Marin County may not be as overt about its cinematic scene as other California cities (Hollywood comes to mind), but that doesn’t mean the North Bay lacks culture when it comes to cinema.
The stunning landscape and close-knit artistic community of Marin has, over the years, played host to famous films and filmmakers, with Star Wars legend George Lucas among them.
“Marin’s natural landscapes have served as beautiful backdrops for numerous films,” said Marin County’s film liaison, Deborah Jean Albre. “One of the most famous locations is Mount Tamalpais, featured in movies like Vertigo, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and Basic Instinct, directed by Paul Verhoeven. The Point Reyes National Seashore has also been a popular setting, seen in films like The Godfather, Planet of the Apes and The Fog.”
The most recent celebrity cameo came from Jennifer Garner, who was spotted earlier this year in Sausalito filming a scene for her new series, The Last Thing He Told Me. This appearance came as a surprise even to the Marin Film Resource Office, though they received some scouting inquiries for Sausalito last September.
“They kept it a pretty good secret,” said Albre. “I think the show is a wonderful coup for Sausalito’s tourism. I understand there are a few local hotels offering special packages for visitors who want to visit some of the popular locations seen in the series.”
Alongside being an excellent environment for film and filmmakers, Marin County boasts some top-notch theaters where locals can gather and enjoy cinematic entertainment in style.
“I obviously have a few favorite theaters that I frequent,” confessed Albre. “Three that I can think of right away are the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, Mill Valley’s Sequoia Theater and the Lark Theater in Larkspur. Marin also has a Cinemark cinema in Novato that has the all-leather Luxury Lounger chairs and serves beer and wine on weekends—my guilty pleasure.”
Despite the compelling history of cinema in Marin, recent years have put a strain on the industry, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic stalling both the filming and showing of new movies. After all, theaters were not designed to allow for six feet of distance between patrons. And film crews had to undergo quarantines, isolation on set and more (including learning how to produce motion pictures remotely, in some cases).
To put it simply, the world of film and cinema has changed, and only those who met the challenge with courage and a creative spirit were able to withstand the chaos of COVID. One such location is Marin’s very own Lark Theater, which reopened in July after two years of closure. Now, the Lark has undergone a complete construction overhaul, restoring the building to its original 1940s art deco glory.
“We’ve seen theater after theater in Marin collapse, and we’re down to very few right now,” said executive director of the Lark Theater, Ellie Mednick. “Luckily for us, we pivoted in our programming, especially since movies have been spare in numbers and quality.”
The Lark Theater’s saving grace very well may have been Mednick’s history in music, performance and live theater. Alongside opening the Lark as a drive-in theater to make it through the pandemic, Mednick took a chance and made drastic changes to the theater’s content in order to compensate for the steep decline of cinematic accessibility of the 2020s.
“The golden age of cinema is fading—first with television, then all these series on tv, streaming and COVID…” said Mednick. “We’ve seen a real decline of movies, and the star power is missing. It’s a new ballgame all over; money is going into streaming, and those streaming channels are limited to home viewing, which really cuts into theaters and cinemas.”
As an art theater, the Lark does not show more mainstream movies (such as the ever-evolving madness of the Marvel cinematic universe) and instead focuses on more artistically powered films. In order to preserve this aspect of the Lark Theater, Mednick made the call to begin showing standup comedy, jazz, musical theater and, most notably, streaming live performances from New York and London. Essentially, Mednick brought Broadway to the North Bay.
“You really need to wing it if you want to keep your theater open at this point,” said Mednick. “Now we’re actually getting a lot of calls from around the country, asking us how we’re doing it.”
Alongside live performances (streamed or otherwise) and an exciting new museum exhibition on screen, the Lark will continue to showcase fine examples of art cinema, including foreign films, documentaries and “whatever we can glean from Hollywood,” in Mednick’s words.
“My guy in New York tells me we will see an improvement in films, and fairly soon too,” continued Mednick. “They were talking about some new good movies through festival sources, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. But I can’t rely only on that, so I’m also in the process of producing a musical for August.”
“As far as screenings and events are concerned, the next Mill Valley Film Festival is planned for early October 2023, and there are always screenings going on at the Smith Rafael Film Center,” noted Albre. “Since 1978, the Mill Valley Film Festival has become a significant cultural event, showcasing a wide range of films, including independent and international works. What is extra special is that the festival provides a platform for emerging filmmakers and has hosted renowned directors and actors throughout its history.”
Though the landscape of cinema is undeniably changing, so too are the functions of film and theater. What began as an ancient tradition of telling stories around a fire evolved into live performances in amphitheaters, which then transitioned into plays in theaters (such as Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London).
Film, in its current form, has only existed for a brief blip in the span of human history, and even the very first silent black-and-white movies were made less than 150 years ago. Though entertainment now exists just about everywhere, and the grand majority of movies can be accessed with the press of a finger, that doesn’t mean that the tradition of theaters and film can be allowed to slip quietly through the cracks.
“You can’t sit idly by, hoping that movies are suddenly going to get better overnight,” concluded Mednick. “Especially after COVID, you need compelling reasons for people to get out and go someplace. Innovation and diversification are my watchwords—you can’t just sit there hoping something will happen…you have to make it happen.”
The Lark Theater is a nonprofit organization that relies on the support of its community to continue its cinematic contributions to Marin County. For more information, visit larktheater.net or call 415.924.5111.