Quentin Tarantino saves L.A. theater

Quentin Tarantino at the New Beverly Cinema

Filmmaker now serving as landlord of New Beverly Cinema

Of those rooting for Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" on Oscar night, the Torgan family might be cheering the loudest.

As the proprietors of the New Beverly Cinema, the Torgans operate one of Los Angeles' last havens for classic movies. And, as of recently, Tarantino is their landlord.

The New Beverly has been the Torgan family business since 1978. But if not for the intervention of the director with the encyclopedic knowledge of film, it would be just another chain franchise.

"It was going to be turned into a Super Cuts," Tarantino said. "I'd been coming to the New Beverly ever since I was old enough to drive there from the South Bay -- since about 1982. So, I couldn't let that happen."

Built in 1929 as a first-run moviehouse, the Torgan family moved into the property and turned it into a 200-seat venue for classic, independent and foreign films. One glance at a recent New Beverly schedule leaves no doubt about what attracted Tarantino to the place -- John Wayne's "True Grit" one night, Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist" later that week. The "New Bev" hosts animation events, celebrity-programmed fests and a bimonthly, exploitation-fueled Grindhouse.

The theater on Beverly a block west of La Brea hit hard times in the mid-2000s as the DVD market chewed into ticket sales. Sherman Torgan, the family patriarch and the operator of the theater, was facing serious financial troubles.

"Since I'm a print collector and I screen movies at my home, I heard from other collectors and projectionists that Sherman might have to close down," Tarantino recalled. The director got in touch and asked Torgan how much money he needed a month to keep up the theater.

"The answer was about $5,000," Tarantino said. "So, I just started paying him that per month. I considered it a contribution to cinema."

Then Torgan passed away unexpectedly in 2007, leaving his family and friends of the New Beverly in mourning -- and the future of the theater in doubt.

"Within a week of my father's death, the landlord had a buyer bidding for the theater space," said Michael Torgan, Sherman's son. "Fortunately, I found a copy of our original lease, and it said that the family had the right of first refusal if we could find another buyer."

Desperate to prevent the loss of the family business, the Torgans began considering all options.

"My father had just died, so it wasn't a good time for our family," Michael recalled. "Now, we thought we might lose the theater. My mother reached out to Quentin and explained to him that we were in trouble."

Tarantino decided to buy the space outright.

"I always considered the New Beverly my charity -- an investment I never wanted back," he said. "I already had a good relationship with the family and the theater, so it was a natural step."

The purchase, though, was not a smooth process. According to Torgan, the original landlord and prospective buyer moved to block Tarantino's bid. The sides haggled for months, but eventually a deal paved the way for a buyout. (A nondisclosure agreement prevents the Torgans or Tarantino from revealing the purchase price or the identity of the former landlord.)

Tarantino is now the owner, but he allows Michael and his family to run the theater's daily operations -- with his occasional input.

"Quentin couldn't be a better landlord," Torgan said. "He's involved with suggesting movies when he likes, but he lets us do most of the booking."

Tarantino recently organized an Angela Mao kung fu night featuring "Return of the Tiger" and "Stoner" as well as an "all blood" night with "Blood Spattered Bride" and "Asylum of Blood."

"I can make programming suggestions when I want to," Tarantino said. "It is cool to have a theater that I can use to show what I like."

Tarantino held his "Inglourious Basterds" DVD screening event at the New Beverly. And he will welcome guest programmer Jason Reitman, a pal from this year's awards circuit, to the theater Friday for six days of Reitman's favorites.

Since taking over the property, Tarantino has made it possible for the New Beverly to undergo some badly needed renovations such as new light fixtures and seats and a digital projection system. But he doesn't want the place to change too much. The 35mm projector is still the preferred screening method, popcorn and sodas remain cheap -- and the Torgans are still in charge, with an Oscar-winning angel over their shoulder.

"As long as I'm alive, and as long as I'm rich, the New Beverly will be there, showing double features in 35mm," Tarantino said.