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Lives of UA Film/Television Alumni Intersect at Loft Cinema
UA alumni Mike Plante, Peggy Johnson and Jeff Yanc interact professionally at Tucson's Loft Cinema.
For three University of Arizona media arts (now called film and television) alumni, working together at Tucson's Loft Cinema seems like destiny.
Graduating in different years and beginning their careers there at different times, they have weaved in and out of each other's lives.
For Mike Plante, originally from Colorado and currently film festival director at The Loft who earned his bachelor's in media arts at the UA in 1994, the creative magnetism that Tucson holds drew him back.
"Tucson is one of those great small towns that really attracts creative people for some reason," Plante said. "You can't help but learn new things and be inspired by the friends you make there."
Now directing his second annual Film Festival at The Loft Nov. 10-17, Plante recalls his career trajectory after graduation, which led him to his current position.
As a student, Plante first worked at Casa Video, which is notorious for its eclectic and vast film rental selections. Then he took a course that gave him a job at The Screening Room in 1993, and he eventually moved to The Loft.
"Student labor paid off," Plante said. "I learned how to program films, run projectors and helped organize the Arizona Film Festival for many years."
During his projectionist days at The Loft in 1996, Plante met then loyal customers Peggy Johnson and Jeff Yanc, who are now the Loft's executive director and program director, respectively.
Wanting to help Plante, Johnson suggested he contact the Telluride Film Festival, since he wished to gain even more experience. As luck – or fate – would have it, they were hiring projectionists, and Plante got the job.
"From that gig," Plante recalls, "I got a tech job at Sundance in 2001, and I've been programming films there and for other festivals ever since. Now, it bounces back, as I help Peggy and The Loft Film Fest with finding films."
The Loft's executive director, Johnson, said she cannot remember when she didn't know Plante.
"Mike emailed us in late 2009 to say that CineVegas, which he programmed, was going on hiatus, and we immediately asked him if he would be interested in helping us launch a festival at The Loft," said Johnson. "He said yes, and a year later, we launched our first film festival."
Johnson, who earned her master's in media arts at the UA in 2003, already had been a 20-year veteran at local radio station KUAT-FM when she began as a media arts student and remembers her days in the program as a whirlwind.
As a political specialist, producer, field reporter, moderator and anchor since 1980, Johnson scaled back her hours at KUAT in order to fit in her media arts studies, but in 2000, she began doing film reviews on the NPR stations every week, translating what she learned into film criticism for a general audience.
"It was exciting to use the academic theories I was learning in creating widely accessible film reviews for a radio audience, which meant that I had the challenge of analyzing a highly visual art form with words alone," Johnson said. "It was an enormously fulfilling opportunity."
Settling on the title, "Film Critic at Large," Johnson gave herself the flexibility to review all types of film genres, overlooking the big budget movies that had equally monstrous marketing budgets, in favor of the smaller films that benefit so much from intelligent reviews.
Of course, the films Johnson reviewed then are similar to the films she champions in a different way at The Loft now.
"In 2002, my world changed again when a small group of Loft aficionados formed a non-profit and were able to convince the owner to sell the cinema to us," Johnson recalled.
Working for The Loft around the clock at that time – organizing a board, raising necessary funds for the cinema's down payment and building a small staff and community support – Johnson gave up the film reviews, citing a loss of "critical distance."
Back then, Johnson remembered having a very small staff.
"That small staff was basically me and Sande Zeig, whose roots go deep into the world of independent film and who brought [with her] an invaluable knowledge of the industry."
Johnson remembers closing escrow on The Loft on Nov. 15, 2002, and still having one more semester to go to finish her master's degree. Even with the degree taking a back seat to the huge undertaking of running The Loft full time, she managed to obtain her master's in media arts.
It was, again, possibly destiny that brought these two major events in her life together at the same time. Because of what she had learned – and was still learning – in her studies, Johnson had a tremendous understanding of the film industry, its history, economics and evolution as she simultaneously took the reigns of Tucson's beloved Loft Cinema.
