age audience members. Outside in front of the theater, local artist Roger Reyes led an activity featuring coloring sheets drawn by Reyes depicting the Dude, Walter and Donny, other characters in the movie.

Allen and Valerie Schiano, dressed as the Stranger and the Dude from the movie, were happy to be at the Frida theater on Tuesday night, even though Allen quipped they don’t really care for white Russians.

 Allen and Valerie Schiano, dressed as the Stranger and the Dude from "The Big Lebowski".
Allen and Valerie Schiano, dressed as the Stranger and the Dude from “The Big Lebowski,” attend the ninth anniversary of the Frida Cinema, where the movie was shown Feb. 21.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“This is something, now that we are retired, we have time to do,” said Valerie. “We can explore the Frida theater and all the offerings they have.”

The almost decade-long run for the theater hasn’t been without its challenges.

“It has been an incredibly hard time for arts venues in general, but certainly movie theaters,” Crow said.

The rise of streaming platforms has made it harder for any movie theater, art house or otherwise, to survive, and the pandemic left theaters seats empty for nearly two years.

“We have a lot of work to do to climb out of the hole that was left by COVID, in terms of our plans for growth and our expansion of programming,” Crow said.

Crow is encouraged on nights like the anniversary party, however, when tickets sell out and patrons who are visiting for the first time or the 100th come to see a film.

“I am insanely grateful to the community,” Crow said.

During the pandemic, the Frida hosted drive-in movies for a year and half. Getting the program together in one month is among the feats Crow said he is most proud of in the theater’s history.

“We worked really quickly to make that happen,” Crow said of the outdoor movie screenings, where the audiences watched from their vehicles. “I wanted to keep the mission going and keep the staff engaged.

Kay Mohammad, left, and Cody Ree drink white Russians at the Frida Cinema.
Kay Mohammad, left, and Cody Ree drink white Russians in honor of the movie “The Big Lebowski” at the Frida Cinema.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“I think what was the most rewarding for me was when we would hear back from people, saying this is the first time me and my family have gone out since March, this is the first time I saw my neighbor since March, or my family all came out in different cars so we could see each other, or even this is the first drive-in my kids have been to … all the feedback meant an incredible deal to us.”

The Frida runs mainly on a staff of young volunteers, and Crow said he also feels a sense of pride when he learns that those young volunteers have gone on to film school.

“I have a lot of volunteers that started here during their first or second year of high school, who we still keep in touch with, who are in London and San Francisco and working in film or working in movie theaters,” Crow said. “I always love hearing that.”

Creating experiences that lead to a life-long love of film is part of why independent theaters are so important, Crow said. The sense of community when audience members take in a film together can’t always be replicated by watching a movie on a phone.

“I have a love/hate relationship with streaming cinema,” said Crow. “When I say love, it’s because you now have access at home to incredible films and TV shows from around the world that once upon a time would have been struggling to find a way to make it to a Western audience. Now it’s at the touch of your fingers.”

Crow admits there is value to that accessibility, but he worries about what gets lost when films are consumed in a ways that are less focused.

Exterior of the Frida Cinema at night.
The Frida Cinema celebrates its ninth anniversary with the showing of “The Big Lebowski.”
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“Being in a community and taking in the arts, in this case a film, allows you to be immersed and give yourself over to the artist,” said Crow. “You can’t get up and do dishes or answer the phone … you take that journey without distraction.”

When you take in a film fully, the impact has a better chance of landing, Crow said. When you take in a film with others who are feeling that same impact with you, it can land even more powerfully.

“The shared experience of everyone laughing together, everyone crying together, everyone being scared together … there is an energy in the room that is very specifically only found by being around other people.”

Protecting that feeling is why Crow hopes the Frida Cinema will be here for more years to come.

“I am just grateful to be able to celebrate nine years with optimism towards year 10,” Crow said.

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