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High Art and Fun: Tallgrass Film Center opens its doors to movie-loving patrons

Courtesy photo

The new Tallgrass Film Center opened its doors earlier this month. The theater is located on the first floor of The Lux in downtown Wichita.

The new Tallgrass Film Center opened earlier this month to a full house with screenings of the Best Picture nominee Drive My Car. The theater is in the space formally occupied by mama.film on the first floor of The Lux in downtown Wichita. Melanie Addington is the executive director of the Tallgrass Film Association. KMUW's Fletcher Powell spoke with her about what's in store for the Tallgrass Film Center.

Interview Highlights

Fletcher Powell: You know, for most of my life, if I wanted to see a movie like Drive My Car, I'd have to drive to the Salina Art Center or even to Kansas City, which is kind of ridiculous given that Wichita is the biggest city in Kansas. So, the potential of the Tallgrass Film Center is pretty exciting for me, but before I project all of my hopes and dreams onto it, I want to know what your vision is for it.

Melanie Addington: Sure. I lived in Oxford, Mississippi, for the last 20 years, where the only time you saw an independent film was when we brought it. I drove to Memphis almost every weekend to see films. And I didn't want that same culture here in Wichita. When I moved here, I wanted a space. And honestly, speaking to people that have now stepped away from Tallgrass, one of their dreams and hopes from the beginning was to have our own theater. And I said, "that sounds great." The next five years we'll figure that out. And then it sort of landed in our lap my first year. And so it's sort of the perfect synergy to kick off my first full year at Tallgrass. And so we have a couple things: We want to bring the high art — the fun, the really good indie art cinema, like Drive My Car, that might win an Oscar — and then we're going to play, like, Howard The Duck. So our vision is to bring fun stuff, bring great stuff that no one else is bringing.

And then just see how it goes. We're the only ones playing Memoria, I think, in the state of Kansas, next month. So just trying to test out the waters and do lots of things and see what sticks. We're starting to partner with some people, too, to do some fun things. So, I'm excited. I don't know. My vision is "see what sticks?" That's a terrible answer, I know.

Well, let's talk about Memoria for a second, because this is an example of the kind of opportunity that this opens up. So Memoria is a movie that the production company is billing as only being able to be seen in art house theaters. They will not stream it, ever. They are not playing it in big multiplexes. They're only playing it in art house theaters in sort of a roadshow around the country. And so that's not something that I really ever thought I was going to be able to see here, but it's something that the Tallgrass Film Center is going to be able to offer.

Yeah, they actually approached us. They're like, "we're really looking for art houses. Would you be interested?" And Andre (Seward, Tallgrass Programming Director) had already seen it. And he was trying to explain this movie, and I can't explain it either. You do have to go see it to understand it. But he's like, "that's the movie, I've been trying to understand how to even tell you what it is!" Because it's so… bonkers, is really the best way of describing it. It's very off-the-wall, very avant-garde. And so I don't know how it'll do in Wichita. I don't think we've ever really shown stuff like this in this community, but I want to test it out. If it's just me sitting there eating popcorn, I'm still going to be happy. But I'm hoping other people join, too.

Courtesy photo
The Tallgrass Film Center opened with a screening of the Oscar-nominated film "Drive My Car."

Right, because there have been locations around town that have shown art house movies. The Wichita Center for the Arts was here for a long time and would periodically show movies. I remember seeing a Todd Solondz movie 20 years ago there. And there have been some other venues, but none of them really as permanent, dedicated theaters.'

Right. Yeah. There's been a lot of popups. I mean, Leif (Jonker) does a great job bringing really great art-house horror and does lots of fun stuff like that. But there's an opportunity here that I think maybe we didn't even have the audience 20 years ago to have year-round, but I think we do now. I think part of that — and I hate to say this — is because of streaming. Because people have access to this kind of cinema now that they're discovering it and then they want that theatrical experience.

That's an interesting angle that I hadn't really thought about.

I'm trying to be positive!

But that's the thing is, you know, I'm curious about opening up a brand new theater in this environment, where people maybe aren't necessarily sure about going back to theaters and have all of these options through streaming. But you're right that, I think over the past couple of years, with these options, people have had their minds maybe opened to some of these movies, and everybody loves that theatrical experience.

Yeah. And we've been very careful. During the festival, we had lots of restrictions and we are still asking for people to wear masks. You do not have to show a vaccination card, but we're really encouraging vaccinated people to get out and to be in a small, safe environment. There are only 25 chairs, they're recliners. We neurotically clean everything, a lot. And we're in a LEED-certified building in the Lux, which has really good air control and, you know, a lot of filters. So, we feel very safe in there and several of us are high-risk. And so we're trying to make sure that there's a safe environment that's very accessible. But I mean, I understand not everyone's ready to get out, but we'll be there, you know, next year or the year after, when they are.

Something I know about you is the level of importance that you place on accessibility for theaters. Can you talk about that a little bit and just how that plays into your philosophy in having a theater?

Yeah. I'm actually disabled, but I don't use a chair. But I have lots of friends in chairs. And what that usually means is you get to sit at the very back or the very front, in the most uncomfortable seats, because that happens to be the one place they didn't put a chair. So we were very cognizant of that experience and wanted to make sure people have better access. And so we have two ADA aisles. There are no stairs anywhere to get to our building, there are no ramps, it's the first floor, roll right in. And so you can really transfer over to any chair you want. You can park and, you know, sit where you want. There are lots of accessible places. But beyond that, you know, not just disability, but a lot of people really rely on captioning. We're so used to it at home. Sound mixes have really changed in the past 10 years and the theatrical environment. So it's hard to pick up dialogue. So we're trying to have as many of our films be completely captioned. We're also going to do some audio description films. We did one at the festival and it did really well. So, I think there's definitely an audience, especially now that we have, like, the Envision Arts Gallery.

So, you screened Drive My Car a couple of weeks ago, you've got another screening coming up this weekend. Right now, it looks like it's a little hit or miss whether there will be screenings on any particular weekend, but what are you thinking as we go forward?

For the first year, while we're still trying to get some funding in place to get some more equipment, we are doing first and final Friday weekends. So, this upcoming weekend is Materna, which won our 2020 Stubbornly Independent (Award at the Tallgrass Film Festival). But of course, that was all virtual. So this is the first time a Wichita audience is going to see it on a big screen. It's a beautiful film. And then it's also my birthday weekend, so we're showing Howard the Duck for free. And I could do a whole long diatribe about why, but it's a ridiculous, fun film. So if you can't afford to actually go to the theater, there is a free experience every once in a while. In general, we're only doing those two weekends, but there are occasional popup things that we'll add-in.

Well, Melanie, I think really what I need to say before we close here is happy birthday.

Thank you! Come watch Howard the Duck with me!

You can find more on the Tallgrass Film Center at tallgrassfilm.org

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.