Game of Thrones author and longtime Santa Fe resident George R. R. Martin breathes new life into a treasured local cinema.
In late December 1979, 24-year-old writer and English instructor George R. R. Martin navigated his dusty car across the New Mexico state line near Tucumcari, after a long road trip from Iowa. He landed in Santa Fe, and 35 years later, he’s still here. Only now he isn’t a teacher, but the international best-selling author of A Song of Ice and Fire, a fantasy series that has morphed into a cultural phenomenon fueled by the hit HBO drama Game of Thrones.
The state’s capital tends to draw creative people from all walks of life, either for its thriving arts community, easy year-round access to the great outdoors, or a laid-back attitude that pervades every nook of the local scenes. Martin, however, chose Santa Fe for a more pragmatic reason: to escape the horrible winters in America’s heartland. When Martin was teaching at Clarke College (now Clarke University) in Dubuque, Iowa, he was selling short stories and celebrating the 1977 publication of his first novel, Dying of the Light. “I liked teaching,” Martin says, “but it didn’t leave as much time for writing as I thought it would. I finally said to myself, ‘Look, you’ve got to take the plunge.’ I didn’t want to be a 60-yearold man looking back on my life, thinking I could have been a writer and produced so much more work than I had. If I failed as a writer, I could always go back to teaching. Besides, the snow melts faster in Santa Fe, and I hate shoveling snow.”
In April of last year, Martin made another big move that would further anchor him to Santa Fe. He purchased the Jean Cocteau Cinema. Once a unique cultural touchstone and social hub in the city, the prized movie house had gone dark nearly a decade earlier, and had not served as a proper community movie house. Martin wanted to revitalize it. Located in Santa Fe’s historic Guadalupe district, one of the city’s oldest Spanish Colonial neighborhoods, the Jean Cocteau is tucked inside a structure built in 1910.
“It was once a huge fruit-and-vegetable emporium,” Martin says. “Since it was right at the end of the tracks in the Railyard, trains could unload their produce right next to the building.” It also served as a brewery and a Dr. Pepper bottling plant.
In 1976, the building’s first movie theater launched under the name Collective Fantasy. “It was opened by four hippies,” Martin says. “They ran the place until around 1983, and then it was sold to Collective Fantasy programmer Brent Kliewer, who renamed the venue the Jean Cocteau in honor of the French filmmaker and artist.” (Kliewer founded The Screen cinematheque on the campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in 1999, and continues to curate films there.)
The allure of the Jean Cocteau in its early days had a lot to do with timing. Large cinemas and cineplexes were overtaking the moviegoing landscape throughout the Southwest, threatening drive-in theaters and small movie-house operations. By the early 1980s, art-house, foreign, and fringe cinema were as important to Santa Fe’s enduring, sometimes anti-establishment, creative scene as Easy Rider was to early-seventies counterculture. Small theaters cultivated a special sense of community. As novelist-filmmaker Stephen Chbosky recently observed, today’s cinemas provide “living proof” that no one is alone.
You can always spot, as he suggests, the people who are laughing at the same thing you are, or enjoying the song that you also love. This potential for connection was even truer
of Santa Fe movie houses like the Jean Cocteau.
Martin, who frequented the Jean Cocteau many times between 1984 and 2006, says that purchasing the theater (or any movie theater, for that matter) was never really on his bucket list. But he felt such an attachment to the location that he couldn’t let go of the hope that someone would breathe new life into it. “I walked by the Jean Cocteau all the time because my house was only 10 minutes from there,” he says. “It was a sweet little movie theater that became a gathering place not just for film buffs, but for everybody in town.”
In early 2013, Martin exited the back door of the Whole Hog Café, his favorite local barbecue joint, on Guadalupe Street. His eyes fell across the way, toward Montezuma Avenue and the Jean Cocteau. Martin asked himself again why such a treasure remained abandoned. “But then, standing there, I thought, ‘Wait. Why don’t I just reopen it?’ I called up my realtor, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Martin’s initial thought after the purchase of the Jean Cocteau was to simply bring back the movie theater to its former glory, both aesthetically and functionally. Known for its diverse film programming and legendary Parmesan cheese–dusted popcorn, the 127-seat theater screened everything from classics and art-house titles to Woody Allen movies.
“I did figure, with me owning it, that we would show more science fiction and fantasy, because that’s what I’m known for,” Martin says.
But there was one major piece that needed to fall into place before any of that could happen. “I didn’t know a thing about the distribution or exhibition end of the movie business,” Martin says. “I was always on the creative end—screenplays, production, that sort of thing. I needed an ally with different experience.”
