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Digital Gym Cinema reopens to host in-person Sundance films

Sirens – Still 1
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Rita Baghdadi
Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi appear in "Sirens," directed by Rita Baghdadi, an official selection of the World Cinema: Documentary Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Digital Gym Cinema has been closed for 20 months. But starting Friday, the facility will be hosting a preview weekend at its new location in East Village, and will be serving as a Sundance Film Festival Satellite Screen.

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Beth Accomando
Digital Gym Cinema reopens in the UC San Diego Extension building at Market and Park. Jan. 25, 2022.

Running a micro-cinema is tough and it is made even tougher when the business loses the lease to the venue in the midst of a pandemic. Digital Gym Cinema has not only survived but come back new and improved.

Digital Gym Cinema reopens

"It's a totally new vibe and energy," said exhibition manager Moises Esparza. "We're in the East Village now, really close to the Trolley Station. Same type of content, but just a different setting."

That different setting includes a new projector, better sound, a full-fledged concession stand, and more bathrooms. Regulars from the old El Cajon Blvd. venue may rejoice in no longer having to enter at the front of the screen and pull the door closed behind them from the improvised handle near the floor.

"I'm just really excited to share the space and it's been truly astounding to see the progress that we've made in just a matter of months," Esparza said, sitting in the cinema seats. "Last time you were here we had to wear hard hats and there were no seats, no screen, nothing. But I think we're ready to screen movies now."

Previewing The New Digital Gym

The cinema is ready but not the entire building. The Digital Gym is located inside UC San Diego’s new four-story extension facility at Park and Market, and much of it is still under construction.

"The first level has a grand staircase that's still being worked on. There's kind of a theater space downstairs. It's still under construction," Esparza added.

That’s why this weekend is being billed as just a preview of what’s to come. Construction and completion of the cinema has been slowed by various supply chain issues. Even the new projector was delayed and only arrived last week.

"This pandemic has taught us that maybe patience is the most important thing of all," Esparza said. "And at some point you just stop obsessing over these little details and just focus on coming up with plan B and plan C and plan D."

The exit sign is still too bright and the seats you sit in this weekend may be changed before the official opening in a couple months. But this weekend, Esparza is excited that the cinema is ready to assume the role of a Sundance Film Festival Satellite screen.

"We're part of only a small handful of independent cinemas throughout the United States that were selected by Sundance to host these in-person screenings outside of Park City," Esparza explained. "But Sundance Film Festival is fully virtual now, so the satellite screens are the only in-person screenings for Sundance."

The big day for Digital Gym Cinema this weekend will be Saturday.

"We're going to do a small reception outside. We'll have a photo booth, red carpet, and step and repeat," Esparza stated. "The filmmakers love screening their films in front of audiences, and they want that response, that in person response."

Esparza also loves that communal experience of sharing films in person. He’s looking forward to taking a break from virtual events Digital Gym Cinema has been forced to do during its closure, and instead working on staging live post film discussions with filmmakers.

Saturday at 5:00 p.m., there will be a screening of "Sirens," a documentary about the first all-female metal band from the Middle East. Director Rita Baghdadi and band members Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi will be on hand to introduce their film and speak with the audience.

Ticket sales have been good but there are still tickets available more most of the films including Esparza's favorite, "Marte Um (Mars One)." The Brazilian film looks to a lower middle class family and the young son who dreams of being an astrophysicist.

Marte Um (Mars One) - Still 1
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Leonardo Feliciano
Camilla Souza and Cícero Lucas appear in "Marte Um (Mars One)," directed by Gabriel Martins, an official selection of the World Cinema: Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

"The film really touched me because it takes this idea of dreams deferred and the obstacles that present themselves, but how when things don't go right, there's still a path forward," Esparza said. "And the film left me feeling really hopeful and really caring about this family."

With COVID-19 still a concern, Digital Gym will be requiring proof of vaccination and asking attendees to wear masks. But if watching films inside the cinema is not for you then there will be free short film screenings outdoors in the adjacent courtyard. Esparza hopes there will be something for everyone.

"I think it'll give even casual supporters of the Digital Gym Cinema an idea of what the type of programming and film activations that we're going to conduct here that we're going to produce here at our space on a year round basis," Esparza said.

As someone who has done volunteer film programming through Film Geeks SD at the old Digital Gym venue, I’m excited to see the rebirth of this micro cinema. And enough San Diego cinephiles share that excitement to have already sold out one screening, for the film "Emergency," this weekend.