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Author Topic: The Future of Oak Street Cinema
Steve Scott
Phenomenal Film Handler

Posts: 1300
From: Minneapolis, MN
Registered: Sep 2000

 - posted 01-19-2006 10:43 AM      Profile for Steve Scott   Email Steve Scott   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
A troubling article from City Pages
Article Here

A six-figure debt. Feuding over the future. Can anything save the Oak Street Cinema?

Will the Last Movie Fan Please Shut Off the Popcorn Machine?
by Paul Demko
January 18, 2006

For one night, at least, the Oak Street Cinema is full. Some 300 movie fans have crowded into the East Bank theater on Saturday night, with those unable to find seats standing at the rear.

Unfortunately the bulk of the audience is not here to watch the night's scheduled movies, a double bill featuring Citizen Kane and Casablanca. Rather, the main agenda for the night is to grapple with a question even murkier than the identity of Rosebud: Will the city's only repertory film theater be closing?

In recent weeks the rumor has been rampant in Twin Cities cultural circles that the East Bank cinema, co-founded by Augsburg College professor Bob Cowgill in 1995, will be shuttered. The theater is run by the nonprofit Minnesota Film Arts, which also organizes the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival and runs the Bell Auditorium--a screen devoted to documentary film. Last month, under financial duress, the group's board of directors voted to shutter the Oak Street facility. Soon after, however, the board rescinded the decision--for now.

The Saturday night meeting was called by disgruntled staff members, against the wishes of the trustees. And the handful of board members who have shown up are clearly on the defensive. "The board is full of shit," yells one crowd member.


After much prodding from the cantankerous crowd, however, board treasurer Tim Grady takes the microphone. He explains that Minnesota Film Arts is roughly $130,000 in debt and may refinance its mortgage on Oak Street for the second time in less than a year in order to raise cash. But he also insists that the theater has to find a way to attract larger audiences if it is going to remain open, noting that a recent weeklong run of the South African film Cape of Good Hope garnered a pitiful $700 in box office receipts. "This theater is bleeding money," Grady says. "There may be 250 people here tonight, but we need that every weekend." Grady further explains that he's sunk $75,000 of his own money into the organization in order to keep it functioning (a loan that is backed by the building itself).

But when audience members press Grady to explain how the board allowed the organization to descend into such a dire financial situation, he's evasive, noting that he has only been a trustee for eight months. "It's a good question, and I don't want to get into that tonight," he says. Finally, in exasperation, Grady attempts to appeal to the audience's love of film. "Do you want to see the film tonight or not?" he asks.

The collective answer: "No."

The meeting follows weeks of turmoil for the movie house. (Despite similarly sluggish attendance, the Bell is deemed secure because the organization has a favorable lease with the University of Minnesota that allows them to operate at little cost.) In recent months the Oak Street has been unable to function owing to financial pressures.

"I have largely been unable to book the theater," says Emily Condon, Oak Street's programming director, who gave her two-week notice at the beginning of January. She notes that there are only a handful of distributors that the organization normally relies on for films. "Most of those people we owe a whole lot of money to," Condon says.

The current dysfunctional state of the theater is about the only thing that the staff and board can agree on. "There's never been much good faith between the staff and the board," notes recently resigned managing director Gretchen Williams.

The trustees say that they are just now getting a full picture of the organization's financial state. They estimate that it will take an infusion of $250,000 to get the organization back on sound footing. But even if they're able to raise that kind of cash, trustee Susan Smoluchowski wonders whether Oak Street is a sustainable operation. "Do we raise the money and pay off the debt only to find ourselves in the same situation six months from now?" she asks.

Throughout December there was discussion about whether Cowgill would return to take over the helm of the Oak Street. Under Cowgill's direction, the theater screened movie classics and new art cinema seven days a week--profitably, he says--and paid down the mortgage on the building. Cowgill recounts that he offered to put together a "save the Oak Street" calendar and fundraising campaign that would have run up until the film festival, but that the board rebuffed his proposal.

Board members insist that they still want to work with Cowgill, but that he's not a candidate to lead the organization. "He's not going to be there in any official capacity," says Smoluchowski.

