Thanks to the South Bay Film Society, one man’s love of movies brings the cinematic experience to a larger audience.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY KREMER JOHNSON
What does city planning have to do with cinema? Not a thing. Except that the man behind the South Bay Film Society, Randy Berler, is a retired Redondo Beach planning director who happens to be fanatical about cinema. And in the last few years Randy has singlehandedly transformed the rotating roster of movies shown at the Rolling Hills AMC theatre in Torrance to include foreign, independent and art house films, along with the typical Hollywood blockbusters.
But this isn’t the first time he has taken his passion for the movies to the masses. Randy’s first stint as a purveyor of quality film started when he was studying art and literature at the University of Wisconsin. In 1972 an invitation to a literary committee quickly led him from poetry to film, and soon he was renting out lecture halls to show 16mm films on a projector.
The first was Children of Paradise, a three-hour-long French saga filmed during the Nazi occupation of France. “I looked for the least commercial film that had a good story,” explains Randy of his first choice. To his own surprise, the audience remained in their seats through the entirety of the film.
Soon after, for just $1 friends and students piled in weekly to see the films he carefully chose for each screening. High school sweetheart Linda was on hand to help collect money from the eager moviegoers. The entrepreneurial endeavor helped pay for school and also established a lifelong passion in Randy … and a new career path.
He was accepted to the USC School of Cinematic Arts, one of the most prestigious film programs in the world. Then after gathering some notable credits as a film editor, Randy was faced with the realities of life. He was now married to Linda, who was studying law, and the two had just welcomed their first child. Hollywood aspirations slowly gave way to a more stable career path, but the passion for film never dissipated.
After retirement in 2008, Randy tried filling his days with new hobbies. There was tennis, some traveling and even a stint with a local rock band. Outings to the movies were also frequent, but the films he was most interested in seeing were the “artsy” films one could only find at the independent theatres in West Los Angeles, like the Laemmle. And who wants to sit in all that traffic?
Randy had hope that Laemmle would eventually build an independent theatre in Torrance. “[The] South Bay has a very well-educated, engaged community, and I knew there were others like me who want to see independent films come to this area,” he says.
By 2012 Randy decided to take matters into his own hands. With the help of Tugg, a Texas-based startup that allows anyone to bring a film of their choice to a theatre near them—pending enough tickets are sold for the showing, the film enthusiast organized a screening.
Just like back in Wisconsin, Randy selected a French cinema. Promoting 1994’s Three Colors: Red by emailing friends and colleagues, the very first showing sold out with 200 tickets at the AMC Rolling. And just like that, the South Bay Film Society was born.
French connection aside, Randy is not merely about promoting abstruse foreign films. He is foremost attracted to the stories and the slower pace of independent films. “I’m trying to show films that allow you to see things in a new way,” he explains.
As an editor, the sense of rhythm and cinematography are also vital, but at the core it’s the ideas and messages the films tell about life often quite different from the one in the South Bay. In fact, the society has shown films from as many as 50 different countries. Now that Randy has established relationships with distributors directly, accessibility to films from all over the world can feel like an enormous responsibility.
Randy previews every film with Linda by his side. “I rely on her opinion and trust her a lot on what would appeal to our audience,” he notes. He often has the opportunity to present films that have not yet been screened anywhere else.
In truth, the audience trusts Randy’s curating with an uncanny enthusiasm. Arlene Pinzler of Redondo Beach, along with her husband, Bob, has attended nearly every showing since the first one.
“Randy’s gift is to bring these films we haven’t heard about and probably wouldn’t get a chance to see otherwise,” says Arlene. “In the beginning it was convenience, being able to see a foreign film south of the airport. But now we go because we know whatever we see will likely stir an interesting discussion, even if it’s in a car on the way home.”
Today Randy shows as many as four films a month, has a mailing list a lifestyle blogger would envy and regularly sells out at least two theatres. Experts and film professors often attend to lead discussions after the viewing, and members like Arlene are always thrilled at the meaningful discussions Randy’s choices spark.
This is why every time Randy steps in front of the screen to thank the audience for their support, he receives an excited round of applause. But the ever-humble curator quickly points out that none of this would be possible without his viable relationship with Rolling Hills AMC, the support of his family who are often subjected to watching and reviewing films he plans to show, and the loyal attendees, many of whom—like the Pinzlers—never miss a showing.
Torrance is grateful—and not only because they get to avoid traffic but because they get the luxury of expertly curated film choices and the opportunity to see touching stories of love, life and everything in between from a new perspective. And Randy gets to again share his passion with as much enthusiasm as a young student in Wisconsin.
Randy’s Ultimate Top 10
(in no particular ranking order)
Bicycle Thieves / Ladri di Biciclette (1948)
1948 Italian film directed by Vittorio De Sica.
“Who can ever forget the humiliation of the father in front of his son when he is caught?”
The Big Lebowski (1998)
American neo-noir black comedy written, produced and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.
“I encourage incorporating lines from this film into your daily conversation.”
Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010)
Film by famed British street artist Banksy.
“Documentaries have often become as entertaining
and even stranger than fiction.”
Wild Tales / Relatos Salvajes (2014)
Argentine-Spanish black comedy written and directed by Damián Szifron. The 2015 South Bay Film Society’s audience favorite.
Children of Paradise/ Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)
French film directed by Marcel Carné.
“It has it all, romance and tragedy,” recalls Randy
of the very first film he showed.
North by Northwest (1959)
American spy thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason.
“It may not be Hitchcock’s best, but it is fabulous fun.”
Jules and Jim / Jules et Jim (1962)
French film directed by François Truffaut.
“I don’t know how I would view them today, but at the time I found them audacious and filled with life.”
Seven Samurai (1954)
Japanese Jidaigeki adventure film co-written, edited and directed by Akira Kurosawa.
“An epic tale of horror and duty.”
The Big Sleep (1946)
Film noir directed by Howard Hawks, based on the 1939 novel by Raymond Chandler by the same name.
“The Big Sleep is the best written, best directed, least comprehensible and most entertaining.”
Some Like It Hot (1959)
American comedy film directed and produced by Billy Wilder, starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
“What film has a better last line?”