SCA alumnus Craig Hammill on success, missteps and the not-so-secret club for film buffs

SCA alumnus Craig Hammill created Vista Theatre’s Secret Movie Club in the hopes of sharing his favorite movies on 35-millimeter film with friends and family. Today, the club is a near-weekly gathering for some of the city’s most dedicated film aficionados. (Photo courtesy of Craig Hammill)

For as long as he can remember, USC alumnus Craig Hammill has been in love with watching films on the silver screen.

A fourth generation Angeleno, Hammill grew up with the dream of seeing his own name up in the credits of a major blockbuster film. Thus, at an early age, he decided to listen to his heart and pursue film.

“Think of it as voices in your heart,” Hammill said. “I don’t think anyone regrets going for it. I think people regret not listening [to their heart].”

Hammill started applying to film schools when he was 17. He narrowed his search down to three universities: UCLA, USC and NYU. And, in the end, a hometown affinity and favorable financial aid package led him to University Park.

After arriving at USC, Hammill founded his own student organization called Screenings, which organized classic film screenings in theaters on campus and invite creatives who worked on the films to speak about their experiences. This club was the brainchild for his current venture at Vista Theatre — Secret Movie Club. There, he channels his passion for 35-millimeter film by hosting screenings almost every weekend for strangers and friends alike.

Ironically, Hammill developed his interest in 35-millimeter film in the midst of the film industry’s pivot to digital photography in the early 2000s. After completing his undergraduate education, Hammill decided to return to USC to pursue his master’s degree in the School of Cinematic Arts. While more students in his program chose to shoot on digital, Hammill doubled down on 35-millimeter film. He loved the organic, constrained nature of shooting on film, and felt that the pressure of perfecting finite shots forces the entire cast and crew to step up their game.

“You have to storyboard the shots — you have to think about where you’re going to put the camera,” Hammill said. “You have to think about how you added it and so you do so much in your head that I think the movie that comes out is more planned and there’s more vision, because you can’t say, ‘Well, let’s just shoot whatever and see what happens.’”

As a graduate student, Hammill completed his masterpiece, a short film called “The Cleats of Imminent Doom,” a comedy that satirizes the serious, competitive nature of youth sports, which is particularly emphasized by overzealous parents.

“It’s about soccer parents and soccer kids — it was like American suburbia through the filter of youth sports,” Hammill said.

During his time at USC, he emphasized the plethora of resources that the school provided, including an internship with director Martin Scorsese during his undergraduate years.

“The dean of the film school was always accessible. You can always go into her office,” Hammill said. “Everybody took meetings with me — there was no B.S. I mean, USC, they give you every opportunity.”

However, after garnering initial success from screening  “The Cleats of Imminent Doom” at film festivals, Hammill had trouble finding opportunities to direct a feature-length film, which he attributes to his own youthful arrogance and hubris. Since college, he’s directed small commercials, shorts and webisodes for various companies and creatives. Still, he said his passion for 35-millimeter film pressed on, and, after the birth of his son, he decided to take a risk in pursuit of his passions. When he founded Screenings, he believed a similar concept could work with Los Angeles’ burgeoning population of film aficionados.

He then made a few phone calls with friends at Vista Theatre and rented the space out for a screening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He invited close friends, loved ones and former classmates to join what would become the Secret Movie Club.

At first, the club only met once a month and was advertised by word of mouth. Then, one night, he hosted a particularly unsuccessful screening of Al Pacino’s “Scarface” —  only 30 people showed up, and he lost $600.

Hammill said this early failure forced him to find new ways to expand his audience outreach. He started using Facebook to promote the Secret Movie Club, and almost all of his advertising is still dedicated to the social media giant.

The next month, he hosted a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” Hammill sold out the entire theater. And the triumph of that screening meant that Secret Movie Club was there to stay.

Since then, Secret Movie Club has expanded into something much greater than a film screening reserved for friends. In fact, it’s developed into its own community. Cosplay and inside jokes are now the norm from week to week. Regulars attendees and newcomers mingle in the lobby and chat about their favorite flicks before and after every screening. Hammill peddles custom made, limited edition (and Secret Movie Club-approved) posters as attendees leave the theater.

“Everybody who’s part of Secret Movie Club is approachable,” Hammill said. “Everybody’s invited. If you come, we’re glad you’re there.”

Even with the club’s continued growth, Hammill sees Secret Movie Club as a uniquely local phenomenon. And while expansion to other locations is not out of the question, Hammill said he must be careful not to bite off more than he can chew.

“If you try to be president of the United States, or you try to make a $50 million movie, or you try to suddenly have Secret Movie Club in 20 cities, it will fall apart,” Hammill said.

If anything, he sees internal growth for Secret Movie Club, potentially through greater social media engagement, podcasts or other events. Still, Hammill insisted that the club’s existence and potential expansion comes from a place of passion, not greed. In fact, he said that almost all of their revenue goes toward funding their next screening.

“It’s really important that it always comes out of a real love and passion for what we’re showing and doing — movies that people are excited to go and see,” Hammill said. “I think if you start to do stuff just to make money, or you do stuff just to be successful, I think everybody smells that and they’re like, ‘Oh, this isn’t cool anymore.’”