Cinema steward Cinema steward Cinema steward

Tom Mara, who helms the Seattle International Film festival, is making history by transforming the Cinerama into SIFF Cinema Downtown.

By Shin Yu Pai | Photos by Matt Hagen | December 13, 2023

Remembering his first day as executive director of the Seattle International Film Festival last year, Tom Mara, ’88, jokes that he was greeted by colleagues, shown his office and promptly asked what he planned to do about Seattle Cinerama Theatre.

The beloved Belltown landmark was shuttered in 2020. But thanks to Mara, the SIFF team and supporters from the community, it will reopen to the public as SIFF Cinema Downtown on Dec. 14 with a screening of “Wonka.”

At first, Mara was cautiously excited about SIFF taking on a large-scale initiative to add another theater building to its portfolio so early in his tenure. Local arts organizations were still struggling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. And acquiring the 1963 landmark was one thing, but could it be operated with existing resources?

Mara reached out to various elected officials for help. Seattle City Councilmember Andrew  Lewis mobilized city support for the initiative, joining other public and private donors who provided nearly $2 million toward the project. “The people I asked to support this journey understood the significance and quickly engaged in support,” says Mara. “It was a lovely experience, witnessing our city and county come together.”

A man in business casual clothes

The Cinerama accommodates nearly 600 people in plush, wide seats installed by Paul Allen when he rescued and renovated the theater in 1999. As executive director of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), Tom Mara led the acquisition of the landmark which was been renamed SIFF Cinema Downtown and reopened to the public on Dec. 14.

SIFF Cinema Downtown is one of a few remaining theaters with Cinerama technology in the world. Mara describes the building as a “cathedral of cinema” and credits Paul Allen with saving the theater and investing in the unique Cinerama technology that projected films like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “How the West Was Won” onto a curved screen using three synchronized projectors. The technology represents an important chapter in film history.

Although he’s known for his deep connection to music and for running the KEXP nonprofit radio station for decades, Mara’s deep passion for cinema stems back to his youth and weekly movie outings with his father. When he was 16, his dad took him to see Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” a violent tale about a prizefighter that is now considered one of the greatest movies ever made. Later, as a UW student, Mara enrolled in a class on Scandinavian film that offered him his first serious encounter with cinema. Viewing Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries,” he began to understand how influential and profound movies can be.

While at the UW, Mara studied broadcast journalism, which pointed him toward work in public radio. His first gig was volunteering at the UW’s student-run station KCMU, launching his career in alternative radio. “If I hadn’t gone to UW, there’s a good chance that those 34 years at KEXP wouldn’t have come about,” Mara says. “I’ll always be grateful to UW for pointing me towards this enriching life.”

A life enriched with music is a better life. A life enriched by film is a better life.

Tom Mara, SIFF executive director

Mara sees similarities in his mission at SIFF to his work with KEXP. “A life enriched with music is a better life,” says Mara. “A life enriched by film is a better life.” And this enrichment reaches individuals in many ways. SIFF serves film lovers, while also serving emerging filmmakers through its work in education and advocacy. On another level, SIFF contributes to the state’s ecosystem for film while also promoting civic responsibility and playing a critical role in helping to revitalize downtown Seattle.

“What people need to understand is that Seattle is a great film town that needs to become a greater film town,” Mara says. SIFF is just one on a list local film festivals which includes the Tasveer Film Festival, Seattle Turkish Film Festival, Seattle Asian American Film Festival and Seattle Jewish Film Festival. “Ultimately, our job is to scour the earth for films that deserve to be seen and get them in front of people,” Mara says.