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Upstate Films Builds a Legacy of Trailblazing Cinema in the Hudson Valley

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Photos courtesy of Jason Silverman unless otherwise noted

From its founding in 1972 to its brand-new traveling picture show under the stars, Rhinebeck’s Upstate Films connects audiences with bold art.

Movie fans have it great in the Hudson Valley. Nearly a dozen atmospheric indie venues screen cult classics and Oscar nominees alike, from Beacon to Albany. The Woodstock Film Festival celebrates new releases large and small every year at a myriad of venues. Major companies like HBO and A24 have moved productions to shoot along the Hudson River. However, the region was not always the moving picture mecca that it is today.

When Upstate Films opened its doors to audiences in 1972, it laid the foundation for generations to come. A settlement along the frontier of an artistic revolution in the Valley, this non-profit cinema connected locals to flicks that never played north of New York City. 

Upstate Films Exterior

The viewing experience at Upstate Films—marked by personal introductions before screenings, vintage décor, and sprawling artifacts of movie history—is nothing short of special. It’s been the go-to spot for foreign language films, arthouse indies, and investigative documentaries since it opened. Members adore annual traditions like Oscar-viewing parties or horror flicks in October (think The Exorcist or The Shining). After nearly half a century, this Rhinebeck landmark continues to reimagine what it means to see movies “at the theater.”

In January 2021, co-founders DeDe and Steve Leiber stepped down from their long tenures at the organization. They passed the torch onto two forces of film preservation, cultural exploration, and community engagement, Paul Sturtz and Jason Silverman.

“We are thrilled to bring Paul and Jason onboard,” Susan Goldman, chair of Upstate Films and a third co-founder of the organization, says. “Their experience in the field of independent cinema is extraordinary. More importantly, their work in building community through the arts resonates deeply with Upstate Films’ history and mission.”

Upstate Films Passing of the torch

Founders “handing off the keys.” From left to right: DeDe Lieber, Jason Silverman, Steve Lieber, and Susan Goldman

The nonprofit’s new co-directors relaunched screenings in mid-June 2021, after a suspended hiatus during the pandemic.

“There’s a lot of need in our society to reconnect and to heal. Artists and storytellers have an important role to play in helping us understand who we are again after this really devastating crisis,” Silverman says. “Our role is to amplify those stories.”

To commemorate the triumphant return of movies to the Hudson Valley and kickstart community gatherings, Sturtz and Silverman are taking Upstate Films on the road.

Opus 40

Opus 40 in Saugerties, one of the many venues for The Hudson Valley Picture Show. Photo by Sabrina Sucato

The Hudson Valley Picture Show: Traveling Cinema

The Hudson Valley Picture Show treats moviegoers with iconic films under dazzling summer stars. However, this is no ordinary drive-in movie theater. Sturtz and Silverman joined forces with Del’s Roadside, a Rhinebeck sweets staple since 1960. Can the winning combination of open-air movies and ice cream cure the wounds of a year’s worth of isolation? It sounds like the perfect start to us.

In the spirit of reconnecting the larger community of Valley denizens, the Picture Show travels along the Hudson to host events at the region’s most unique destinations and art centers. Catch the always delightful Little Miss Sunshine at Cow Flop in Saugerties or jam out to David Byrne’s filmed Broadway musical American Utopia at local dance utopia Kaatsbaan in Tivoli. The recently restored Bearsville Center, Maverick Concert Hall, Art Omi, and The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome are all stops on the rolling festival’s odyssey. 

 

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These showings wouldn’t have the distinctive Upstate Films flair without introducing some special guests. Guests of the series’ first installment on July 10 will view pioneering horror flick An American Werewolf in London with its star, Griffin Dunne, at Opus 40—an even 40 years since its release. Locals can also gain insights into the puzzling Blade Runner with its co-writer Hampton Fancher or screen the subversive rom-dram Maggie’s Plan with Rebecca Miller, its director. 

