Inside The Beacon Cinema in Columbia City

The Beacon Challenges Audiences to Abandon Expectations in Secret Cinema Series

by Lily Rodriguez, GZR Newsroom

(This article is jointly published between Ground Zero Radio, an initiative of the Vera Project, and the South Seattle Emerald.)

As an expansive and varied medium, film has the ability to challenge, bewilder, and provoke viewers. Yet in contemporary cinema, moviegoers generally have a decent idea of what they are getting into when they enter the theater — incessant online advertisements pique the interest of targeted movie audiences. But what would happen if a viewer experienced a film without any preconceptions? Without even knowing which film would be screened? 

The Beacon, a beloved art house theater in Columbia City, is asking these questions with its Secret Cinema series. Inviting adventurous cinephiles into the space to experience an unannounced film, the free screenings offer the opportunity to view a 35 mm surprise. Typically announced a few days in advance on The Beacon’s Instagram, Secret Cinema tickets are available for the first group of people to respond to the post. This semi-monthly series has been part of the theater’s creative mission since it opened, showing a variety of experimental and boundary-pushing themes generally aimed at mature audiences.

With a fresh perspective and an open mind, viewers come to the experience with a completely blank slate. “Expectations can function as a real burden to appreciation sometimes and prevent us from genuinely seeing and absorbing what we’re watching,” said Tommy Swenson, co-founder of The Beacon and curator of Secret Cinema. “We want to just drop you off in the world of the movie, no compass, no map, and let you find your own way through it.” 

Without trailers spoiling the best parts of the film, viewers are given an alternative to floundering through vast collections of streamable movies. Secret Cinema bypasses algorithmic profiling and the big-budget marketing machines that ultimately tailor to homogeneous tastes. Streaming algorithms assume users are only interested in the same themes over and over, which can be stifling for curious people. All that moviegoers need to bring is a receptive attitude. The Beacon’s staff channels passion for unique and unconventional cinema into an intentional calendar that gives audiences access to, in Swenson’s words, “the masterpiece that people don’t know they need.” 

By undermining the influence of corporate mainstream advertising, Secret Cinema induces what Swenson calls an “enjoyably disorienting experience.” For both experienced film fanatics and those just dabbling in art house cinema, placing confidence in local curators is an invigorating trust exercise. Independent cinemas like The Beacon gain a local following by diving headfirst into the periphery of film, introducing groundbreaking and experimental movies to the public. “There are movies that I so desperately want more people to see, but [that] just don’t have the sort of innate marketability that feels like it’s going to compel someone to get out of the house,” says Swenson.

Condensing the seemingly endless catalog of deep-cut cult classics and art house films into something more approachable encourages more people to indulge their curiosity without the intimidating barriers to entry. “We’ve spent our lives exploring the depths and outer limits of the art and don’t ever feel like we’ve ‘seen it all,’” Swenson explains. “We deliberately try to go in wildly different directions with the Secret Cinema picks each time, just to sketch as wide of boundaries as we possibly can.”

Alongside their creative promotion of artistic integrity, The Beacon staff demonstrates a refreshing commitment to film accessibility. “We’re all broke!” Swenson adds. “Just as there aren’t many opportunities to experience a completely context-free movie discovery anymore, nor are there very many opportunities to do literally anything for free.” 

By showing the movies free of charge, the diversity of viewers drawn to these screenings further amplifies Secret Cinema’s cultivated mystique. After the showing of Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man, an audience member managed to catch Swenson off guard in return. “Someone came up afterwards, thrilled to have been there, and showed me a tattoo of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis proudly emblazoned across his chest,” Swenson recalls. “I’m not sure who that was, but knowing that someone that committed to comedic stupidity managed to be in attendance that night felt cosmically significant.”

The Beacon’s subversion of consumer-driven art encourages Seattleites to reconsider their watch habits. “We see performing the ritual of cinematic presentation almost as an act of resistance against the flattening and deadening effect of, I guess, the streaming era,” Swenson said. “We work against a corporate framework in which viewers are simply individual consumers isolated in the alienation of their private homes.” 

Supplementing The Beacon’s already radical approach to moviegoing, Secret Cinema by design offers something that’s so rare these days: the gamble of chance encounter. Liberated moviegoers become engaged participants in the artistic expression. 

“Collectively, communally, together in public, we become an audience,” Swenson said. “And the active thing that an audience does is to respond to the idea of a public film exhibition with a public exhibition of human curiosity and mutual respect.” Secret Cinema is taking over SIFF Cinema Egyptian on June 2 for a 600-seat showing of something special. Find out more about The Beacon and Secret Cinema on The Beacon’s website or Instagram.

Lily Rodriguez is a bass player, jazz journalist, and creator of the in-studio series Sonic Sludge. She’s from Oakland, California, but she moved to Seattle to study philosophy and stuck around to discover some underground tunes.

📸 Featured Image: Inside The Beacon Cinema in Columbia City. (Photo courtesy of The Beacon Cinema)

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