Get With the Program! Part 1: Justin LaLiberty

Programmers are the lifeblood of many thriving film communities; theaters rely on them to drive sales and bring in audiences, and ultimately, it’s their creative decisions that shape the local scenes that emerge in response. It’s also an intensely personal endeavor, as every programmer brings their own unique perspective to their selection process, dedicating countless, sleepless hours to preparing a singular, memorable theater-going experience to audiences old and new.

We’ve got a lot of love for programmers at Cinepunx, which is why we’ve decided to shine a spotlight on film programmers far and wide. We want to learn what makes them tick, why they do what they do, and what it means to choose films for others to view in a communal space.

For the first installment of our series, we sat down with Justin LaLiberty, Creative Manager at the Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers, to talk about his love of film, the ins and outs of programming, and how his curation diverges from typical film nerd canon.

To start things off, could you talk a little bit about your background with film?

I’ve been working at movie theaters since I was 16, in various facets; I started with working the box office and being an usher, and then I started projecting when I was 18. I was a projectionist for about 12 years or so before I came on [at Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers], and prior to that I had some programming experience. I programmed a one-screen in New Hampshire for a couple of years, and when I was in Rochester I co-programmed a small arthouse there. Then I kind of just fell into this. I was working as a projectionist nearby and I started programming here, just a monthly series, and then when the transition was happening, when [Alamo Drafthouse] Brooklyn was happening, I was offered a job here. But before that…my bachelor’s is in Cinema Studies and my master’s is in Film Preservation. So, I’m all over the place.

And when did you come to Alamo Yonkers officially? What year?

I came on full time in 2016, the Spring of 2016, but I had started doing monthly shows here at the end of 2014.

What is it about film programming and curating film for an audience that you find appealing?

Well, I’ve been watching movies all my life, which I think most people have, but I was very obsessed with it as a kid. Every year, my mom got me the Leonard Maltin guide, and I read it like a book — I didn’t just look things up in it, I read it front to back, every year, going over things I’d known about and highlighting things I wanted to see, making lists on paper and just kind of collecting this data.

You were training your whole life for this gig!

[laughs] Yeah! So, I’ve always been obsessed with the analytics of things, and filmmakers, and actors and genres and just kind of pulling it all together, and that’s been an obsession since I was eight years old. So just bringing that up to now, it’s very rewarding to be like: oh, I can pull from these couple of decades of just being a nerd about shit and put it on a screen for other people to see. Especially when you start digging deep and you have these things that you appreciate that you don’t think other people do, you can get other eyes on it.

Absolutely. One of the things I find really interesting about your programming is that you focus on pockets of genre cinema that don’t get a lot of attention, relatively speaking: female-centric films, queer cinema. What’s your process for determining what ultimately gets screened?

Well, it’s kind of all over the place. I want to show movies that don’t get a love of love, or at least don’t get a lot of screen time, so I really want to show stuff other people aren’t, and because we’re in the New York Metropolitan Area, that’s really hard. There’s great New York City venues that have been operating for decades, and they’ve shown a lot; trying to show things they haven’t shown isn’t super easy, and at the same time, I also need to show stuff that brings in an audience up here out of the city. So, it’s very push and pull. I really want to be diverse in my programming because there’s people who don’t get to see themselves on screen often, and that’s especially the case in genre cinema, which is very male-dominant, behind the camera and on screen. So rather than just preach to the “tough guy” crowd, or to the horror movie crowd — where women are only there to get killed—

Or raped.

Yeah, or anything in between. I really want to pull away from that and celebrate otherness as much as I can in what I do, but I also don’t want that to be the only guiding principal. There’s plenty of movies starring “tough guys” that are great, and for better or worse, there’s movies with sexual violence or misogynist content that are also worth seeing, and it’s about reading between the lines as to why they’re worth seeing and being able to have those discussions. So, there’s different series we do every month, there’s different things happening on a weekly basis, and then there’s programs that are wider, like the Witches, Sluts, Feminists series we just did, the Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens series — all of those bring in different pieces of genre cinema, open things up to diversity, and also work within a framework that brings it all together and has a focus. It’s not just, “here’s some random movies that I like!” And it’s not always even stuff I like; there’s plenty of movies I program that I don’t think are good, but I think otherwise either fit the brand or they pursue something that I’m trying to do locally or bring in a different audience that I haven’t reached yet.

Because it’s also about reaching different audiences. Audiences that differ by age, or race, gender — whatever you have. It’s all about reaching as many people as I can, while being proud of what I’m showing to some extent. There’s definitely things I will show that I’m not as proud of, but I feel like they deserve to be seen and they deserve to be part of the conversation, even if not a good part of the conversation.

Given some of the things that have been in the news over the last year and a half or so, an emergent conversation has been focusing on the problem of the wider film community, online and off, still being a boys club in many respects, and how the response to revelations of sexual harassment and assault are reinforcing this idea that film circles are not welcoming to women. Is any of this weighing on your mind when you’re choosing what to screen?

