Art house brings new life to Las Vegas for local filmmakers and indie film fans
By Renée LiButti
Multiplex cinemas boasting as many as 18 screens are scattered across the Las Vegas valley, typically in casinos and shopping centers. Although easy to find, they all offer the same bland fare of Hollywood blockbusters. For film fans who want to sample something different, a new art house opened downtown last March. Catering to a variety of local independent artists, theatre7 also has plays and other live performances in conjunction with a mixed media gallery on its menu.
“A movie is art, too,” said Derek Stonebarger, the owner of theatre7, in regards to screening films amid walls laden with photographs, wood carvings and paintings that depict everything from cowboys and horses to snowy lanes. “That’s what we always say, so it deserves a picture frame.”
Indeed, theatre7’s single screen is set within an ornate gilded frame and placed on an easel in the center of the stage. A faux brick wall, stone floor tiling and industrial-style ceiling give the décor an urban elegance. Seating for up to 70 people consists of simple folding chairs and barstools arranged on risers. With top-notch sound and picture technology, the presentation is excellent. But ultimately it’s the charm of the whole experience that leaves a lasting impression on patrons.
“The inspiration for theatre7 came from a small art house that I visited in Rome,” said Stonebarger. He was in Europe last year meeting with distributors to promote his first full-length movie, “I.M. Caravaggio.” As a filmmaker struggling to find outlets to display his work, Stonebarger realized an art house was something Las Vegas lacked. He created theatre7 not only to showcase independently made features and shorts, but also to convey that same creative and community-oriented spirit he had discovered abroad.
At a recent showing of Stonebarger’s “I.M. Caravaggio,” there was certainly a convivial feeling in the air. Unlike mainstream cinemas, you never get lost in a large crowd here. At theatre7, it’s as if you’re watching a film with a group of friends – many of whom are in the industry.
Upon entry, patrons receive a warm welcome and then leisurely browse the art hanging on the walls before sitting down. A brief introduction about the movie is provided by the projector operator. Thus, the audience that night learned “I.M. Caravaggio” is a modern re-imagining of the life of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, a famous Italian artist of the Baroque era. The film had been shot in Las Vegas. In fact, the Welcome to Downtown Las Vegas sign, situated directly across the street, was visible in the opening scenes.
“There’s always an intermission in the European tradition,” said Stonebarger of a typical screening. “Afterward we hold a Q&A session for anyone who’s interested with the director. Sometimes actors and other guests make appearances.”
Having the chance to interact with filmmakers is something usually confined to a festival environment. It was quite a delight that evening to meet Ryan Eicher, who played the lead role in “I.M. Caravaggio.” Plus, patrons got to hear Stonebarger share the ups and downs of making the movie, which not only consumed three years of his life and his entire savings, but also ultimately led to the formation of theatre7.
“And it’s still evolving,” he said with a grin.
Although it was the Baroque period that inspired Stonebarger’s film, he’s actually more of a Renaissance man – as a prolific writer, producer and director. He has won an Emmy Award and contributed to several Super Bowl commercials. Stonebarger moved to Las Vegas in 2001. He worked for several years at KLAS-TV Channel 8 and KVVU FOX 5. In 2008, he launched the independent production company Vegaswood Studios.
“Right now, I’m into showcasing other people’s works and running some film festivals,” said Stonebarger.
In October, theatre7 will host the second annual PolyGrind Film Festival, which features the exploitive side of cinema in the tradition of grindhouse theaters. It will kick off with a First Friday art show and then screenings will run throughout the month. In addition, Stonebarger is at the helm of the Vegas Independent Film Festival (a.k.a., VIFF! ) that is planned for November.
“It’s such an interesting time to be a filmmaker, so I’m just taking a step back to soak it all in and see what happens,” said Stonebarger. He has written another screenplay but is catching his breath before embarking on his next film. For now, Stonebarger is just thrilled to be able to bring provocative and relevant movies that engage audiences to Las Vegas.
Theatre7 is the only movie theater in the city where you can see “I.M. Caravaggio” or “Thor at the Bus Stop,” a comedy about the mythical Norse god of lightning by brothers Jerry and Mike Thompson. You won’t find the zombie action film “Doomed” by Michael Su or the indie action epic “One Long Day” by Keith Mosher at any Regal or Century cinema. Perhaps, the difference between going to one of Las Vegas’ multiplexes and theatre7 is best compared to choosing to eat at a small family-owned restaurant or McDonald’s.
“We’re all about Nevada art and Nevada artists. One thing’s for sure, at theatre7 there’s always going to be a lot of talent and it’s always going to happen at 7 p.m.,” said Stonebarger. Plus, admission will only cost you $7.
Theatre7 is located in the downtown arts district at 1406 S. Third St. For a list of upcoming films and events, go to www.theatre7lv.com.