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San Antonio’s Slab Cinema: ‘Building Community One Film at a Time’

Nancy Cook-Monroe

Jul 27, 2018

At a time when many people are avoiding news media to escape national acrimony, swarms of families, couples, and friends have been devouring a more positive and fun form of media: well-loved movies shown on inflatable screens for free in parks, gardens, and other venues by Slab Cinema.

Depending on whether it’s Lego Batman or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, surroundings are laced by giggling kids or cocktail-wielding cohorts. Blankets, lawn chairs, and picnic baskets – some with champagne – abound.

“You guys are on par with New York, L.A. County, and Miami,” an account rep at Swank Motion Pictures told Slab Cinema owners Angela and Rick Martinez.

“That really amazed us,” Angela said. “That’s L.A. County, not just L.A.!”

A 10-year veteran of the free flicks, Jenn Hussey, said she and her husband and son are fans partly because of the Martinezes themselves. “They do it from a place of love of community and of movies, and that’s what makes it a great experience. I don’t think people in San Antonio realize how special it is.”

The Martinezes moved to San Antonio from Albuquerque in 2000, self-described hippies who loved films. Not finding any art film houses or off-beat movie stores, they opened a film rental shop called Planet of the Tapes in Southtown, an immediate hit with musicians and King William art types who hung out there. As part of Southtown’s First Friday festivities, the Martinezes would hang a sheet in front of the shop and pop in a VHS.

In 2002, a back room of Blue Star Brewing Company beckoned for screenings of The Giant Gila Monster and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Then Michael Berrier, co-owner of La Tuna Grill, invited them to show films on a neglected slab across East Cevallos Street from the bar. The outdoor setting would prove legendary: a haven for King William and other hipsters who sat under the stars with cold Dos Equis and a B-grade classic such the first selection, A Bucket of Blood. After that came The Brother from Another Planet and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Sometimes bands would play.

“Those first movies had to be in the public domain because we couldn’t afford to buy the rights,” Angela told the Rivard Report last week. Planet of the Tapes gave them access to gory favorites.

Were the slab not sold and eventually supplanted by a multi-story apartment building, Slab Cinema might still be screening Robot Monster and its ilk. In 2008 an unlikely ally stepped in to continue and even class up the fun – the City of San Antonio.

“They asked us to start showing movies in Travis Park, now called Movies at Moonlight, and we just did our first screening at Confluence Park,” Angela said. “It was beautiful.”

“The number of screenings have increased as people have become aware of the value the outdoor cinema can contribute to a community,” Angela said. “Our business has grown steadily and we have added more screens to accommodate demand. We’ve tried to reach as many parts of town as possible to share cinema.”

With the success of Travis Park movies came Starlight Movies at the Botanical Garden and family-friendly showings at the Central Library, Mission Marquee Plaza (formerly a drive-in movie theater), and Hemisfair, where actors from the Magik Theater would dramatize spooky scenes on a fire escape.

At the San Antonio Museum of Art, the McNay Art Museum, and Southtown’s The Monty movies appeal to more mature audiences – more The Life Aquatic than Trolls. The Brooklynite cocktail lounge brings drinks designed for films: Prohibition era Bees Knees cocktails for The Great Gatsby and White Russians for The Big Lebowski.

Teams of screeners, some of them teen interns, ferry inflatable screens across the region, sowing community togetherness from the inner city to the Judson Nature Trails in Alamo Heights, gated neighborhoods in Stone Oak and Canyon Ranch, and in towns such as Selma, Devine, and Kenedy.

While sponsoring venues get to choose the movies, the Martinezes have come up with screening themes unique to San Antonio – Hollywood renditions of the Alamo story at the Alamo, train movies at Sunset Station, and flight movies such as The Aviator at Stinson Field.

Their “Made in SA” series, co-sponsored by Texas Public Radio, featured the 1927 silent movie Wings at the Fort Sam Houston Quadrangle and Miss Congeniality at the Arneson River Theater, with crowds singing and barge handlers making jokes. The Miss Congeniality pageant was filmed at the nearby La Villita Assembly Building. Selena, shot in San Antonio, will screen at the McNay Art Museum on Aug. 30.

Sometimes the Martinezes choose films for their locations. On Saturday, they screened Jaws at the Schertz Aquatic Center.

Rick, an architectural designer by day, took a break from setting up a film last Thursday to talk about his favorite part of Slab Cinema – the different vibes at screening sites.

“The different venues have their own personality,” he said. “The Botanical Garden has one type of audience, and the SAMA crowd is fun. Tonight we’re at Mission Marquee and people will come out with classic cars, and kids and dogs. Some people bring out inflatable mattresses and folks on blankets set up in front so they don’t block people in chairs.”

As grateful as they are for sponsoring venues, the Martinezes have yearned to return to their early intention to screen cinema they personally like and want others to know.

“This year we’re making big strides toward choosing our own movies, so we put together a Wes Anderson film festival – Wes Fest,” Angela said. “We didn’t know how it would be received and are super excited because we’ve had big crowds and people love it.”

At the screening of Anderson’s Japan-tinged Isle of Dogs, Angela created a Japan festival at Hemisfair with food vendors and entertainment, and encouraged guests to bring their dogs.

Wes Fest sponsors including local breweries, a winery, and small businesses – Dos Carolinas, Feliz Modern, Small Planet, eBikes, Chica Verde, and Bamboo – helped underwrite the costs, and Angela is now seeking sponsorships for a Stephen King festival in the fall. Next up will be a series of spaghetti westerns and films by female directors.

“We love family movies, but want to expand our offerings to films that appeal to adults,” she said. “We’re trying to be inclusive and share our outdoor cinema with everyone. I just feel like it’s my small part to change the world one film at a time, especially in times like these. I think it’s so important.”

Wes Fest will continue with The Royal Tenenbaums at SAMA on Friday, July 27, Rushmore at San Antonio College on Aug. 3, and Fantastic Mr. Fox at Travis Park on Aug. 7.

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