Fostering a Film Culture in Detroit: A Q&A with Cinema Detroit's Paula Guthat

According to Paula Guthat, the film theater she co-founded in Detroit in 2013 with partner Tim Guthat came "from a place of deep love for film and the theatrical movie experience."

Five years later, Cinema Detroit is still spreading that love. With a new membership program and regular social justice-focused "talkback" events that fuse film screenings with community dialog, Guthat is intent on using Cinema Detroit to build a media-literate community in the city.

We caught up with Guthat to talk about how Cinema Detroit's new membership program, its talkback programs, and how being an AMP Sponsored Project is helping the theatre achieve its mission.

What do you see Cinema Detroit's role in the larger independent media landscape in Detroit?

We started Cinema Detroit because no one else was showing these movies seven days a week in greater downtown. And we were tired of places like Columbus and Bloomington, Indiana and all these other places getting these cool movies. And we were tired of being from the east side and having to drive 30 to 45 minutes. We thought we needed this in Detroit.

We want to be more of a hub for the activist community. And we have done some of that, but it could always be more. It's an issue of space and availability. I would love to add a third screen so we could serve the indies that people want to see, show the Oscar-type films, and then do our activism and support our local filmmakers as well.

Describe your talkback events. How do those work?

Talkbacks are events we hold on a regular basis, where the community comes in, we screen a particular film, and we facilitate dialog with invited speakers. They are all either cinematically significant or address social justice issues in some way.

For example, we recently screened Two Trains Running, a film about the freedom summer of 1964 when college students went down to Mississippi and to ride the buses with African Americans, and a bunch of music fans went down to find two "missing" blues men, Son House and Skip James. They were mistaken for activists and experienced the extreme racism. We invited a couple of civil rights lawyers, a freedom rider, and a country blues man to discuss this history and the things that have and that have not changed since that time.

Another example was a talkback for Birth of a Nation, which tells the story of Nat Turner, an enslaved person who incited a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. There were all these issues in the movie, and then there was also the issue with the director, Nate Parker, who was accused of having raped a student while in college at Penn State. So I asked a historian to come in, and also a consultant who focuses on toxic masculinity. We held screenings and talkbacks with two different classes of students from an all-boys school.

We recently hosted a screening and talkback about Black Panther and the themes in the film. Speakers included Blair Evans of Incite Focus, a community-based production and training lab, and Ingrid LaFleur of the Ancient Future News podcast. The session was moderated by poet and activist Tawana "Honeycomb" Petty, whose Petty Propolis project is also a part of AMP’s Sponsored Project network. Demand was so high, we had to add a second date!

You're also planning an upcoming talkback with iconic illustrator and former Black Panther Emory Douglas. What can we expect at this event?

The event is on April 18, and it's called Emory Douglas in Detroit. It will be a fundraiser for The Emory Douglas Youth and Family Arts Program.

The main feature is going to be The Eyes of the Rainbow, a documentary about Assata Shakur, the Black Panther and Black Liberation Army leader who escaped from prison and was given political asylum in Cuba, where she has lived for close to 15 years. It will be preceded by a 7-minute documentary about Emory Douglas and his work. The event itself will start at 6:30 p.m. with a reception and Emory Douglas will be in attendance. During the reception, an interview Douglas did with Real News Network will be looping in the Screening Room. There will be food and wine, and Mr. Douglas' art will be on display. The films will start at 7:30, with a Q & A to follow.

Tell us about Cinema Detroit's new membership program. Why did you decide to launch a membership program, and what benefits do members receive?

We wanted a way for people to show their support while showing our appreciation. The cost is $60 for the "Editor" level membership for one person for one year; the "Assistant Director" is two people for one year, and it's $105.

Members get a ticket discount and 10 percent off on concessions (excluding alcohol should we ever get a liquor license). Depending on the membership level, you'll get one or two tickets under the “assistant director” level to a member event. About twice a year we are able to show a movie for free just for members, and you get a free movie on your birthday.

And, you get the good feeling of supporting us. A portion of the membership fee is considered a tax-deductible donation to Cinema Detroit. By purchasing a membership, you have a stake in our success. You're helping to ensure that we can continue to offer the films, discussions, and events that we do.

Why did Cinema Detroit decide to convert to a nonprofit?

We used our personal funds to get started, and we've come to the end of that. Part of our challenge is that we keep our concession prices and our ticket prices reasonable, to make it accessible to the greatest number of people that we can while still surviving.

We're not in it for the money, but at the same time, the distributors take the same percentage of our revenues as they would at a commercial theatre. A lot of people don't realize that most of the ticket cost goes back to the movie's distributor. We're not keeping most of that $8 or $9, so we need people's support to make up the difference.

How did Cinema Detroit become involved with AMP as a Sponsored Project?

We're neighbors in the building at 4126 Third Street, where we moved in 2015. Cinema Detroit had converted a year and a half ago to a state incorporated non-profit, and we needed help. We knew AMP because of the Allied Media Conference, and as a 501(c)(3), we knew they have a lot more experience than we do in that non-profit world. And we also wanted to connect more deeply with the creators that work with AMP. It just seemed like there were a lot of connections there.


Support Cinema Detroit’s mission to nurture media literacy, arts education, and critical community dialogue through independent film by making a donation, purchasing a t-shirt, or becoming an official member of Cinema Detroit.

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To learn more about Cinema Detroit’s upcoming fundraiser talkback for the Emory Douglas Youth and Family Arts Program, visit the event page here.

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