LeMaster, 34, is director of the Nightingale Theatre, programmer at Cinema Borealis, film critic for WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight and for Cinephile, and adjunct professor in Interactive Arts and Media at Columbia.
I moved to Columbia, Missouri, after college. Very quickly after I got there, they founded the True/False Film Festival. They needed help, and I was the girl standing closest. I helped them with their first two years. I worked a lot on the festival. I did some of the education programming. And I wound up introducing movies.
There’s this tremendous video store in Columbia called 9th St. Video, and it’s where I saw most of my first really experimental films, like Beaver Trilogy, Heavy Metal Parking Lot, stuff they had on VHS. The woman who ran the store would just put stuff in front of me—”I bet you would like this”—and I fell into watching a bunch of stuff I hadn’t even conceived existed.
True/False was great, but I was sort of feeling like I wanted to live some place bigger, so I got a job working for the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. I was a sort of catchall person. My official title was assistant director of development, but I wound up doing a bunch of different stuff, like media education, some of the fund-raising, some of the sponsorship stuff, some of the basic festival operations. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. Then I got headhunted into advertising, which was super weird. I was an ad man. I was just a secretary, but I also wound up helping out with some production tasks. There would be in-house video stuff they would need done, and I would do that. I was making more money than I’d ever made before, and I never told anyone what I did for a living. I wound up putting a bunch of that money away, and then I got canned because the economy tanked. So I went on unemployment. It’s the money I saved and the time I had being unemployed that allowed me to start the Nightingale with my friend J.B. Mabe. Our first screening was April 4, 2008. It’s my mom’s birthday.
I’d been dreaming for a long time of starting my own little spot where I could show experimental and emerging work. And people rushed in to help. I put out the word that this was going to happen, and people showed up out of nowhere. Ben Russell immediately stepped in with our first program, which was his work with Ben Rivers who was from England, and it was a tremendous opening night program. It was all on 16-millimeter. And Jennifer Fieber gave us this great 16-millimeter projector on indefinite loan. It was so clear that the city was hungry for a spot like this.
We did 40 or 50 screenings our first year, 70 our second year. We’re probably going to do 80 in our fourth year. There are a lot of other spaces to serve bands and art, but very few other cinemas. Chicago Filmmakers is amazing, Gene Siskel is amazing, but the accessibility to some of those venues is not as easy as it is to the Nightingale. We can move fast. We can take a hit financially sometimes. So it’s a lot easier for me than Filmmakers or Siskel that has a lot of overhead.
I’m also the programmer at Cinema Borealis. It’s a sister venue to the Nightingale. Celluloid is starting to feel more and more like something precious, and it feels extra precious to me at Borealis. It’s more secluded, it has hardwood floors, it has the potbelly stove, the real movie theater seats. Borealis is where we do our more fancy stuff, and the Nightingale has continued to be a playground. The floors aren’t always clean, but the movies look as good as they can. I like that. I like that it requires lots of hands to get it done. I don’t ever want to be alone with a big ship. I want to do it because there are people around me that I like doing it with. There’s so much good work in this city. And there’s so much good work in the world right now that needs alternative modes of distribution, and microcinemas are poised to figure that out.
People who are in the arts community are getting smarter about building our own opportunities. It’s not just that the film community is growing, it’s also that in the past few years we’ve really had to take the reins on how we present our work, because the institutional channels have less and less resources, and everyone is having to tighten their belts. But that’s made it possible for some of us to envision ways to get in there. And it’s part of what I’m super interested in with the Nightingale, and with Borealis. I feel like there’s this network—it’s already there, but it’s ready to be strengthened. It’s exciting. —As told to Peter Margasak