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Casey Christie / The Californian

Craig and Marsha Huff, give their theater tickets to Maya Cinemas greeter, Terry Burnham, during a Friday matinee.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Maya Cinemas at 1000 California Avenue has many movies to choose from at this large theater.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Denzel Washington has his eye on things at the Maya Cinemas on California Avenue on this poster advertising Safe House, as two moviegoers walk in to a matinee.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Maya Cinemas usher Maryna Salas, cleans a rack of 3-D glasses for moviegoers to use.

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Maya Cinemas projection managers Andy Bolanos, left, and Jeremy Reed, right, keep an eye on the platter that feeds the film to the movie projector at the theater.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Eddie Murphy, in a poster for his recently released “A Thousand Words,” reminds patrons that silence is golden in the cinema.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Maya Cinemas projection managers Andy Bolanos, left, and Jeremy Reed, along with Nyoka Jameson, right, give a tour of the projection area at the theater on California Avenue.

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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Dane Forst is a film buff who practices what he preaches by patronizing local theaters. “We can talk about wanting better films,” he said, “but if we don’t get people into the theaters, it’s just talk.”

Even Michael Corleone started out as an Average Joe before fate and ambition, pride and gunfire compelled him to don the Don's ring and rise to become the most powerful mobster in movie history.

Face it, Bakersfield: We, too, have long been saddled with the image of an Average Joe when it comes to the distribution of movies to local cinemas.

Conventional wisdom has long held that Hollywood blockbusters and sometimes-mediocre popcorn movies are our bread and butter -- the Sure Thing that will seduce us into spending a wad of cash and a couple of hours in a darkened theater munching on Jujubes and Raisinets.

Take, for example, Craig and Marsha Huff, who took in a recent Friday night showing of the action movie "John Carter" at Maya Cinemas in Bakersfield.

"We would like to see more arty stuff," Huff said. "But a lot of those movies never get to Bakersfield."

Mrs. Huff agreed. "Sometimes we get upset because when a good movie does come, it's only here for a short time and we miss it," she said.

But like Michael Corleone, Bakersfield may be poised to change its destiny, and it doesn't involve bloodshed or horse heads in beds.

"This is not the town I was born in," said film enthusiast Gary Rink. "It's changed dramatically in the last 20 years."

'The Artist' speaks

It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in Bakersfield as a small, mostly older crowd filed in to theater 12 at Maya Cinemas to see the acclaimed French film, "The Artist."

Maya, the first-run cineplex that bucked convention by building its 16-screen complex close to the city's downtown core rather than in its sprawling suburbs, had been showing the black-and-white, mostly "silent" movie in late February and early March. The theater brought it back again after the film won five Oscars, including the award for best picture.

"We do support different types of movies, not just the commercial Hollywood titles," said Frank Haffar, chief executive of Maya. "To a certain extent, we've already proved that Bakersfield is a sophisticated market.

"In the past six months, we've brought a lot of movies to Maya that Bakersfield wouldn't get otherwise," he said. "And we're getting support from our customers."

Robert Markel, a 37-year-old special-education teacher in Bakersfield, was in the audience watching "The Artist" that Sunday. He said he loved it.

Before he climbed on his motorcycle and sped away, Markel took a few minutes to talk about Bakersfield and movies. He grew up in Los Angeles, he said, and movies are one of his passions, so he attends the cinema several times a month. Markel likes everything, from blockbusters to the deeper, more complex films. But there was a reason he saw "The Artist" alone.

"A lot of my friends won't go to certain movies," he said.

And there lies the problem for cinephiles: Markel's friends and thousands like them have created an impression in the minds of distributors that mid-sized cities like Bakersfield are just not sophisticated enough to support anything but mainstream releases.

Nyoka Jameson, promotions director at Maya, has seen the phenomenon herself.

"Because we're Bakersfield, they think nobody here wants to see them," she said of the smaller pictures.

It's not as simple as just calling up a distributor and saying, "We want film X, Y and Z," explained Valorie Ortega, one of the managers of Reading Cinemas at Valley Plaza.

"We do have people who constantly request those films," Ortega said. "We do fight for them."

Of course, many films open in "limited release," meaning they are only distributed initially to a few major markets like New York, Los Angeles and other cultural centers.

If they don't do reasonably well in those markets, their distribution may end there. If they perform, copies of the films, known as prints, may be distributed more widely. But it's expensive to make prints, including the much more compact digital prints.

One tool Maya is using to broaden its movie choices is asking movie-goers to make their voices heard.

On its website, Maya includes this message to customers:

"The studios do not give us limited release films, such as 'The Descendants' and 'Young Adult,' because they do not think they will do well in your area! Please send us an email stating the movie you want to bring to Maya ... We will forward these to the studio ... help us fight to get more movies for you!!"

