Ethan van Thillo wishes he had the funding to build a big neon sign to direct people to the new, still-unfamiliar downtown location of the Digital Gym Cinema.
Executive director and founder of the nonprofit Media Arts Center San Diego, van Thillo is obviously pleased his base of operation has moved to much spiffier digs.
Devotees of the Digital Gym Cinema will recall its former location on El Cajon Boulevard in North Park. The site was formerly an auto parts store, frequently tagged by graffiti artists and dotted with broken windows.
More than 12,000 film buffs found the theater in years past to watch independent and foreign films that get little or no marketing budget, van Thillo says.
Heard of Jack Absolute Flies Again? La Terra Dei Figli (The Land of the Sons)? Both screened in October 2022 at Digital Gym Cinema after the theater moved into the high-tech, glass-and-steel UC San Diego Park & Market building in East Village.
“I know everyone doesn’t like independent foreign films,” van Thillo says. “But they might like the cult classics we show, like Freda. Or, horror films.”
Located at the corner of Park Boulevard and Market Street, UCSD’s four-story, 66,750-square-foot “community hub” is in the fledgling stages of filling its well-appointed halls, offices and classrooms with programmatic offerings.
The San Diego Workforce Partnership has offices here. A building spokesperson confirms The San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation is moving in.
At the moment, van Thillo represents one of few entities up, running and waving welcoming hands to a curious public.
Ethan van Thillo poses with the usual snack suspects at Digital Gym Cinema’s concession stand.
Having UC San Diego’s presence is a boon to the downtown area. It’s also a plus to have the Media Arts Center inside the building.
The San Diego Sun plans to delve deeper into the prospective economic, cultural, and cross-border benefits of having UC San Diego Park & Market in the neighborhood.
For now, it’s cool to have a university’s new community hub equipped with an open-to-the-public indie film theater.
The 58-seat Digital Gym Cinema is showing movies seven days a week. Tickets are $10-$12. Hours are generally noon to 10 p.m. Check listings at digitalgym.org.
There’s a fully-stocked concession stand onsite selling candy, hot dogs, beer and wine.
Underground parking spots are available at Park & Market. Movie-goers can get 3 hours of parking for $5. There’s also a trolley stop right next door.
Van Thillo wants to get people off their home couches and away from Netflix and Hulu.
“There are probably 300 similar cinemas like us around the United States,” he says. “We’re way more independent than Landmark Theaters. It’s a challenge to get people back to experiencing the joy of seeing movies on the big screen, with other people and in surround sound.”
But van Thillo emphatically believes it’s worth it.
The UCSD Park & Market Building at 1100 Market Street.
He thinks it’ll take some time for his old clientele and legacy downtowners to be won over by the theater’s new location.
“In general, people walk past this very nice building and don’t know what’s in here,” van Thillo says. “We’re within a larger institution. You see UCSD signs but you don’t necessarily know there is a movie theater inside. It’s kind of the story of our life.”
If Digital Gym Cinema was the subject of a bio-pic, the opening scene would be set 30 years ago. That’s when van Thillo graduated from UC Santa Cruz, migrated to San Diego and founded the San Diego Latino Film Festival.
For a decade, he partnered with various local institutions. In 1999, van Thillo founded Media Arts Center San Diego, and that nonprofit began running the Latino Film Festival.
The MACSD home office moved around until the North Park auto parts store space became available.
FYI: Digital Gym Cinema has nothing to do with barbells or cardio workouts. The name is more about flexing technology muscles.
Until recently, the pandemic kept folks from going out to watch any movies. As COVID was receding, Van Thillo found himself looking down the barrel of a hefty rent increase. Fortuitously, that North Park lease ended at the same time UCSD came courting.
Ethan van Thillo near the entrance to the new, downtown Digital Gym Cinema.
“UCSD approached us in part because of our relationship with the community,” van Thillo says. “They knew our education programs. We go into affordable housing complexes in Logan Heights and do work with foster care youth in San Pasqual Academy.”
Getting technology into the hands of youth that don’t have the opportunity is part of the Media Arts Center’s mission.
Educational initiatives include the Teen Producers Project (ages 13-18) and Youth Media and Tech Camps (ages 6-12).
Media Arts Center San Diego partners with schools and can bring collaborative programs into classrooms.
The Digital Gym Cinema is also available for teachers to do film-screening field trips.
Because the only thing better than a school field trip is any field trip to the movies with a bucket of popcorn. SDSun