"I had no idea how much what I was learning – not only about film, but also the film industry – would become part of my professional life," Johnson said. "My journey since the day I entered the MA program until today has been more fun and exciting than I could have ever predicted. I feel like I've discovered the Fountain of Youth – doing something I love all day, everyday."
Part of Johnson's passion for being at the helm of The Loft extends to building what she says is a world-class, administrative staff.
One of her key staff involved in day-to-day operations is Jeff Yanc, MA 1997 media arts alumnus, who has been programming for The Loft since the start of 2006.
"I had known Jeff for years as owner of the independent book store, Reader's Oasis, and I knew of his passion for film," said Johnson. Yanc and Reader's Oasis had helped Johnson and The Loft during the early years, but when the bookstore closed its doors, it seemed to be kismet again.
Johnson said The Loft snatched Yanc up right away when the program director position became vacant after Sande Zeig left and returned to filmmaking.
Yanc said he was obsessed with movies as a teen but never realized he could obtain a degree in media arts until he became a freshman at the UA.
"Obsession and academics came together in a – thankfully – positive way," Yanc said.
As for his initial encounter with The Loft, Yanc said his parents introduced him to the cinema during his childhood, and he continued into adulthood as a Loft moviegoer.
"My early exposure to the kinds of non-mainstream films programmed by The Loft certainly helped pique my interest in all kinds of cinema, and definitely helped point me in the direction of a master's degree in media arts," said Yanc.
The Loft's program director maintains that the skills he learned as a UA student come in handy daily for him.
"The knowledge of film history, industry and analysis, as well as the critical-thinking skills that I absorbed while obtaining my degrees at the UA, certainly helped make my interest in all kinds of cinema and definitely helped point me in the direction of a master's degree in media arts," said Yanc.
The Loft's program director maintains that the skills he learned as a UA student come in handy daily for him."I'm really grateful to have the opportunity to do what I love and to help The Loft build new audiences that can also hopefully benefit from being exposed to great cinema, as I was."
Even in these tough economic waters, The Loft manages to navigate at a steadfast pace, stealthily avoiding the financial hardships of other arts organizations that find they are treading water. Johnson said it's an historic fact that people tend to frequent movie theaters more often during tough economic times.
"That seems to hold true even in today's media-saturated culture when films are available on so many platforms," said Johnson. "I think The Loft is relevant because it is local. We know our community and our audiences, and we carefully and thoughtfully curate programs to serve every possible demographic in the community."
Johnson believes it's all about community and keeping it authentically Tucson.
Because The Loft boasts such a community-minded, artistic reputation, Johnson said that new staff members are really amazed at the reaction they get when they tell friends and strangers that they work at The Loft.
"There's definitely a period of adjustment for them to get used to how excited people are about what we are doing," Johnson said.
And just what are they doing? The executive director and her staff never stop planning and have a new endeavor in mind: an education initiative. "We have recently hired an education coordinator who is putting together a unique program that reflects The Loft's capacity and the needs and interests of the community," said Johnson.
"We are also conducting a capital campaign to expand The Loft to four screens, make the cinema handicapped accessible, and give us room to put our administrative offices at the cinema (they are currently across the street)."
Johnson said they are giving the cinema's space a strategic look to see if it can provide enough room to house its educational program initiative, as well as enough room for whatever the future may bring.
According to Johnson, one thing is certain: With one film festival under its belt, The Loft's upcoming, second festival this November, spanning eight days of exclusive screenings and filmmaker and actor Q&As, will be a bit different from last year, building on what worked and tweaking what didn't.
"I'm enormously proud of the films," said Johnson. "Many were at the New York Film Festival in October and the American Film Institute's Festival one week before The Loft Film Fest."
You can bet whatever is in store for The Loft after this film fest, it will probably be kismet, once again.