So far, they believe the campaign is working.

Occupy cinema

Bakersfield musician and graphic artist Dane Forst is painfully aware of the stigma his adoptive city has lugged around for years. Yes, he's heard the same old stereotypes suggesting Bakersfield is 100 miles north Los Angeles geographically, yet light years behind it culturally.

But Forst said there's more to Bakersfield than the old image suggests.

"People are making strides here," Forst said. "I know a lot of people who would be interested in seeing a better selection of movies."

But the 27-year-old is realistic.

"We can talk about wanting better films," he said, "but if we don't get people into the theaters, it's just talk."

Yet talking about movies certainly is a start, as evidenced by the lively, insightful discussions among members of a local film club that meets in the music and movies section at Barnes & Noble.

Made up of both young and old -- but mostly young -- a half-dozen or so film enthusiasts gathered on a recent Wednesday night for the monthly discussion hosted by local cinephile and B&N employee Cody Meek, 25.

Opinionated, funny, irreverent at times, these folks know their subject. And it's clear they care about the movie-going environment in Bakersfield.

In fact, they care so much they sometimes make the two- or three-hour drive to art houses in Los Angeles just to experience what they can't always find in Bakersfield.

"We want more art films here," said Andrew Price, 24. "But not if they're a year old. Timing does matter."

"Many local theaters don't even advertise in the paper anymore," noted John Scott, 51. "That hinders you."

Despite those hurdles, and others, many in the group suggested there's an emerging demographic in Bakersfield that is ready and willing to support the screening of high-quality films, a notion that belies the moldering, outdated stereotype of Bakersfield as a cultural backwater.

One trailblazer who has been giving local movie-goers the unique cinema they crave since 1983 is Phil Neufeld, president and co-founder of FLICS, a nonprofit organization that screens foreign and art films at the Fox Theater.

There was a time, Neufeld recalled, when all that seemed to be showing in Bakersfield were movies starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"It's just a matter of support," Neufeld said. "I've been involved in live theater as well, and it's really surprising that a lot of people just don't know about it.

"People come to FLICS who say they've been in Bakersfield five years and didn't know about it."

The movies they show are in the "non-theatrical" category, meaning they're often on DVD or Pay-Per-View and are available for screening on airplanes -- even in prisons.

"We pay the distributor an exhibition fee for a single-time viewing," he said. "It can be as much as 50 percent of the gate."

And they pay the Fox for the use of the theater.

"We were designed to be a nonprofit, and I often say we do that better than anything," Neufeld joked.

Distributing the magic

At Starplex Cinemas, customers enjoy bargain prices for "second-run" movies, titles that are older and already played out at first-run theaters. Yet the theater may be ahead in other ways.

Bakersfield's oldest multiplex has already completed its conversion from film to digital projection, said theater manager Michael Armendariz. It's a conversion that is occurring across the country and is expected to be the norm by 2014.

There's also been an explosion in 3-D since "Avatar," he said, yet the "Hobbit" movies are expected to increase the frame rate, adding even more depth and resolution.

"It's frightening," Armendariz said. "There's so much change going on in the industry.

"Back in the day, the projectionist was the highest paid employee in a movie theater," he added. "It's an entire artform that is going away."

While some purists believe that film is superior, digital is getting so good, most people can't tell the difference anymore, he said. And digital doesn't suffer from cracks and flaws in the picture that often happens with 35mm film.

As a movie buff, Armendariz wants to see a wide variety of films. But as a theater manager, he has to be realistic. An indie or art film would have to have an established track record to be shown at Starplex.

"It would probably have to win an award before it came here," he said. "Movies stay as long as they're profitable. If they're not profitable, they'll be gone in a week."

Change kept a-rollin'

Zeitgeist Films, a New York City-based distributor of high-quality independent and international films, has supplied prints to FLICS in the past.

But Clemence Taillandier, the company's head of theatrical sales, acknowledged that most of Zeitgeist's customers in California are located in coastal cities, not towns in the Central Valley, like Bakersfield.

Still, she said distributors are not overlooking Bakersfield. "We actually try to play in as many cities as we can," she said in a flowing French accent.

But distributing movies is a business, and knowing how it works is critical to success.

"Sometimes distributors will charge a flat fee; other times a percentage," she said. If there's a concern that gate sales will be low, a percentage deal could result in a loss for the distributor.

"We need to share the responsibility with the theater," she said. "They know their audience."

Will Bakersfield's lot change overnight? Probably not. But those who hope to see the city's culture expand with the opening of an art house or the dedication of already existing screens to art and indie films think it's not just a dream. It can happen here, the believers preach.

And if we want to see that change continue? Film fan Gary Rink has the deceptively simple answer.

"The trick is for more of us to support it."