"I would still be willing to do what I can, but I feel like a significant moment has been lost," Cowgill says. "We should be looking right now at an Oak Street calendar that is appealing to the community to save the Oak Street. That didn't happen. I believe that a nonprofit organization that gets into financial trouble really is given one chance to appeal to the community and its stakeholders to save it. And I believe this appeal would have saved it. But this appeal has been botched."

Many sources contend that much of the blame for the nonprofit group's perilous financial condition belongs with former executive director Jamie Hook. He was fired last year after less than 12 months on the job. During that short tenure, Hook tried to steer Minnesota Film Arts toward becoming a player in the local indie filmmaking scene, and diverted resources to that mission. At the same time, Hook missed the deadline for a $50,000 State Arts Board grant last April that left the organization with a substantial budgetary hole.

That's not all, claims board member Larry Lamb: "He missed numerous grant deadlines. His folly was on a grand scale."

Hook places much of the blame on the board members. He says that upon taking the job he suggested that the board raise $30,000 annually to support the organization. "The reaction to that, to say the least, was like I had exploded a bomb," he recalls. Hook also says that he pleaded with the board to bring on someone with accounting expertise to help with the books, but that they ignored him.

The organization refinanced the mortgage on Oak Street last summer, bringing in roughly $20,000. But even after that infusion of cash, according to Hook, the group was operating in the red and bouncing checks last summer. He predicts that if the repertory theater closes, the entire operation will collapse. "I think if you lose the Oak Street you lose the organization and you lose the festival," Hook says.

The board does not appear to share that last view. The film festival has ample sponsorship and has historically turned a profit. Last week the organization announced that the 2006 festival will go ahead as planned, running from April 14-23. "There's a separate amount of money that has been set aside for the festival," Grady says.

In the meantime, Al Milgrom, the film fest's longtime programmer, suggests that he's lining up two bookings for the Oak Street: a Swedish murder mystery and the six-hour Italian TV miniseries, Best of Youth, which, despite favorable reviews, struggled to draw audiences during a previous run at the Lagoon Cinema.

Staff members are uncertain what impact, if any, last Saturday's acrimonious meeting will have in determining the fate of Oak Street. "It was called out of desperation rather than out of some calculated move," says Condon, reflecting on the meeting the following day. "It certainly achieved the purpose of making it a community discussion. People showed up. The big disappointment to me was that I don't think anything was solved."

I got a call yesterday asking if St. Anthony Main was closing, that the caller had heard a rumor. As that would have been a surprise to me, I figured this was what the guy was referencing. Oak Street Cinema's history has included some dark periods. Lately, they've had some great billings; the Lord of the Rings trilogy played over the holidays, and Oak was the only place to see Natural Born Killers last year, in town, and they regularly do 8-bit video game nights.

I've only been able to look inside the auditorium from the street, and its in nice shape. It's certainly not going for any technical benchmarks, but the theatre has a rich history and great opportunities for local filmmakers, festivals and rentals.

Let's hope it doesn't get shuttered again. The marquee just got back in good shape!

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Steve Scott
Phenomenal Film Handler

Posts: 1300
From: Minneapolis, MN
Registered: Sep 2000

 - posted 02-16-2006 10:34 AM      Profile for Steve Scott   Email Steve Scott   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Here's an article dicussing the place of the Oak Street Cinema & rep cinema in general amongst DVD, quality of titles, and a number of other points.

One more for the file. Here's a selection...
In the month since Oak Street Cinema played host to Citizen Kane and to a citizens' dialogue about the future of the theater as the last place in town to see such classics regularly projected in 35mm, even a devoted cineaste could be forgiven for thinking that the threat to its survival has passed like a storm cloud over Xanadu. After all, this American museum of the moving image is still screening movies (and pouring RC Cola!), despite the fact that its funding organization--the nonprofit Minnesota Film Arts--remains more than $100,000 in debt.

