From Napoleon Dynamite to Barbenheimer, Salem’s indie cinema celebrates four decades

On Wednesday, the lobby of Salem Cinema was a welcome warmth from the evening’s chill. Though the film of the evening had already started, a latecomer entered and instantly smiled, remarking to Marcus Salem behind the counter about how good the popcorn smelled.

Approaching its 41st year, the local theater has built a community of film enthusiasts through a nostalgic venue, personable staff and a commitment to playing movies that aren’t played elsewhere.

Salem often starts scooping popcorn and filling drinks for regulars when they walk in, knowing what they’ll order. He said the best part of his job is talking to people about movies. He loves watching them come out of the theater buzzing with excitement, and asking each other, “What was that?”

The night before, they’d played a special one-time showing of a documentary called “Immediate Family” featuring musicians who backed some of the greats while staying out of the spotlight.

“I had a good half-dozen people come up to me, who has nothing to do with anything, and say ‘Thank you so much for bringing that film. That was incredible,’” Salem said. “That’s something they’re not going to get anywhere else. That’s what makes it all worth it, to me, to make someone’s day better… be it two people or 200.”

Since the pandemic, ticket numbers have sometimes been closer to two than 200. The cinema is treasured by regulars, but has not yet recovered since it reopened in March of 2021, with ticket sales still between 40-55% of what they were before, according to owner Loretta Miles.

Beyond pandemic recovery, the theater is also navigating the uncharted waters of a film industry prioritizing streaming releases. It’s not the first time the industry has changed during the local theater’s long tenure. 

Salem Cinema opened on Christmas Day in 1982, with a venue underneath the parkade at Pringle Park Plaza. Miles was one of its first regular customers, and started working there in January of 1984.

She said the Pringle Park location had some unsavory surround sound, with squealing tires cutting through movies from cars overhead. Even worse, she said, were the skateboarders.

“The wheels on those skateboards literally sounded like a jet plane overhead,” she said. 

As theater manager, Miles would try to catch the teens at the bottom of their first ride down the parkade. She’d then bribe them with free popcorn and drinks to stay off the theater’s roof until the movie ended.

This September, one of those former skaters happened to end up on top of her home as a roofing contractor. “We had a good laugh over that,” she said. 

Back in the early days, theaters had to compete to run titles, and often couldn’t run the same movie at the same time. She recalled a feeding frenzy over the 1986 “Crocodile Dundee” which Salem Cinema joined, sensing the film would be a hit and justifying its spot at the arthouse since it was a foreign film.

“We played that movie forever and would be sold out even before we opened the doors,” she said. For weeks, they’d have to do a headcount and give a “last person in line” sign for someone to hold when they reached the seating limit. 

Miles bought the theater from the previous owner in 1990, and organized a memorable run of “Napoleon Dynamite” in 2004. Its star, Jon Heder, grew up in Salem and is a graduate of South Salem High School.

The actor’s parents had been regulars at the theater, and his dad came in one day and asked if they’d play the movie. He promised they’d be able to fill the seats with local friends who wanted to see it.

Miles contacted the distributor, and was able to play the movie two weeks ahead of schedule, at the same time that Portland was showing it. Every showing the first week included an audience Q&A with Heder, and it was where the actor found out the low-budget film broke $1 million at the box office.

Later in the week, Fox Searchlight called saying Heder was needed immediately in Los Angeles for a press junket. Heder reminded the studio she had a sold out audience expecting him, so they compromised and delayed his flight.

“Jon met everybody, did pictures, did autographs, all of that. An entire theater full of people stood and waved goodbye to him, blowing kisses and whatnot as he was whisked away in a limo,” she said. And everyone in the audience got a t-shirt from the studio.

The concessions at Salem Cinema (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

The theater moved to its current location at 1127 Broadway St. N.E. in 2009, where it would go dark for the first time a decade later due to Covid.

“It was horrible. It was really heartbreaking and gut-wrenching and I will admit to the fact that I probably spent the better part of a year and a half laying in my bed, staring at my ceiling and crying,” she said. 

Then the messages started coming in. 

People wrote to Miles, sharing their memories at the theater and sending donations to help her pay its rent, insurance and utilities. Local groups did online performances to fundraise for it.

The theater reopened for a month in 2020, then closed again during a surge of Covid numbers that prompted new restrictions. It reopened in March 2021, and stayed open.

Some people still send the theater monthly donations, she said.

“They know that Salem Cinema, like almost all theaters in the country, we have not fully recovered,” she said. “Things continue to get a little bit better, and a little bit better, and a little bit better.”

Miles said the community support is a reminder that it’s not over yet.

“I hope that it really kind of is never over. I hope that there’s always an audience for the type of movies that Salem Cinema is known for,” she said. “I just refuse to roll over and show my underbelly.”

Miles does all the booking for showings at the cinema, choosing movies that she hopes will introduce audiences to new ideas and support films that otherwise might not go to a large screen.

The curation of films is what brought Marcus Salem to work there in the first place. He’d previously spent a decade managing a theater in Salt Lake City, which did showings during the Sundance Film Festival. On visits to his parents who lived in Salem, Salem Cinema’s posters often matched his own.

On Wednesday several of the posters on the walls featured films not showing anywhere else in town. 

Salem said a lot of their ticket sales grow throughout the lifetime of a movie. People leave the theater and talk to each other about what they saw, which brings more viewers in.

“We have a very, very loyal and dedicated group of patrons that keep this place what it is, they keep it thriving, they keep us relevant. We definitely couldn’t do it without all the people of Salem,” he said. 

In his five years at Salem Cinema, Salem said the most fun he’s had was a one-time screening last summer of the Telugu-language film “RRR,” a three-hour epic about overthrowing British colonial rulers in India, complete with explosions and musical numbers.

“That was an experience I haven’t had at the movies since I was a little kid. Just, literally on the edge of your seat just cheering and laughing and being caught up in that – so ridiculous and over the top – yet somehow still so perfect,” he said, and that it had the added bonus of introducing a lot of people to the joy of foreign films.

This summer, he enjoyed watching people of all ages come in all pink to pose with their Barbie photo frames, which he said shows the value of putting movies back in theaters rather than straight to streaming. 

“To see a theater of people, no one knows each other for the most part. But we’re all cheering for the same thing, and angry at the same thing, and crying for the same thing. Just to have like 150 people in a room sharing that same emotion and all be strangers, that’s a beautiful thing. That’s what brings people together and that’s what creates a society,” he said. 

Salem Cinema on Northeast Broadway Street (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.