A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

The School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California offers an ongoing weekly showcase for upcoming international, documentary and independent cinema called Outside the Box [Office]. Screenings are free and open to the public. The following article originally appeared in the USC Trojan Family Magazine.

Art Films? We Got ‘Em

Alex Ago fills the screens at Cinematic Arts with new releases each week, all free and open to the public.

By Diane Krieger

Drowning in a sea of suburban megaplexes teeming with Hollywood blockbusters, where’s an esoteric film buff to go for succor? For the past year or so, the answer – at least among cineastes in and around downtown L.A. – has been USC. More specifically, the School of Cinematic Arts, where a new film series has, in effect, turned the three theatres of the brand spanking-new George Lucas Building into the city center’s premier art house.

Since its debut in January, the Outside the Box Office series has given free sneak previews of more than 50 new releases in world cinema, documentary and independent film, with one or more of the filmmakers usually in attendance. The series has featured exotic fare from Canada, China, France, Germany, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Palestine, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand and the United Kingdom, not to mention from all around the United States.

The brainchild of SCA special events coordinator Alex Ago, the screenings happen Wednesday nights, and frequently on Fridays and Sundays, too. Sometimes Ago squeezes in a double feature in which, he admits, the films can be extremely mismatched, “but there are so many wonderful movies coming out, and they have to be screened before they open commercially, and I have limited space.”

Ago got the idea for the series while booking screenings for film critic Leonard Maltin’s popular “Theatrical Film Symposium” class, which spotlights a new release each week.

“I’d been getting all sorts of interesting film screening invitations from the distributors I work with,” says Ago, who is himself an ardent film lover. “And I thought it was a shame not to take advantage of this stuff.” Many of the films and filmmakers didn’t fit with Maltin’s course schedule. So, Ago decided to book them anyway, as a public service to the USC community.

His efforts mean that USC students no longer have to trek to the Westside or Hollywood, where L.A.’s major art houses are located, to see first-run documentaries, foreign films and indie projects.

“In fact, a lot of this screening series came from the fact that I don’t like to drive to West Hollywood to go to the Sunset 5, but I still want to see these movies,” says Ago. “And it’s so hard to keep track of when they’re coming out, how long they’ll be in theatres – it’s just ridiculous how limited the releases are – and what theatres they’ll be playing in. I wanted to remove all the guesswork and all the travel involved with getting to see these wonderful movies.”

Recent screenings have included Lee Daniels’ Precious, a double-prizewinner at Sundance; Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces, Chinese director John Woo’s Red Cliff, and Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore’s Baaria.

Outside the Box Office is only possible because of the new SCA complex, which boasts three theatres: the 200-seat Ray Stark Family Theatre which is “35mm capable,” a 106-seat theatre unpretentiously known as “Room 112” and a 70-seat theatre that goes by “Room 110.”

The beauty of the series is that it is cost-neutral.

“It doesn’t cost me anything to run these films, because they’re promotional screenings or sneak previews that the studios and distributors give to us for free,” he explains. Ago doesn’t even require the services of a projectionist. “I started this as something I could manage personally with my staff and not have to overburden the rest of the school by taking projectionists away from other things. The campus had an opportunity to benefit from something with just a little extra effort on our parts.”

Publicizing the screenings isn’t easy, however. Because release dates can change, distributors usually only commit to a preview on short notice. Ago scrupulously maintains the Out of the Box Office Web site (cinema.usc.edu/outsidetheboxoffice) to accurately reflect future engagements, and he encourages cinema buffs to check it regularly. He also sends out weekly “eblasts” announcing upcoming screenings to a list of 10,000 film enthusiasts. To join the list, send a request to aago@cinema.usc.edu.

Courtesy of USC Trojan Family Magazine