Canyon Cinema paper archives acquired by Stanford University Libraries

Posted June 8th, 2010 in Announcements, News / Events

Beginning in a backyard in 1961, Canyon Cinema went on to become one of the world’s leading distributors of avant-garde independent films, coordinating a network of otherwise unpaid artists.

L.A. Cicero

Examples of the Canyon Cinema News magazine from the archives now part of the Library’s Special Collections.


Canyon Cinema was born in 1961, in the backyard of filmmaker Bruce Baillie’s Contra Costa County home. No theater with plush reclining chairs or pricey concession stands: Films by the area’s avant-garde filmmakers were projected from the kitchen window onto an army surplus screen. Wine and popcorn were free.

Audiences grew, and in the years since then Canyon has acquired a reputation for underground, experimental work by distributing films on behalf of a network of otherwise unpaid artists.

It’s going “overground” now. Stanford has acquired the business archives of Canyon Cinema, including Canyon’s Cinemanews, the main organ of the independent filmmaking community, in addition to letters, memos, posters and exhibition records.

The archives are a goldmine for film historians. Independent film producer Kristine Samuelson, a professor in the Department of Art and Art History, calls it “an amazing opportunity,” noting Stanford faculty interest in avant-garde and experimental cinema, as well as a range of courses that examine the kind of work these filmmakers have done.

In addition to the link with Stanford’s growing film program, the archives strongly reinforce Stanford’s focus on independent, alternative and documentary films and filmmakers.

The focus distinguishes it from otherwise similar collections at USC and UCLA, universities that are positioned to archive major Hollywood studios. Canyon Cinema is a distinctly San Francisco phenomenon, and is now one of the world’s leading distributors of experimental and independent film.

“We’re looking at what makes sense for us. The Bay Area was a huge center for this kind of alternative filmmaking,” said Henry Lowood, curator for film and media collections at the Stanford University Libraries.

The difference between Hollywood and these filmmakers is more than geographical. “The acting is usually not what you would expect from a Hollywood film. These are artists, rather than entertainers,” said Lowood. “They tend to be films that are conceptual,” he said. “A filmmaker like Bruce Baillie might make a film that reflects on history, or one’s relationship to a place, a comment on media or memory.”

In a statement, Edith Kramer, a past manager of Canyon Cinema, wrote: “The archives preserve not only a history of the organization itself but a history of an important film and media movement, the American avant-garde cinema from the ’40s to the present. The West Coast, in particular the Bay Area, community of film and video artists is richly documented in these materials.”

Today, the current list of Canyon filmmakers numbers about 300. The latest printed catalog (from 2000) is nearly 500 pages long and includes more than 3,700 films. The primary activity of Canyon is film rental in 16mm film, VHS and DVD formats.

Many films and videos by Canyon filmmakers are available in the Stanford collection for use in courses or for research. (Access to the complete film collection will continue to be provided by Canyon Cinema through its office in San Francisco.)

The archives, filling about 120 feet of shelf space, document the business activities of Canyon Cinema as a film distributor, film exhibitor and publisher of a journal, Cinemanews. It includes distribution catalogs, correspondence, business and exhibition records, plus other material documenting the field of independent filmmaking and exhibition.

The archival set of Cinemanews, which began as The News in 1962, is of special value. The collection has already provided the basis for one study: Scott MacDonald’s Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor (University of California Press, 2008).

The films themselves tend to be hard to categorize, or even describe. “It’s easiest to say what they’re not; they very rarely have a plot to tell a story,” said Lowood. “Somebody might take a string of sound images from various places to make a statement about consumerism, or the way we relate to a past technologies, or our mothers, or a personal relationship to someone in our life. An eight-minute film might take you through a string of artifacts.”

Not the kind of material that gets megabucks and movie mogul status for producers and directors. Hence, the years have been financially hard for Canyon’s filmmakers.

“Filmmakers like these are broke. Even ones who are giants – they’re on lists of the great independent filmmakers – but none of them make any money,” said Lowood. (Bruce Baillie’s website solicits funds for his upcoming project, and says his family gets help from a food bank to eat.)

“The good news is that the acquisition of these archives highlights Canyon’s significance for the history and future of alternative cinema,” said Lowood.