Martin called on an old friend, founder of the Santa Fe Film Festival and longtime film critic Jon Bowman. A veteran of film programming who took his first job at the now-closed Silver Dollar Twin Drive-In movie theater in Albuquerque, Bowman’s knowledge and experience dovetailed perfectly with Martin’s vision. Bowman, who worked as an associate editor and associate publisher for New Mexico Magazine for 26 years, first met Martin in Santa Fe in the early eighties through a mutual friend, and the two kept in touch.
“I called up Jon,” Martin recalls, “and I asked, ‘Am I insane? Should I dare do this?’ When I knew he was on board, he was my first hire. He serves as the theater’s manager and film programmer. Our eclecticism in film offerings is something I’m very committed to, and Jon knows what he’s doing.”
Martin wanted to feature the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet and Jean Cocteau’s 1950 art-house masterwork, Orpheus, at the grand reopening. These films eventually hit the screen on opening night last August, but before they did, the theater went through a major overhaul. Counters and floors in the lobby were reconfigured and redesigned with art-deco panache. Restrooms were upgraded. A new digital projector was installed, as was a new projection screen. The film projectors were saved for future screenings of special 35 mm prints.
And then there was the basement.
“The first thing that happened in the building after I got in it was the shooting of a short vampire film down in that basement,” Martin says. “There were also these large cement vats down there, and I wanted them jackhammered open to see what was inside. No one had been in there for decades. During the renovations, while I was in Australia, my contractor e-mailed me a picture of a human skeleton with the message, ‘This is what we found down in the basement.’ A joke, of course, but a well-placed one.”
By the time the Jean Cocteau shuttered in 2006 while under the ownership of the Trans-Lux Corporation, most of the tenants in the building that housed it had vacated. Martin could have leased the space, but it made more sense to him to buy the building and fill it with tenants. The Jean Cocteau was a neighborhood spot, and the more local businesses that surrounded it, the better for everyone involved, he thought. He was right. The building is now almost 100 percent occupied with retailers, as well as the Wild Hare Salon.
The real gamble would be figuring out how to succeed as a movie theater in a smallish city already flush with screens. Unlike a plot point in an episode of Game of Thrones, one could not simply behead the competition and move on. Instead, Martin and his team had to transform the Jean Cocteau into what it is today, a small events center that celebrates film, pop culture, and the visual arts with offerings that appeal to locals and visitors of all ages.
The film roster is varied and includes everything from classics, such as the obligatory 1975 cult musical comedy The Rocky Horror Picture Show, to free screenings of the Game of Thrones series—a local phenomenon featuring appearances by cast members and costumed audience members (attendees line up for hours, and sometimes days, for tickets). In March, Back to the Future and Back to the Future II were on the bill. To promote the flicks, Martin had sci-fi author Ernie Cline park his 1980s DeLorean sports car in front of the theater, and then invited patrons to have their pictures taken with it.
Besides film, the Jean Cocteau also celebrates one of Martin’s biggest passions—books. Internationally renowned sci-fi/fantasy authors such as Joe R. Lansdale, Neil Gaiman, and Megan Lindholm regularly appear at the theater for readings, signings, and panel discussions.
“The author events seemed natural to me,” Martin says. “They’ve been some of our most popular events. The space is an exclusive bookstore, too. We only sell books signed by the authors, all of whom, including myself, have appeared here.” Rows of signed works, as well as quirky Game of Thrones merchandise, line one wall of the theater lobby. Diehard fans and collectors: Your chariot awaits.
Art exhibits, curated by photographer/art director Sam Haozous, open monthly with receptions in the lounge area, which features a full-service bar offering signature creations honoring characters from Martin’s stories. Local and touring musicians and comedians perform between evening screenings in the lounge and theater, both intimate settings that encourage engagement with the audience. (On June 2, author and comedian John Hodgman takes the stage.)
When asked why someone of his stature and fame would gamble on a closed cinema house in a town that boasts more movie screens per capita than most large cities do, Martin replied that he was simply a fan of films, and of the movie theater and its history. If not him, who? The Jean Cocteau is an expression of Martin’s creative passions that exist beyond the act of drafting a novel. Authoring books, though, is still his first love.
“My part in Game of Thrones is relatively small,” Martin says. “I write one script a year and don’t really visit the set. I’m a writer of stories and books; that’s still my main focus.” Martin says about the next A Song of Ice and Fire book—which ardent fans have been waiting for not so patiently—“It will be done when it’s done, I promise.”
In the meantime, he’ll see you at the movies. ✜
Senior editor Rob DeWalt is a 30-year patron of the Jean Cocteau Cinema.