On a Thursday night in mid-March, downtown art cinema FilmBar buzzes with life. There's a showing of the offbeat documentary Automorphosis, and several art car enthusiasts have shown up with their custom vehicles. FilmBar owner Kelly Aubey seems to be everywhere at once — outside posing for pictures with the cars, in the lobby greeting people, behind the bar serving beer and wine.
Movies and booze are a great combination, and Aubey, 42, knows it. That's one reason he left his career as a computer programmer and opened FilmBar this year. But he says what really influenced him "was the desire to give something to people who say the city has no culture." Born to military parents, Aubey's traveled the world and wants to bring "things you'd find in the New Yorks or Londons of the world" to Phoenix, a city he's lived in since he was 3, when his parents moved from upstate New York.
The FilmBar building is modest in size but big on personality. The theater seats just 70 people and shows only digital films (no reel-to-reel), but there's a spacious lobby decorated with a Middle Eastern theme. Aubey did the decorating himself. "The idea was to create a space that was clearly unique," he says. "Some places, it looks like they decorated using IKEA — with this, I wanted to stop that trend. I lived in Iran for a couple years when I was young. A lot of people are afraid of the Middle East in general, but 99 percent of the culture is awesome. I wanted to de-demonize the culture."
Like the décor, the movies shown at FilmBar are outside the box — independent, art house, foreign, and animated films you won't see at AMC. Veteran Phoenix artist Steve Weiss does the programming at FilmBar, and movies showing in April include Bill Plympton's animated dark comedy Idiots and Angels, and Bear City, a movie with a plot similar to Sex and the City, but with big, burly gay men (a.k.a. "bears") having all the escapades.
"[Chain theaters] were uncomfortable with the subject matter, because they want to please conservatives," Aubey says. "I don't. I say, 'Bring on the bears.'"
A tall, lean redhead, Aubey says he's gravitated toward the unconventional most of his life. "When I was 12, I started catching on to punk rock, and I stopped listening to AC/DC and Def Leppard and whatever else was on the radio at the time," he says. "From that point, I sought things that are outside the mainstream. I've always gravitated to things that have a clear message, like indie films — they pay attention to plot and character, and it's not just a bunch of pretty people."
"I want to serve the underserved," Aubey adds. "It sounds corny, but so much attention is given to perfect, pretty concepts and people who want an escape. But some of us don't want an escape — we want validation."