If you want to tour major movie studios or have a chance of spotting the stars, you already know the name of the West Coast city that’s famous for mainstream show business. But to surround yourself with a spirited community of independent film fanatics, who pack immaculately restored theaters and attend all manner of niche festivals, you’ll want to make your way to Oregon, an underrated cinema destination that’s worth a closer look.
Why is Oregon such an ideal place to be a film lover? One answer is simple: It’s an increasingly popular place to make movies. The region’s urban and natural landscapes have long attracted Emmy and Oscar award-winning crews, from silent films in the early 1900s to masterworks like 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to such recent hits as 2014’s “Wild.” A number of those same filmmakers have also chosen to live in Oregon, and a locally grown media scene now thrives in pockets throughout the state. Professionals put down roots not only in Portland, which is well-known for its creative sensibilities, but also in the high desert hub of Bend, the thespian enclave of Ashland, and dozens of other towns and cities.
And the same ethos drawing filmmakers to shoot their next blockbuster here or even set up shop also makes Oregon a prime spot for local cinephiles, who regard moviegoing as its own art form. Ready to geek out with fellow fans at a sold-out screening or set out on a pilgrimage to the filming locations of a cult classic? Grab whatever snacks you desire (a perfect vegan slice, perhaps?) and find your people at these iconic arthouses, annual festivals and instantly recognizable spots along the Oregon Film Trail.
Cinemas: Brew ’n’ View Pioneers
Independent theaters are the foundation of any dynamic film community, and Oregon stands out as a national pioneer in restoring vintage cinemas. In fact, you wouldn’t be far off the mark in suggesting that Oregonians invented the “brew ’n’ view” theater concept when some of the state’s first microbrewers remodeled derelict buildings and turned them into theater pubs: artsy venues that pair movies with pints of brewed-nearby beer. This was a novel idea in the late 1980s when McMenamins opened the first of its popular theater pubs, a lineup that now ranges from the Bagdad Theater in Portland’s Hawthorne District and Bend’s Old St. Francis Theater to the Power Station Theater on the sprawling Edgefield campus.
As the state’s largest metro area, the Portland Region ranks highest for the quantity of cool, and sometimes even swanky, theaters. (In fact, local movie fans like to repeat hard-to-verify claims that suggest Portland has the most arthouse screens per capita and one of the highest moviegoing populations in the country.) A prime example is the nonprofit cinema Hollywood Theatre, which doubles as a neighborhood icon and one of the key proponents of independent film on the West Coast — hosting annual events such as QDoc (April 30-May 3, 2020), the nation’s only LGBTQ+ documentary festival, and Portland Women’s Film Fest in March. Lines form almost every weekend outside arthouse theaters like Cinema 21, Living Room Theaters and the Clinton Street Theater, one of the oldest operating movie theaters in the country.
Beyond the big city, vintage theaters are nearly as common a feature on Main Streets as espresso bars. And stories of small communities banding together to restore their cinemas, or cinephiles keeping the projectors running out of a labor of love, are commonplace. Screening everything from film-fest hits to first-run blockbusters, dozens of historic theaters have gotten a new lease on life, including the Times Theatre & Public House in Seaside, the Egyptian Theatre in Coos Bay, the Eltrym Historic Theater in Baker City, the Granada Theatre in La Grande and the Pix Theatre in Albany.
Sightseeing: Hit the Oregon Film Trail
For more than a century, cinematographers have selected Oregon landscapes as starring backdrops to their stories. In fact, the state’s wildly diverse scenery makes appearances in 450-plus feature and television projects of all mediums and genres. Fervent fans of some of the most iconic feature films seek out the filming locations of their favorite scenes — such as Oregon Coast road-trippers who revisit “The Goonies,” a 1985 adventure-comedy produced by Steven Spielberg. It celebrates its 35th anniversary in 2020 at the annual Goonies Day (June 7) in the screen-famous city of Astoria, which has more than a dozen filming locations you can visit, as well as a small film museum, which just so happens to be the infamous “Goonies” jail.
And finding the locations of your favorite films is easier than ever, especially so with the ever-expanding Historic Oregon Film Trail. This statewide network of signage pinpoints scenes you might remember from Oregon-made films such as “Free Willy,” “Sometimes a Great Notion,” “Kindergarten Cop” and more. The signs, of course, are merely a jumping-off point into each region’s storied cinematic history. In the case of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” an Academy Award-winning legend based on a novel by Ken Kesey, a trip to Salem to explore the primary setting inspires a deeper investigation of the one-of-a-kind OSH Museum of Mental Health. Similarly, the coming-of-age classic “Stand by Me” has inspired fans from the world over to explore the handsome town of Brownsville, which has celebrated the movie’s legacy with the community-wide “Stand by Me” Day every July since 2007.
Events: There’s a Film Fest for That
Aside from the sold-out screenings at the Portland International Film Festival (March 6-15, 2020), which nearly 40,000 people attend each year, you probably haven’t heard of the majority of Oregon’s film events. Not one of them reaches the international exposure of Cannes or Sundance — and that’s precisely what makes these ultra-niche and community-centric festival experiences so much fun.
If you’ve got an obscure cinematic passion, don’t be surprised if Portland has a festival to match. Let’s say you’re intrigued by the relationship between LGBTQ+ subcultures and, well, the genre of horror. You should check out Queer Horror, a bimonthly film series at the Hollywood Theatre. Want to dive into the relationship between music and cinema? The Reel Music Festival (Jan. 24-Feb. 16, 2020) delivers more than puns. Maybe you want to immerse yourself in the world of films about bicycling? The Filmed by Bike festival (May 15-17, 2020), a grassroots event celebrating its 18th season, ticks that box. Or maybe you prefer your two wheels with a little more speed? Enter the PDX Motorcycle Film Festival (Jan. 24-25, 2020), vroom vroom! You can even watch the entire film retrospective of Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli on the big screen at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry each January.
Several of Oregon’s small and midsize cities roll out the red carpet for Pacific Northwest auteurs and transform their walkable downtowns into multiday celebrations of small-scale, often-challenging work. Ranked by MovieMaker Magazine as one of the top festivals worth the entry fee, the Ashland Independent Film Festival (April 16-20, 2020) draws more than 7,000 attendees to the small Southern Oregon city for screenings of more than 100 films. The sporty town of Bend trades time on the trails and slopes for one long weekend in October for BendFilm, one segment of Tenth Month’s culture- and design-focused events. And the Eastern Oregon Film Festival, also in October, puts the remote town of La Grande on the national fest circuit.