Digital Gym Cinema has been closed for 20 months. But starting Friday, the facility will host a preview weekend at its new East Village location and serve as the Sundance Film Festival’s satellite screen.
Running a micro-cinema is tough, and it’s even tougher when the company loses the lease of the venue in the middle of a pandemic. Digital Gym Cinema not only survived, but came back new and improved.
“It’s a totally new vibe and energy,” said exhibition director Moises Esparza. “We are now in the East Village, very close to the trolley station. Same type of content, but just a different setting.”
This different setting includes a new projector, better sound, a full-fledged concession stand, and more bathrooms. Regulars of old El Cajon Blvd. can look forward to no longer having to walk in front of the screen and close the door behind them from the improvised handle near the floor.
“I’m really excited to share the space and it’s really amazing to see the progress we’ve made in just a few months,” Esparza said, seated in the theater seats. “The last time you came here, we had to wear helmets and there were no seats, no screen, nothing. But I think we’re ready to show movies now.”
Preview of the new digital gym
The cinema is ready but not the whole building. The Digital Gym is located inside UC San Diego’s new four-story expansion facility at Park and Market, and much of it is still under construction.
“The first level has a big staircase that’s still under construction. There’s kind of a theater space down there. It’s still under construction,” Esparza added.
That’s why this weekend is presented as just a preview of what’s to come. The construction and completion of the cinema was slowed by various supply chain issues. Even the new projector was delayed and only arrived last week.
“This pandemic has taught us that patience is perhaps the most important thing of all,” Esparza said. “And at some point, you stop obsessing over those little details and just focus on coming up with a plan B, plan C, and plan D.”
The exit sign is still too bright and the seats you sit in this weekend may change before the official opening in a few months. But this weekend, Esparza is thrilled the cinema is ready to take on the role of satellite screen for the Sundance Film Festival.
“We’re only one of a small handful of independent theaters across the United States that have been selected by Sundance to hold these in-person screenings outside of Park City,” Esparza explained. “But the Sundance Film Festival is now entirely virtual, so satellite screens are the only in-person screenings for Sundance.”
The big day for Digital Gym Cinema this weekend will be Saturday.
“We’re going to do a little reception outside. We’ll have a photo booth, red carpet and footsteps and rehearsals,” Esparza said. “Filmmakers love getting their movies out in front of audiences, and they want that response, that response in person.”
Esparza also loves this communal experience of sharing movies in person. He is looking forward to taking a break from the virtual events that Digital Gym Cinema was forced to do during its shutdown, and instead work on hosting live post-movie chats with filmmakers.
Saturday at 5:00 p.m. there will be a screening of “Sirens,” a documentary about the Middle East’s first all-female metal band. Director Rita Baghdadi and band members Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi will be on hand to present their film and speak with the audience.
Ticket sales have been good but there are still tickets available for most films, including Esparza’s favorite, “Marte Um (Mars One)”. The Brazilian film centers on a lower-middle-class family and the young son who dreams of being an astrophysicist.
“The movie really touched me because it takes on this idea of dreams being deferred and the obstacles that come up, but how when things aren’t going well, there’s still a long way to go,” Esparza said. “And the movie gave me a lot of hope and really cared about this family.”
With COVID-19 still a concern, Digital Gym will require proof of vaccination and ask attendees to wear masks. But if watching movies inside the cinema isn’t for you, there will be free screenings of short films outside in the adjacent courtyard. Esparza hopes there will be something for everyone.
“I think this will give even the casual Digital Gym Cinema fans an idea of the kind of programming and movie activations that we’re going to be doing here that we’re going to be producing here in our space year-round,” Esparza said.
As someone who did volunteer film programming through Film Geeks SD at the old Digital Gym location, I’m thrilled to see the revival of this micro cinema. And enough San Diego moviegoers share that excitement to have already sold out a session for the movie “Emergency” this weekend.