To call the Terrace Theatre a South Carolina anomaly is to undervalue the term: Of the more than 70 theaters in the state, the number of art house cinemas can be counted on one hand.
Those numbers make survivors something akin to an endangered species. A decade ago, the local indie film scene also included the Roxy and the South Windermere Twin, so when a "mainstream" picture opens at the Terrace, protective local fans take notice.
But Michael Furlinger, owner of the Terrace, laughs.
"I've had it said to me, 'Michael, why are you playing a mainstream film?' And it's not that the movie is mainstream, it's that the mainstream theaters like how independent films are doing very well. Take The Secret Life of Bees. Three years ago, I would have opened it exclusive. It's not so easy anymore."
Which makes drawing a bead on the local independent film scene a little tricky: Yes, the Roxy is a day-spa now, but attendance at the Terrace is up 98 percent in just a year-and-a-half, and even the chain-run multiplexes are finding room for foreign and independent films that used to be the sole province of the art houses. Throw in some new nonprofit opportunities for local indie film-fanatics, and the picture starts to look surprisingly upbeat.
Earlier this month, North Charleston welcomed the Olde Village Talking Picture House to the South of Broadway Theater, and the Charleston Public Library has two film series on track this month: The ITVS Community Cinema program, presented by local film buff and publicist Cara White, which previews documentary films from PBS's Independent Lens series; and the Film Movement series, organized by the library's Peter Paolini, which screens top foreign and independent films as they are added to the county's collection.
While the series at the library draws from existing resources, the Olde Village Talking Picture House grew out of the Greater Park Circle Film Society, itself a response to a community survey that found great interest in adding films to the mix of nightlife and entertainment in the Old North Charleston district.
It isn't a full-service, regular theater (they do only two shows one day every couple of weeks, in a cabaret setting), but it's a social outlet for the arts-heavy community that's grown up around Park Circle.
"The history of that area, they had a movie theater there across the street," says Marty Besancon, North Charleston's cultural affairs director. "We've been aware of that effort, and we've been very supportive of it."
Park Circle community booster James Sears co-founded the group and says it's been in touch with Columbia's non-profit Nickelodeon Theatre. He hopes to link the society's bi-monthly film screenings to the Southern Circuit, an annual touring showcase of independent films.
For now, the Greater Park Circle Film Society picks the flicks (the locally produced documentary Bin Yah screened last week) for the Talking Picture House. Meanwhile, the Film Movement distribution service picks the feature items for the library, and the documentary series at the Main Branch is set by a production company. The North Charleston group is looking to add members and promises to give them a voice in movie selection.
Things get more fluid in the for-profit field. Furlinger ruffled some feathers when he peeled off the Terrace's identity as the go-to venue for foreign films to embrace a passion for independent productions that scare the bejeezus out of the managers of corporate multiplexes.
"Nobody else wanted to touch Brokeback Mountain until the Oscars ... and when Religulous came out, I was the only one who carried it," Furlinger said. "Milk opened in an exclusive engagement. Anything with religion or gays, [the multiplexes] don't want."
So while traditional multiplexes are turning to domestic indies (like Burn After Reading) and Regal Cinemas' Cinebarre in Mt. Pleasant is booking a mix of films that include titles that once would have interested only the Terrace (both ran The Boy in the Striped Pajamas last month), the market for art house cinema has grown to the point where even privately-owned art houses have enough wiggle room to establish unique identities.
"They want safe art," Furlinger says. "The Terrace has never been known for that."