Tory Baker, executive director of the Salt Lake Film Society, welcomes cinephiles to a digitally upgraded Tower Theatre; photo by Adam Finkle.

If “art-house cinema” conjures up thoughts of sticky floors, the reek of rancid popcorn oil and insufferable film nerds huddled in a shabby theater, Tori Baker, executive director of the Salt Lake Film Society, wants to talk to you.

“For people who have never set foot in an art house, they think it’s a bunch of film geeks who are going to make you feel stupid,” Baker says. “We’re anything but that.”

The film society operates the Tower Theatre at Ninth and Ninth (the group was founded in 2001 to save the crumbling landmark) and Broadway Film Centre downtown. Despite the film society’s recent successful $700,000 campaign to upgrade its equipment to cutting-edge digital projectors, too many Utahns, Baker fears, cling to the idea that art theaters are elitist, foreign-film havens that have no relevance to their lives.

But, if the movie-awards season says anything about popular appeal, SLFS is offering the best and liveliest of movies. Her (an Oscar for Best Writing – Original Screenplay), Dallas Buyers Club (Oscar for Best Actor), the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture–Comedy or Musical), Philomena (Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress), 12 Years a Slave (Best Film Oscar) and Nebraska (nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor) were on SLFS screens simultaneously.

But possibly worse for the film society as a non-profit (it relies on grants such as the Zoo, Arts, and Parks Program), are Salt Lake residents who have difficulty separating SLFS’s mission from that of a commercial megaplex. The film society prides itself on offering movies that go beyond Hollywood’s often bizarre idea of “mainstream” to present thoughtful glimpses into other cultures and lives. “The core purpose of an art house hasn’t changed,” Baker says. “It’s always been about access.”

Out of the 235 films shown in a year on the film society’s screens, about 210 aren’t anywhere else. “Many of them are the top critically reviewed films of the year,” she says. “People in Salt Lake would have no access to these films except for us.”

Thanks in part to the high profile of the Sundance Film Festival, Baker says she’s seeing a growing appetite for art films in the state and an appreciation for SLFS’s mission. “We’re in an education phase that started with the digital conversion,” she says of SLFS’s efforts to define itself. “It’s a new conversation and it’s exciting to be in it.”

With with more than 1,000 members and an annual audience of 250,000—one of the largest arts audiences in Utah—SLFS theaters pump $8 million into the state’s economy.

That the film society is making headway with its image is apparent in a recent survey that found that nine out of 10 Utahns say Salt Lake’s art houses “make life more enjoyable,” “provide opportunities to think and learn,” and “spark my curiosity.” Eight out of 10 said that the theaters “serve as an anchor for the community” and attending their films “makes me a more well-rounded person.”

“Everyone has an ‘Apocalypse Now moment’ with a great film that changes the way you look at the world,” says SLFS board member Brian Rivette. “It really happens to people. They talk about life-changing moments with film. Film has the ability to be the bridge art, a transitional gateway to other cultural and ethnic experiences.”

Digital era begins

In what is considered the biggest advance since “talkies,” movies have undergone a digital revolution. Instead of shipping reels of 35mm film to theaters, films now arrive on hard drives to be “ingested” by high-tech servers, then projected in glorious high def. Downside? Salt Lake Film Society had to turn to lovers of great cinema for $700,000 for digital conversion or be left behind.

Back>>>Read other stories in our May/June 2014 issue.