Post Nickelodeon, can Santa Cruz become a film lover’s paradise? A couple with deep industry ties thinks so

Marja Adriance and Dennis Bartok want to rejuvenate the arthouse film scene in Santa Cruz.
(Via Marja Adriance)

Dennis Bartok and Marja Adriance have an ambitious vision for a nonprofit, arthouse film center that would take over for the long-beloved, but beleaguered Nickelodeon Theater in downtown Santa Cruz — or find another venue. The couple wants to offer a wide array of restored classic and cult films and even add a cafe or wine bar. But as the pandemic lingers, a possible recession looms, they face starting costs of at least $5 million. Can they pull it off?

Picture this.

It’s almost Halloween in Santa Cruz. You take a quick trip over to the city’s new mixed-use, arthouse theater. You’re in the mood for spooky fun and, lucky for you, a newly restored print of Sam Raimi’s ridiculously over-the-top “Evil Dead II” is playing.

Calling the place a “theater” is an understatement.

There’s an adjacent outdoor area with plenty of seating and an attached wine bar for pre- or post-screening drinks. The list of showings includes restored classic and hard-to-find cult films such as Hayao Miyazaki’s universally acclaimed “Spirited Away,” John Carpenter’s body horror cult-classic “The Thing,” and Agnès Varda’s one-of-a-kind documentary “The Gleaners and I.”

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All will play on the big screen.

The venue is the first of its kind in Santa Cruz. The multi-use nonprofit film center prioritizes independent, newly restored, and overlooked movies. Its wide range of films attracts a different audience every night, and has even gotten the attention of some of the films’ casts and crews, who occasionally come to Santa Cruz for post-screening Q&As.

If this sounds like an ambitious vision, well, that’s because it is.

It’s the brainchild of two film veterans from Los Angeles, who have roots in Santa Cruz. Married couple Dennis Bartok and Marja Adriance believe they can revitalize the Santa Cruz arthouse film scene.

The dream scenario? Restore the still-shuttered Nickelodeon theater — a downtown icon which closed in 2020 because of the pandemic — and transform it into a modern film Mecca.

Unfortunately, the Nick has a possibly deal-breaking list of structural problems like: a leaky roof, non-ADA compliant restrooms and a mold problem, among other things.

So, the couple is keeping an open mind and is on the hunt for other, equally cool potential locations.

Money is another obstacle. They’d likely need at least $5 million to get started in a new space and perhaps even more to restore and revamp the Nick. They don’t have any specifics on where the money will come from, yet, but they do have local film industry support and believe Santa Cruz has an interested audience of locals and tourists to sustain a theater.

Local film industry professionals are excited about the venture and the duo has already connected with the Santa Cruz and Watsonville Film festival teams.

Bringing a program like this to Santa Cruz could reinvigorate the Santa Cruz arthouse film scene, fill the hole The Nick left when it closed and provide new options to the community.

Bartok, Deglise, Varda
From left to right: Dennis Bartok, American Cinematheque Deputy Director Gwen Deglise, and acclaimed Belgian-French filmmaker Agnès Varda
(Via Marja Adriance)

The couple’s ambition stems from decades of film experience. Bartok, 57, spent 30 years working as a programmer, general manager and interim executive director for American Cinematheque in Los Angeles where he curated tons of independent, arthouse, and classic screenings at locations like the historic Aero and Los Feliz theatres. He is now the executive director for another L.A.-based cultural nonprofit called the Philosophical Research Society, while co-running a distribution and restoration company called Deaf Crocodile Films.

Adriance, 51, hails from Santa Cruz and has enjoyed a career as a writer, producer and researcher for various TV productions, including Disney Animation projects. She believes Santa Cruz would greatly benefit from a project like this.

“Having grown up there, it does not have a robust nightlife. This would really help with that, because people could come for more than just the movies,” she said. “I want to bring more enthusiasm for the arts and encourage people to be in touch with the arts community.”

The couple shared a list of movies they would be excited to screen if they could wave a magic wand and open up tomorrow.

So where does the project currently stand?

The couple has visited Santa Cruz a number of times, and have toured the lifeless Nick, which still has no reopening plans under its current ownership.

“Some representatives of the city were kind enough to include us on a walk-through of The Nick a few months back so we could see the condition of the venue,” said Adriance. “Given the issues it has, we don’t know how possible a revival is.”

If a Nick revival is off the table — and they are not yet certain it is — they still hope to raise at least $5 million, and have started discussing fundraising possibilities with Santa Cruz Film Festival and other arts venues.

“I think any year-round film center/theater that you have in Santa Cruz would have to be partnered with these established organizations,” Bartok said. “That way everyone can grow together,” added Adriance.

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They are also considering alternative revenue streams and ways of attracting customers.

“In an arthouse theater, you could put in a bookstore or a café or a wine bar. Something to make it a welcoming space for the community to get a coffee or a glass of wine before dinner,” said Adriance. “Going forward, I think you’ll see more hybrids that are aggressively trying to make money in ways other than just sitting people in the theater. It should be a place that people go to see movies, of course, but not it’s only purpose.”

As exciting as the project may be, much relies on the arthouse film industry’s recovery.

“These partnerships with the goal of providing host venues with state-of-the-art projection, sound, and ample seating is the dream and completely achievable, but right now, it’s very difficult because of how much arthouse film venues are struggling,” said Bartok. “They have not turned the corner in terms of sustaining themselves the way they could beforehand.”

From left to right: Bartok, then-married couple Jennifer Pryor and Richard Pryor, and actor Martin Lewis in the 1990s.
(Via Marja Adriance)

Even so, Santa Cruz Film Festival Executive Director James Duisenberg is enthusiastic about the idea.

“I’m fully behind them to create an independent film house,” he said. “We have begun connecting with some other independent film enthusiasts to try to raise funds for either a Nick rebirth or to create a venue in a new space.”

The way Duisenberg sees it, the latter is likely the most feasible option.

“It’s just less of a headache,” he said. “Dealing with an all-cash buyout of the property [the Nick], converting the bathrooms to be ADA compliant, and leaks in the roof is a lot. It’s a snowball.”

And even if a new space proves to be costly, Duisenberg believes they have what it takes.

“I think they can pull it off, The Nick and the Del Mar had a lot of support in the past, and there’s still a vibrant, independent film-loving community in Santa Cruz,” he said, adding that it will probably take a few years to bring the dream to life. “It’s just about getting the message out, finding that right niche, and hopefully some angel investors.”

Still, uncertainties loom large, so those eager for an arthouse resurgence in Santa Cruz will, once again, have to follow the same protocol of the last few years: patiently waiting.

For cinephiles, the wait just might be worth it.

However, Bartok and Adriance know they have to take baby steps.

“It’s a little bit like doing an indie movie. First you want something like $15 million and then you’ll settle for $500,000 and see how you can make it work,” said Adriance.