In 1961, David Starr got a job as an usher at Silver Spring’s Silver Theater, and soon became the coolest guy at Wheaton High School. The Silver was the ultimate date destination for Montgomery County teens in an era of big-budget flicks and bow-tied ushers.
“The first movie playing after I was hired was North to Alaska,” says Starr, now a retired postal worker. “After a week, I could recite almost every line in that movie.” But he never got tired of the job, not even when the theater manager made him climb on the marquis in the middle of January to shovel off snow.
When the theater, rundown and no longer producing much revenue, closed in 1985, the community mourned the loss of a cultural landmark. But in 2003, after a lengthy renovation, the Silver reopened as the new home to the American Film Institute, and is now transforming Silver Spring into a hotspot for independent filmmakers.
The red carpet leading to this development was a long one. The American Film Institute (AFI) originated in 1967, the first program initiated by the National Endowment for the Arts. A West Coast office was formed to encourage participation from Hollywood elite (Gregory Peck served as the first chair), but President Lyndon Johnson requested that a branch remain open in Washington, DC. For 36 years, the AFI had a small theater in the Kennedy Center.
Then, in the late 1990s, economically downtrodden Silver Spring proposed a jaw-dropping deal: The AFI could lease the Silver Theater for $10 a year and the county would pay for its renovation. A few months after the AFI signed on, the Discovery Channel, which comprises 33 reality networks, including Animal Planet and the Travel Channel, decided to abandon its offices in Bethesda and relocate to an office building across the street from the AFI’s new digs.
“After that happened, the LA Times started referring to the area as Docuwood,” Ray Barry, deputy director of the Silver Theater, says delightedly.
Naturally, AFI and Discovery wanted to make sure the nickname stuck. In 2004, they decided to pair together and develop Silverdocs, a July film festival dedicated to showcasing new nonfiction films. In the three years since its inception, Silverdocs has become the premier festival for documentaries, drawing stars from Richard Dreyfus to Martin Scorcese. Al Gore introduced his Academy Award-winning An Inconvenient Truth at the 2006 festival. Other noteworthy festival debuts have included Oscar-winning Born into Brothels and Oscar-nominated films Jesus Camp, Murderball, and My Architect.
“I’m so proud of Silver Spring,” says Rachel Grady, who directed and produced Jesus Camp with her business partner, Heidi Ewing. Grady grew up in Takoma Park but left for New York in her teens because she didn’t think it would be possible to have the filmmaking career she desired in Maryland.
“The joke is totally on me,” Grady says wryly. “I moved to Manhattan because I thought that’s where you needed to be to make documentaries. And now every time I make a movie, I have to come trotting back home to see how it’s received at Silverdocs.” Grady and Ewing also premiered their first feature film, Boys of Baraka (set in Baltimore), at the festival, and hope to have another entry ready for 2008.
All of which is good news to Barry. “There are thousands of movie theaters in the country, but at any given time, the majority are playing the same 10 movies.” Here, “We honor the other 99 percent of the films out there, and expose people to new directors and new art.”
In addition to Silverdocs, the AFI also holds an annual Latin American film festival in September, a festival featuring movies from the European Union in November, and a star-studded Oscars bash in February. And for budding Rachel Gradys, the AFI has paired with Montgomery College to offer film students week-long seminars in February, May, and July, which allow wannabe filmmakers to study screenwriting, cinematography, and film editing with industry professionals.