“Sometimes we randomly find things, get really excited and lean into it,” David Cabrera, co-founder of Suns Cinema, shares about the curatorial process for the District’s most idiosyncratic movie house.
Cabrera, outfitted in a Steve Zissou-style red beanie and black bandana tied jauntily around his neck during our interview, is speaking about “Cats of Park Avenue,” the 1989 Japanese film about a group of dancers who aspire to create a musical about the neighborhood strays. After sharing the convoluted plot line, he summarizes: “It has more cat screen time than any other film. How do people not know about how amazing this movie is?”
“It’s like ‘Black Swan’ meets ‘Cats,’ but better than both,” deadpans co-founder Ryan Mitchell, bespectacled and wearing a purple satin starter jacket while sitting in front of the infamous leg lamp from ‘A Christmas Story.’”
Cabrera whipped up an appropriately kitschy teaser trailer to entice viewers. The film was a big hit with Sun Cinema’s clientele, joining the clowder of other cat-themed movies in February 2022, including the stoner comedy “Keanu,” the supernatural noir “Cat People,” the touching Istanbul documentary “Kedi” and the classic screwball romance “Bringing Up Baby.”
Vintage Viewing In an Intimate Screening Room
“We just want to show the films we like,” Cabrera shares. “The ultimate goal is to show as wide a swath of movies as possible: good, bad, new, old, weird — whatever.”
The two-story movie theater and hipster lounge in Mount Pleasant knows how to make the most of 30 evenings and weekend matinees. With decor nodding to favorite films (Margot Tenebaum’s zebra wallpaper behind the bar, the geometric carpeting from “The Shining” in the hallway, “Pink Flamingo” wallpaper in the bathroom) and makeshift, sometimes wobbly seating, the arrangement creates a cozy, intimate viewing room. It’s more grabbing drinks and hanging out to watch eclectic art films and discount bin gems at a friend’s place than hitting up a cavernous, tech-savvy IMAX theater.
That’s always been the mission. Even if you don’t know anyone at the start of the movie, you settle into a seat near a stranger, laugh at the same jokes, get teary over the big breakup scene and maybe chat during intermission while grabbing a cocktail.
“You may not want to watch a bad film at home and waste your day,” Mitchell states. “‘Pet Sematary’ is really fun to watch with other people.”
The Joy of Embracing the Weird
“We throw ideas to each other,” Cabrera explains about their selection process, though he was originally drawn to works more likely to be part of Criterion canon. “And if it seems like a really bad idea, we try to go with it and see how far we can push it.”
Mitchell initiated the monthly theme idea from the get-go when they launched the theater in 2016 after years of planning and crowdfunding. Some monthly themes are no-brainers, such as focusing on horror films in October, anti-Christmas films (think “Die Hard”) in December or highlighting Black filmmakers in February. Other months become a bit more esoteric. “Down By Law” in November 2018 (named after the Jim Jarmusch cult favorite) features cops (“Beverly Hills Cop”) and robbers (“Le Cercle Rouge”), mobsters (“The Godfather I and II”), judges (“RBG”) and juries (“Twelve Angry Men”).
There are layers to their micro-curation and inside cinematic jokes. Mitchell suggests reading the calendar vertically to discover those mini-themes.
He explains, “No one would probably care but there’s a whole little story going on with this calendar.”
With American Genre Film Archive (AGFA), they’ve found a go-to distributor that has created a cabinet of curiosities who is responsive to their requests and seems as much fans of shock and schlock as Cabrera and Mitchell.
“They’re clearly the people who are working, trying to find cool stuff and get it shown,” Mitchell says with admiration. “They are fans of their own stuff and it shows. So are we.”
Home Movie Curation Tips
Cabrera and Mitchell are pros at selecting movies for the enjoyment of others. They keep a running list of films they hope to show and potential themes for these films. They regularly check out Letterboxd and Screen Slate for reviews and listings of foreign, forgotten and unfamiliar films. They’ve cultivated their cinema history, developed their libraries and queues and converse with other film buffs.
And they have a few tips for making the most of your home viewing enjoyment.
Stepping away from the infinite onslaught of titles found on Netflix or Amazon Prime, they recommend finding an already semi-curated streaming service, such as the Criterion Channel for highbrow selections or public library freebie Kanopy or MUBI, the service most like their own with its monthly roster of films.
Mitchell suggests getting back to basics. Look up the IMDB profile of a favorite director or character actor to follow their career trajectory and their specialized genres.
Cabrera admits sometimes moviegoers clam up around them, thinking the Suns Cinema owners are movie sages who have unlimited film knowledge.
“I only know what I know about,” he admits. “There are no wrong answers with films. People like what they like. As long as you’re curious and you follow the rabbit hole to wherever your interests take you, that’s cool.”
“People often ask if we’ve done a month on this or that,” Mitchell says of those who are more confident in their film tastes. “People want to share their favorites, too.”