Plus, each movie gets its own opening act. Musicians, dancers, and other live performers take the stage before each screening. Mac and Cheez set the tone for Wes Anderson’s quirky Fantastic Mr. Fox with traditional Balkan folk music, while Hudson Valley alt-rockers Zac and Miles precede the new Billie Eilish documentary. Grab a delectable cone from Del’s and settle in for an unforgettable movie experience. Every ticket sale supports local charities Red Hook Responds and Rhinebeck Responds.

For a full schedule of screenings and special guests, visit Upstate Films’ website. The series will run on Saturdays and some Thursdays from July 10 through October 16. Tickets can be purchased online, with the option to bring blankets or lawn chairs for viewings.

Paul and Jason Upstate Films

Upstate Films’ new co-directors Paul Sturtz (left) and Jason Silverman (right)

The New Faces of Upstate Films

“We are continuing the kinds of things that they’ve already been doing, whether it’s educational partnerships with high schools where we could be making a positive impact in teenagers’ lives. Exposing them to lots of inspiring stories, helping them become more sophisticated in terms of media literacy, and being more connected to their communities are all priorities,” Sturtz says. “I think there’s sort of an uphill battle in modern society of bringing people into the civics sphere, to make them feel like their voices are needed and that their input is necessary.”

To say that Upstate Films’ co-directors had a passion for bringing art to new audiences would be a massive understatement. Sturtz co-founded the Ragtag Film Society and its acclaimed documentary-centered True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri., in the late ’90s. The year 2004 marked the festival’s inaugural year, and Silverman, the director and curator of several festivals (including New Mexico’s Taos Talking Picture Festival), joined the advisory team. Over the course of 17 years, the pair worked together as friends, and found each other applying for the same job—director of Upstate Films.

Upstate Films Exterior

“I don’t know if this would be like a romantic comedy scenario where two people apply for the same job and then fall in love with each other,” Sturtz jokes. “But we both applied for the same job and happened upon that fact during the festival and just said let’s throw in our lots together and apply as a team. We feel really, really lucky to be here.”

Sturtz’s motivation has always been accentuating the strengths of the community around him. With Ragtag, that community was Columbia. With Upstate Films, he and Silverman seek to highlight the artistic bounty of the Hudson Valley and empower emerging voices and filmmakers. His documentary Dear Valued Guests, a love letter to the decay of a once-beautiful motel in Columbia, demonstrates his rich appreciation for cultural landmarks and historic venues.

 

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Silverman’s 2015 documentary SEMBÈNE! made New York Magazine‘s “Top 10 Films” list and premiered at Sundance and Cannes. His obsession with indigenous cultures and under-viewed cinema has led him from the pueblos of Santa Fe to the African continent. SEMBÈNE! examines and preserves the work of Ousmane Sembène, one of Senegal’s most important and influential filmmakers.

Silverman went on to work on an outreach program, Sembène Across Africa, that connected millions of viewers with nearly lost jewels of West African cinema.

“People are really hungry to hear stories that relate to their lives. There’s an endless curiosity and, you know, people in Senegal don’t often see African cinema, they don’t see themselves on screen or on TV. The response to Sembène’s films was inspiring. These were movies by Africans for Africans about Africans,” Silverman says. He notes that ultimately all filmgoers are seeking a connection to their own lives represented on screen. Action heroes like The Rock or superheroes like Iron Man and Spider-Man bring joy, fun, and escape to the viewer, but rarely contribute to solving societal problems.

Upstate Films Audience

An audience at Upstate Films pre-pandemic

For Sturtz and Silverman, independent cinema and documentary filmmaking are integral to remedying societal ills and understanding one another. Their programming at Upstate Films, as an extension of the work DeDe and Steve Lieber started, will reveal deep truths.

“Films that bring us closer to our own realities can ultimately inspire new ways of critical thinking and motivate collective action,” Silverman says.