To an extent, yeah. It’s also an organic progression as to what we do. I recently did that AGFA marathon, Cinemapocalypse, where there were films in there directed by women, and a lot of them starred women, and some of that was intentional, but a lot of it was organic in that I really wanted to show films that hadn’t screened, and the reality is that films directed by women and films that star women don’t screen as often. They just don’t. Especially genre movies, because people want to watch Kurt Russell movies, or people want to watch Stallone movies, or they want to see the Jason movies or Freddy movies. That’s what they want to see, and that’s what gets programmed because it’s popular. So, you have these movies that have been directed by women, or star women, and they’re just kind of lost; they don’t really get the appreciation that they deserve. Even movies like Slumber Party Massacre, which we feel like are canon,  don’t get the screen time that something like Friday the 13th does.  So I really want to bring these as front and center as I can, while championing the fact that women are making movies, but also championing the fact that there’s these great movies people haven’t heard of, regardless of who made them.

So, there’s that, and yeah, of course, the things that are going on in the industry are very much a part of the conversation right now. They’re inescapable, and they’re necessary, but at the same time, I’m also a white, straight man and that’s not something I can do anything about, so I’m trying to do these things as organically as possible while also bringing in people who are from these communities. So, the Women in Film marathon coming up was co-programmed with my wife, so it wasn’t something that I just did. I want people that are women or are minorities to program with us. We have this Black Is, Black Ain’t series which I did not feel comfortable programming for obvious reasons, so we have a black programmer and that’s kind of the way I see things going. Not necessarily me just calling the shots, but bringing in people and saying, we need help, the industry needs help, and we want you to help us do this.

Switching gears a bit, as a programmer, I’m sure you have a lot of fun, but I imagine there’s also some tedium involved. What are some of the challenges of programming that people on the outside might not consider?

I think the most difficult part of course is tracking down rights, clearing copyright and finding materials. Every time I book something that’s digital, I hear: “why isn’t it 35mm?” The reason is because there’s not 35mm prints of everything, and the prints that there are of some things are just bad. I’m in the business of showing movies, not in the business of showing prints, and as much as I am a film archivist and I love watching film, at the end of the day I want to see a movie look as good as its director intended it to, and if that means the best way for me to do that is to show a 4K DCP, that’s what I’m going to show, and I think that’s the kind of thing that gets lost on a lot of people.

As far as the most tedious thing, it’s actually watching movies. Last year, I watched over 800 movies, and that’s a staggering amount of movies. If I’m not at festivals, I’m screening new movies that are coming out, sometimes ones I don’t want to see, or I’m putting together a series or a marathon. Every time I do a marathon of an actor, I watch pretty much every movie they’ve ever been in, even if I’ve seen them a couple of times.

That’s commitment.

Yeah, I feel like I owe it to the subject and to the audience to really immerse myself in it. It’s not just a greatest hits show; these things work together, and how do they work together? Are there co-stars that appear in things, or is there a mood, is there a theme that connects them? It’s all just working on that and taking notes on “this thing appears in that thing,” “these things intersect that way,” and that’s the exciting curatorship part of it. It’s not just: oh, I saw these five movies once, it would be fun to show them to an audience.  That’s the kind of thing that gets really tedious, but it’s really rewarding, too. But yeah, watching 30 Kurt Russell movies is not always the most rewarding thing, especially if there are other people in your life. If you share a one-bedroom apartment with someone, make sure they’re ready.

What sort of things do you have coming up that you can talk about?

The most exciting thing we have coming up is another thing that’s taking up all of my time, which is a four month long summer buddy series. I love buddy movies, and I’ve been wanting to do a buddy series for a long time, but there’s just no way I could fit it all into a month. So, we’re doing this four month long series, it’s probably going to be almost 70 movies — it’s going to be huge, it’s ridiculous. The current list I have right now is almost 300 movies.

You have to watch all of those!

I’m watching almost 300 buddy movies. Everything from Tommy Boy to The Defiant Ones, it’s all over the place, so it’s going to be a really fun summer here. I’m really excited. Summer is always this beast of superhero movies and big budget things that are happening, so I wanted to do something that was still fun, still felt summer-y, but was a long, cohesive thing that was happening through the summer so we can navigate all of these weeks where we just can’t do much. There’s a lot of heavy-hitters, there’s a lot of random ‘60s and ‘70s movies that people probably haven’t heard of, there’s some great 35mm prints, there’s some great restorations. It’s a really well-rounded four months. It’s a lot of content, and I’m really excited about it.

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Adrianna Gober

Adrianna Gober is a Lehigh Valley-based writer and musician. She loves record collecting, comic books, and all things shlocky, campy and kitsch. She is a proud member of the Church of Ed Wood and her favorite Bowie b-side is "Crystal Japan."