History and Today
For a comprehensive history of Canyon Cinema, please see Scott MacDonald’s excellent book, Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor
Beginning in the late 1950s, a growing movement brought together independent film artists whose work reflected a remarkable diversity in style and content. Variously called avant-garde, underground, and experimental, these artist’s works shared a vision of filmmaking as a form of personal expression, free from the demands and constraints of commercial filmmaking conventions.
This movement gained momentum on the West Coast with the birth of Canyon Cinema in the Bay Area. Begun as a “floating cinematheque,” it has developed into one of the principal distribution sources for independent, experimental and avant-garde film today. Its collection constitutes a history of the movement from the 1940s to the present.
Canyon Cinema first emerged in filmmaker Bruce Baillie‘s Canyon, California backyard in 1961. Films were projected from the kitchen window onto an army surplus screen. Free wine and popcorn were given out to the audience who came to watch the films made by local filmmakers. Moving to other basements and backyards, from Canyon to Berkeley to San Francisco, Canyon Cinema gained energy and purpose and attracted larger audiences.
Around the same time, filmmaker Chick Strand (1931-2009) established the Canyon CinemaNews, a monthly journal through which filmmakers could share opinions, technical tips and discoveries. The journal became a vital organ of the growing movement. Arising as it did from the underground (literally, from basements, storefronts and backyard sheds), the independent film movement began to require an organizational structure that could accommodate the diverse nature of the films that had then emerged. In 1967, a group of filmmakers, among them, Bruce Conner (1933-2008), Larry Jordan, Robert Nelson, Lenny Lipton, and Ben Van Meter, founded Canyon Cinema, Inc, as a distribution company. It was established as a cooperative, owned and operated by the filmmaker members. Earl Bodien lent the use of his apartment for this operation, being paid for only the phone bill, and he, along with Edith Kramer volunteered to run the business. The first catalog listed 40 films by 25 member-filmmakers. Filmmaker members wrote their own descriptions (and still do) of their films for the Canyon Cinema Catalog.
On May 25, 2012, The Canyon Cinema Foundation was founded in the state of California as a nonprofit. On November 14, 2012, the shareholders of Canyon Cinema Inc. voted to dissolve the corporation and transfer its assets to the Canyon Cinema Foundation. On May 3, 2013, Canyon Cinema Inc. ceased operations and filed it’s dissolution with the Secretary of State of California. As of this date, Canyon Cinema is operating as a nonprofit in California and waiting for approval from the federal level, IRS.
At present, Canyon Cinema Foundation distributes the work of approximately 250 members worldwide and distributes more than 3,000 films and DVDs. The films on deposit with Canyon remain the property of the artist.
Despite operating at a loss for over 10 years, relying on donations to support operating costs, Canyon Cinema continues to support artists by sharing their work with the public and educational institutions. Canyon Cinema represents the films of many established experimental filmmakers, and also distributes many films by emerging filmmakers. These younger filmmakers continue to explore new realms of creativity, making significant contributions to further the potential of cinema as an art form. Through the distribution of these works by young as well as established filmmakers, Canyon Cinema remains a vital force in the future of independent film culture.
Acclaim and Outreach
Canyon Cinema’s cultural vitality is evidenced by the Library of Congress’s inclusion on the National Film Registry of films by our filmmaker members Kenneth Anger, Bruce Baillie, Stan Brakhage (1933-2003), Shirley Clarke (1919-1997), Bruce Conner (1933-2008), Les Blank, Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967), Pat O’Neill, Len Lye (1901-1980) and others. Indeed, Canyon Cinema has become THE print source for these and other comparably influential works which are regularly projected in international museums, cinematheques, universities, schools, and other educational institutions.
In August 2009, Stanford University Library acquired the Canyon Cinema paper archives. They will be preserved and digitized, making available to the public a valuable research trove on the history of experimental cinema.
Canyon Cinema has published eight comprehensive catalogs as well as regular supplements containing practical and descriptive information that are often used as a primary reference source for teachers, curators, students, writers and the general public. Canyon Cinema provides colleges and universities with films, programming information and materials for their research and curriculum. With the increasing importance of visual literacy in American education and the unfortunate liquidation of many public-access film libraries, the continued existence of Canyon Cinema is imperative.
In addition to Canyon’s extensive involvement in education, we are committed to public outreach through a variety of our programs.
Canyon Cinema offers a comprehensive internship program that allows college students academic credit for work in our office. We train interns in the cataloging and preservation of films, the processes of independent film distribution and history of experimental, artist-made films.
- Research and programming assistance:
Every day, the staff of Canyon Cinema provides research materials and support to curators, film festival programmers and educators. We maintain a 16mm screening room used by the educational and exhibition community to preview films. Our website is also a research and marketing tool and we hope to continue expanding it in the future, not only to serve our filmmaker members, but the worldwide film and academic communities.
- Presentations to the public:
Canyon Cinema is active in sharing its films with the public. When funding allows, we organize Canyon Cinema film programs at film festivals, alternative screening venues, educational institutions and museums. If you are interested in some of these programs, please see a selection of these programs on our website: here.
Undoubtedly, Canyon Cinema has become synonymous with Bay Area independent and experimental film. As we have actively grown over the past fifty years, Canyon has chronicled the history of this unique genre on an international level. As with any non-commercial art form, experimental, artist-made film requires an infrastructure that promotes, distributes, and exhibits works to educate the public. Canyon Cinema is one of the rare organizations that serves this purpose; we hope that the transition to nonprofit will allow us to continue to do this, with even greater scope.