Founders of Upstate Films

Founders of Upstate Films Steve Lieber, Susan Goldman, and DeDe Lieber (from left to right)

Bringing Independent Cinema to the Hudson Valley 

Right before the ’70s became one of the most acclaimed decades for movies in cinema history, DeDe and Steve Lieber came up to the Hudson Valley with a mission. 

I don’t want to self-aggrandize that we had some brilliant plan. But the truth is we were young people and we came up to Dutchess County from living in New York City for a bunch of years,” Steve Lieber says. “The most basic form of our idea was ‘Hey, there’s a big world out there folks, and here’s a way to experience some of it. You won’t have to travel far but you will have to have an open mind.”

Steve introduces a film

Steve Lieber introduces a film

The duo, along with Susan Goldman, who worked in media at the time, founded the non-profit and penned a mission statement in 1971. They were adamant about establishing a full-fledged theater, not a projector and some folding chairs in a barn somewhere. It was far too expensive to build one, and very few in the state were “dark.”

Luckily, they stumbled upon the Starr Theatre in a town called Rhinebeck. Built in 1927, this empty space provided the perfect opportunity. When they screened their first film, Duck Soup by The Marx Brothers, they charged $1.50 per ticket. Dairy cows still regularly crossed Route 9, and The Beekman Arms was the only restaurant open for dinner. The Dutchess County Fairgrounds were a draw, but other than that, their Rhinebeck barely resembled the modern-day haven for eclectic eateries, top-notch shopping destinations, and locally produced art.

DeDe

Potluck at one of Upstate Films’ Oscar viewing parties

At first, they called their little operation “secret cinema” because no one was coming. The Upstate Films team was not interested in showing popular “mainstream” films of the day. Kitschy releases littered theaters in the late ’60s and early ’70s (think the original Dr. Doolittle). In their first year, they began to carve out a niche audience north of Manhattan. Their first packed theater was for a documentary on a Canadian journalist, and they started showing foreign language films regularly. At the time, they couldn’t have known that they were curating films on the coattails of the American new wave. The latter half of the decade launched Upstate Films into regional prominence.

“Now there’s a ton of great places, [like] Story Screen in Beacon, Rosendale, Downing in Newburgh, and so many others. In terms of longevity, they’re like our little siblings. There’s a lot of mutual respect and homage, [as new independent theaters have popped up] it doesn’t feel like competition,” DeDe Lieber says.

Steve at front

They put blood, sweat, and tears into the charming theater. A do-it-yourself attitude fueled their work as they fixed chairs, worked on projectors, painted walls, and built something the community could enjoy. In 1999, their single-screen operation got an upgrade; they added a small second-screen to show an even greater diversity of films and survive multiplex competition. Over the decades they embraced new technologies, moving from 16mm to 35mm projection and converting to digital in 2013. Upstate Films lived through the switch from mono to stereo sound and has endured turbulent changes in the film industry. All around them, Rhinebeck and Dutchess County blossomed into places people traveled to see. 

Oscar watch parties, mini “Lebowski fests” (complete with White Russians), and countless screenings later, Upstate Films is a beloved beacon of the Hudson Valley arts community.

Prominent Guests

Some of Upstate Films’ most notable guests over the years

Highlights from Half a Century

Directors, actors, and even politicians have made lasting impressions at Upstate Films over the years. DeDe and Steve Lieber recount the top 10 most unforgettable moments in the non-profit’s history.

1. A live staging of My Dinner With Andre

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory performed My Dinner With Andre as a play, before it became a renowned ’80s film. Shawn was a friend to Upstate Films in its early days. He and renowned theater director Gregory had a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant for the play, and had to perform it in public. The pair read the entire show twice at the front of Upstate’s theater. Incredibly, one audience member became one of the largest financial investors in the production of the movie; not only did the Rhinebeck venue help Shawn and Gregory perfect their material, it also helped connect them with financing.

2. Political discourse with Ralph Nader

Presidential candidate and long-time third party activist Ralph Nader spoke at the theater to a politically charged audience. “He was a terrific speaker. By the end of it, even those annoyed by his presence had been won over,” Steve Lieber says.

