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Tori Baker: Leading Lady of Salt Lake’s Art House Theater

Pamela Martinson Olson

July 1, 2012

Every movie buff has an Apocalypse Now moment, a turning point when a film becomes a perspective-altering experience, says Tori Baker, executive director of the Salt Lake Film Society (SLFS). “These moments change you as an individual and this is what we reach for in our programming.”

Baker has had a few of these eye-openers, beginning in childhood at the Redwood Drive-In when the image of Superman saving Lois Lane from the cracking maw of the California desert was forever embedded in her mind as she connected the dots from the big screen to the “Big One,” i.e. the Wasatch Fault.

Eight years in, Baker seems comfortable in her role guiding the society into its second decade. From her tiny office, a former storage room above the Broadway Centre Theatre, she is a passionate spokesperson for a national movement to turn film, specifically the “art house” experience, into a legacy art on par with ballet, opera and other community-supported cultural entities.

“What did performing arts look like 100 years ago?” she asks. “We don’t think twice about the performing arts as being part of our lives and culture. The only difference is that we don’t create content, like the ballet. We curate.”

For Baker and other art house directors across the country, it takes innovative programming and a diversification of revenues to survive—and to keep up with the times. The digitalization of filmmaking enacts in 2013 and will cost upwards of $100,000 per auditorium to upgrade. This will put many theaters out of business and silence one of the most romantic sounds of the movie house: the soft click of the 35 mm reels. In the dim light of the projection room, Baker points to the old platters while the matinee plays to the audience below.

“That’s the sound every film lover is addicted to, and that flicker of light,” she says. “Film aficionados love the imperfect quality of 35 mm; it’s closest to our dreams. With digital, you can still tell stories, but they are too perfect, too crisp. Our own vision doesn’t even work that way.”

But Baker sees a bright side. “Great storytellers will still tell great stories—and it will cost them less.” In the end, the art houses that endure will remain the scenes of future “moments,” when a film becomes more than a film.

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