Today, most students know Isla Vista Theater as the classroom you take your general education classes in. But when it was originally built, it was known as Magic Lantern Theater, an art house movie theater and one of the inspirations for the Magic Lantern Films we know today.
Started by a family in the 1960s as development in Isla Vista was ramping up, it was a movie house that specialized in offbeat, independent and foreign movies. DJ Palladino, the current producer of Magic Lantern Films, grew up in the Santa Barbara area watching films there.
Palladino recalls this theater as “the only place to come if you weren’t over 21. So if you were growing up in Santa Barbara, that was the place you hung out.” To many who lived in the area, it was the sole alternative to the wild and rambunctious scene in Isla Vista.
However, the art house movies being shown would eventually get the theater into legal trouble and lead to its demise. In 1970, Magic Lantern Theater screened Last Tango in Paris, the controversial erotic film with Marlon Brando which, at the time of its opening, had an X rating. The family who owned the theater was taken to court by the district attorney and under pressure and burden from the lawsuit decided to sell the place to Metropolitan Theaters, who in turn would eventually sell to the university, becoming the classroom we use today.
The tradition of using I.V. Theater as place to screen movies wouldn’t be revived until 2004 when two students, Christy Julin and Chris Zwicke, launched Magic Lantern Films, named after the original theater. Magic Lantern Films operates as a second-run theater, screening what Palladino dubs “airline movies,” referencing the movies typically shown on airplanes which are no longer screening in regular theaters, but not yet on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Magic Lantern Film would eventually pair with I.V. Live to create I.V. Arts, as Palladino believes, “kickstarting culture in Isla Vista.” The two programs grew and would eventually expand to include other popular programs within I.V. Arts, including Improvability, The Box, WORD and many others.
Today, the program has expanded and partnered with the Film and Media Studies department to offer a course that teaches students about the intricacies of film distribution and film programming, with all students eventually screening a film on their own each quarter. This quarter’s students plan to host a boxing double feature, Rocky and Creed.
The rest of the movie lineup is decided by Palladino and his production assistant, Quinnolyn Benson-Yates, which needs to be decided and booked months in advance, long before the movies have aired in first run theaters. Due to this, the pair have the difficult task of predicting which films will be popular and will bring in audiences. But as both noted, it is almost impossible to predict turnout, with some movies like The Notebook bringing out crowds that wrapped down the street, and others movies that, before their debut, would seem like surefire hits, like the latest Bond installment Spectre, which produced dismal turnout.
While the theater has come a long way since its art house roots, it remains the same at the core, creating one of the few community spaces for the entirety of Isla Vista. As Benson-Yates states, “I think most people forget that it’s not just for students but the entire community. Magic Lantern offers a great opportunity to come into and enjoy a space that is an alternative to the party scene prevalent in Isla Vista.”
In many ways, Magic Lantern Films goes beyond just a simple movie screening location, but instead represents an integral part of the arts and culture scene in the Isla Vista community.