3. Philadelphia with Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme’s third visit to Upstate Films was particularly memorable. The Silence of the Lambs director returned in 1993 to screen the moving Tom Hanks-led Philadelphia. Demme took questions alongside screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who used to live in Rhinebeck. From the mid ’70s until his passing, Demme supported the non-profit. They screened his Talking Heads documentary/concert film Stop Making Sense a few months after his death to honor an illustrious career. Lisa Day, his editor on Stop Making Sense, also frequented the theater. 

4. The final showing of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

Upstate Films was one of the very few theaters to screen the mega-controversial Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story; in fact, it was the short biopic’s last showing before it was pulled from screens. Director Todd Haynes, who presented the film in Rhinebeck, faced virulent criticism from Richard Carpenter over the family’s depiction. A lawsuit over music licensing for The Carpenters’ songs used in the movie blocked its theatrical release. The 1990 film has been completely withdrawn from circulation, aside from a few illegal bootlegs.

5. Ethan Hawke’s heartwarming Q+A

Ethan Hawke came to Upstate Films to promote a Shakespeare Festival role of his. “A little kid in the first row asked a question. He did not talk down to this child at all. Ethan Hawke answered his question fully and without any kind of judgement. His response was generous and kind, I was just so impressed by that,” DeDe Lieber says. “He was personable, we actually had to say ‘Okay, Ethan, it’s 11 o’clock, you probably should go home now’.”

6. A live stream with Edward Snowden

The Rhinebeck theater, through a connection with Bard College, showed a live interview with Edward Snowden in Moscow at the height of his notoriety. “That was simply incredible,” Steve Lieber says.

7. The feast from Big Night with Gianni Scappin

A screening of the Italian-American classic Big Night resulted in a massive feast. Gianni Scappin, the legendary chef behind Cucina in Woodstock and Market Street Restaurant in Rhinebeck, has an extra-special connection to that film. During his tenure in Manhattan, Scappin taught actor Stanley Tucci how to cook in a restaurant setting, wield knives, and look the part of a professional chef. The star, co-director, and co-writer of Big Night, Tucci outright hired Scappin to create all of the delicious food on screen. Yes, that includes the mythical timpano, a large pasta-and-meatball-pie of sorts. Years later, Scappin recreated the same meal for filmgoers, about 90 people as the Liebers remember it. That certainly beats popcorn and Raisinets.

8. Leave No Trace with Debra Granik

Director Debra Granik showed Leave No Trace in 2018. The breakout role of Thomasin McKenzie was of particular interest to DeDe Lieber. “Granik came from the world of documentary films, and that’s made her very astute with casting. She discovered Vera Farmiga [in Down to the Bone] and Jennifer Lawrence [in Winter’s Bone]. Hearing her speak was amazing,” DeDe Lieber says.

9. Several screenings with John Patrick Shanley, Ismail Merchant, and James Ivory

After director John Patrick Shanley screened Five Corners in the late ’80s, the Liebers were introduced to Indian filmmaker Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, who directed Room With a View and wrote Call Me By Your Name. Each director showed their films multiple times at the Rhinebeck theater. “Merchant was a terrific guest speaker,” DeDe Lieber says. “Nowadays it’s very common for directors to do interview shows, but before that era directors were not as polished at responding to audience questions. Ivory was new to the game. Ismail on the other hand was loquacious. He’d just chat and chat and chat.”

10. A night with Joseph Mankiewicz and Pauline Kael

Film critic for The New Yorker Pauline Kael and old Hollywood legend Joseph Mankiewicz came really early in Upstate’s history. Mankiewicz’s most notable directorial effort was the classic All About Eve; plus, he’s Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz’s brother. “It was an incredible honor and a huge boost for us early on. It really helped people take Upstate Films seriously,” DeDe Lieber says.

Related: 10 Independent Movie Theaters to Catch a Flick in the Hudson Valley

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