A classroom on the weekdays, a movie theater on certain weeknights, and occasionally a cult house (at least when “The Rocky Horror Picture Show“ plays), Isla Vista Theater provides more service to the local community than its humble appearance conveys.
Surprisingly, the venue does not simply transform from lecture hall to purveyor of cinematic magic twice a week on its own. A long legacy of art and film resides in the building’s plastered walls — and behind the scenes, retired arts journalist and current bookstore owner DJ Palladino maintains this legacy by curating the cinema presented Mondays and Fridays by Magic Lantern Films.
I sat down for an interview with Palladino in his used bookstore, crowded in between piles of books spilling off the shelves, where he described the history of Isla Vista Theater and his thoughts on running the Magic Lantern Films program.
First owned and operated in 1962 as an arts house, the Isla Vista Theater played primarily avant-garde films. A nudity scandal led the theater’s original owners to sell IV. theater in 1966 to the Metropolitan, which named it the Magic Lantern Theater — inspiring the current Magic Lantern Films program.
In 1985, the University bought the theater intending to show movies, although it only used the venue as a classroom until 2002. At that time, an inspired group of students started a new movie program to take advantage of the under-utilized Isla Vista Theater: Magic Lantern Films.
Unfortunately, Palladino explained, the students graduated the following year and trained nobody to replace them. As a local film buff and arts enthusiast interested in contributing to the community, Palladino accepted the opportunity to run the program. He said no student has shown interest in taking a lead on the program throughout his fifteen years as its director.
Palladino’s selection process for Magic Lantern movies, at least, is not overly complex. It mostly involves him watching a list of popular films that come out any quarter and choosing from those for the following quarter. “I just pick movies that I think young people will come to,” Palladino said.
Nonetheless, Palladino also incorporates student input into his decision-making process. Every year, he hires a student assistant who helps with administrative work and offers advice for the movie choices. Palladino also teaches a class on movie theater operations with UCSB; students taking the class select a movie every quarter that plays in the theater.
Acquiring the movies Magic Lantern features involves working with the two largest movie distributors, Swank Motion Pictures, Inc. and The Criterion Collection, Inc. Palladino said smaller studios occasionally will contact him directly, but students today generally prefer to attend major motion pictures.
After he has gotten films, Palladino still has to compete — albeit amicably — with A.S. Program Board’s Tuesday film screenings, which are free for students. Palladino described meeting with Program Board quarterly to hash out which films each gets to play so as to prevent overlap.
Fundamentally, Palladino said, “We’re both in the business of giving people of Isla Vista something to do besides drinking,” referring to Magic Lantern and Program Board.
Such a wholesome purpose has earned the program support from university administration as well as the student body. Despite unexpectedly high costs initially and negative profitability, the university continued to fund Magic Lantern Films, which has charged four-dollar ticket prices since the program began in 2002.
An approximately $85,000 lock-in fee ($88,035.00 for the 2018-2019 school year) from Associated Students to Isla Vista Arts, an organization that contributes to Magic Lantern Films among a variety of other organizations, ensures that Magic Lantern will be securely funded into the future, meaning ticket prices won’t rise any time soon.
And so, Magic Lantern will continue to cheaply provide “something you can do besides, you know, fall off a cliff,” as Palladino eloquently said. Quoting a potential slogan coined by his son, he joked, “’Magic Lantern: You can always drink afterwards.’”
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