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A home at last for local directors and their films

A movie theater in an up-and-coming neighborhood that screens independent films you can't see elsewhere and locally produced flicks - at a time when Hollywood banks on big-dollar Iron Men and Kung Fu Pandas?

Sounds like an awesome idea. And that's what's behind the 941 Theater, the bright green building at 941 N. Front St., in the shadow of I-95 and several shiny new Bart Blatstein developments.

In the spirit of indie everything, 941 is not only the first movie theater in Northern Liberties, it's the first non-chain theater to compete with the Ritzes for independent fare - and show local fare.

It's an idea that had its origins partly back in 2002 when Zafer Ulkucu, a Temple University film student, screened his thesis, Captain Bill and the Rockin' Buccaneers. It was a 50-minute movie shot on film with professional actors, back when other students were doing minute-videos starring fellow students.

"I showed it once in class and that was great, but I wanted to screen it for friends, family and nonstudent people who worked on the movie," says Ulkucu, 30. "I looked long and hard to find a place to screen it, even at Temple's student union. But they laughed at me. They were busy showing Saving Private Ryan."

And it started partly when Ulkucu's pals and partners in the Backseat Film Festival - a yearly event that began six years ago - were looking for new spaces to screen movies after they'd outgrown the old ones.

"No venue existed," says Nick Esposito, 29. "So we had to build it . . . a screening room for everybody."

Plus, they wanted to make something that could function for local directors as a space in which to view daily rushes of their films. That, along with running an offbeat movie theater, is crucial to the Backseat ideal because it allows local filmmakers to work affordably while building a scene around them.

Along with Doug Sakmann, 27, Ulkucu and Esposito make up Backseat Conceptions, three New Jersey and New York guys who moved to Fishtown after having worked as film techs for Troma Entertainment in 2001. "Backseat formed organically as a hub for our many start-up projects, and grew into what it is today," says Sakmann.

Up until a few months ago, Backseat was just an organization that threw annual film festivals with grungy punk-rock flicks and zombie fare in Philadelphia, New York City, and Baltimore.

"They've always been believers who fight for the cause," says Scott Johnston, 41, a Philly film director and animator who curates events for fellow moviemakers on Tuesdays at N. 3rd, a bar in Northern Liberties.

While Backseat was looking for big spaces for 2008's festival, the trio - Ulkucu is a gaffer (lighting technician), Sakmann a director and special effects makeup artist, and Esposito a video technician - happened onto a barely used 4,100-square-foot space on Front Street that occasionally opened for DJ events and hardcore punk shows. And they knew they'd found a home for festival events.

But they also felt the location could function as a permanent home for new independent films, rarely seen repertory films, and movies directed by locals.

They leased the building, painted the brick front green, painted the inside gray and black, and spruced up the back deck overlooking Canal Street with flower boxes. When it comes time for screenings, they add 150 seats, drop down a 10-by-12 foot screen, and let the images unspool.

"All you see in Philly is development, but none toward a public space like this," Esposito says with a laugh. "We support bars. But there's a desperate need for public spaces that go beyond the limited social donation that bars make."

Which is why the 941 trio are making their venue a not-for-profit, mixed-use venue for live concerts, booked by Village Green Productions, and screenings through their self-created Philadelphia Friends of the Projected Arts.

"At this point opening a theater is a failing business twice removed," teases Sakmann. "Video stores, which drove movie theaters out of business, are closing. So opening a new movie theater that shows any programming that is not totally mainstream is guaranteed to fail financially. But we feel it's an obligation to support the projected arts during this tenuous period in American cinema."

Artists and programmers deeply involved in Philadelphia film see theaters like 941 as a necessity.

"If Philadelphia truly wants to have a functioning indie film scene, it's important to have a variety of places where local and very independent films can be screened before an audience," says local director Richard Murray, whose movie Stump the Band was the first to play at 941.

"You go to cities like Portland and Austin and they have three times as many places," he says. "They're smaller than Philly, but they have a much more vibrant independent film scene."

Johnston adds, "The 941 guys are the future for celebrating cult cinema and truly indie filmmakers."

They're talking serious independent films like Canadian director Lee Demarbre's Smash Cut and documentarian Kerri O'Kane's The Gits, about the band of that name.

These aren't the slicker, slumming-celebrities indies shown at the Ritz. And these days, the Roxy Theatre on Sansom Street is hosting Sex in the City.

"I think a city can never have too many venues presenting different sorts of films," says Joseph Gervasi, 37, a curator of independent films at International House.

Esposito calls 941's owners "counter-programmers."

"I love what the Ritz and Roxy present," says Esposito. "They're not enemies. And 941 isn't only showing movies made by locals who filmed with their cousin in the back of a van. There's countless costly American independent, even foreign, films that get little press or distribution. 941's films are some that the Ritz and Roxy can't afford to take a shot on."

941 (www.941theater.com) also lets local directors rent the space for $300 and up for daily rushes of their films, for test screenings, or simply for a theatrical run of a film you put hard work into.

"The Philadelphia Film Office - a real ally to us - does their best to bring film projects here," notes Ulkucu. "So imagine how disheartening it is to ask an investor to finance your shot-in-Philly film, but there's no place to screen it?"

Added Murray, "Part of my agreement with the distributor was to give the film a theatrical opening prior to the DVD release in June. We approached 941, paid for the experience, and they were great. I admire what they're doing there - creating a space for indie film and theater."

941 Theater

The 941 Theater is located at 941 N. Front St., in Northern Liberties.

Information: 215-235-1385 or www.941theater.com

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