But Oak Street programmer Emily Condon has left MFA, and so has Adam Sekuler, who booked documentaries at the MFA's other venue, the Bell, in addition to curating the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival along with Condon and the legendary Al Milgrom. And the movies that Milgrom and MFA board member Tim Grady have booked since Condon took The Last Waltz for a final spin on her way out the door (Don't Look Back was the co-feature) have a rather different flavor. This week's run of the six-hour Italian telefilm The Best of Youth, great as the movie might very well be (I fled after an hour), is a striking anomaly in Oak Street history not only for having graced Landmark's Edina Cinema last summer, but for having been released on DVD last week.


In its defense, one could say that the current administration--including Grady, a seasoned entrepreneur who has deigned to shoulder a sizable portion of MFA's liability himself--is keeping the theater open at a time when others would close it not only to cut losses but to concede defeat at the hands of larger, seemingly implacable forces. Indeed, it's those larger forces--including but not limited to DVDs--that compelled me last week to call a meeting of local-film figures to discuss the prospects for alternative exhibition in any city, whatever the circumstances.

Though the transcript of that marathon summit is suitably epic, it hardly represents the last word on the subjects. And though opinions differed greatly, none of the panelists would be apt to discourage the continuation of this discussion online, in letters to the editor, or, perhaps, in the lobby of Oak Street Cinema.


City Pages: On the way over here this morning, I saw a billboard ad for McDonald's announcing drive-thru DVD rentals for a buck apiece. Now, Oak Street probably isn't losing a lot of its customers to McDonald's. But as a sign of where movies are located in popular culture these days, that ad sends a real chill. Does alternative film exhibition--repertory exhibition in particular--have even a fighting chance to survive in this sort of climate? What's the future of old celluloid in this new marketplace of video-on-demand?

Sheryl Mousley [Film/Video Curator, Walker Art Center]: We're showing repertory. We have a retrospective right now of Lili Taylor films at the Walker. We're not a rep house, so [repertory] is more of an unusual situation for us. But I was really heartened last night because we showed Girls Town, the Jim McKay film [co-starring Taylor], from 1996, and we had about 175, almost 200 people there to see it--on a Thursday night. It's a lively film, so it was particularly great to see people coming together and going through the emotional ups and downs of those young girls in that story. But one of the things that's interesting about this example is that we ended up showing the film on Beta SP [video]. We had heard that Focus [Features] had a [35mm] copy of [Girls Town], but we couldn't find a print of the film anywhere. So we went to Jim McKay and said, "You know, there's no 35mm print of your film available anywhere." So he went under his bed or wherever and sent us his Beta master that we could show last night. But the film just doesn't exist anymore, not as a 35 print. So that's another issue as far as what we're talking about: Where do we get our source material if we do want to go back into the history of film and be able to exhibit it?

CP: The other thing that's particular to the screening last night is that it was held for free--which is great, especially for Girls Town. But to the extent that free screenings are difficult or impossible for other exhibitors, I'll repose the question of whether repertory cinema can exist in the marketplace.

Emily Condon [former programmer of Oak Street Cinema]: Well, attendance [for repertory cinema] has been on a slow, gradual decline for years. I don't know how much of it has to do with DVD versus any number of other factors. You ask whether rep can exist in the marketplace, and I think that question itself should be looked at. The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge was having a lot of the same trouble that Oak Street and other rep cinemas around the country have had; they mounted a big public campaign and they expect to have raised at least $500,000 by summer. So I would suggest that rather than looking at this as just a marketplace question, there's the question of whether there is or should be a different kind of support.

Tim Grady [president of World Cycling Productions, publisher of Cycle Sport USA magazine, and Minnesota Film Arts board member]: Well, the Brattle is a famous spot along with the Walter Reade in New York and other rep houses. This is something that Landmark [Theatres Corp.] really started in the '70s: If you look at a pure rep calendar as designed by Landmark--Gary Meyer and the boys--it was a different double feature every night. And the economies now are such that you can't do that. There aren't that many 35mm prints. Rep is easy to book: You can put in Citizen Kane or whatever. But the print [rental] is $250, and the shipping is $50 or $100 each way. So the economy of it is one of the big problems.

Adam Sekuler [former programmer of the Bell]: Right, but I think Emily's question is in relation to other mechanisms that could be used to sustain a repertory program. Is there another way that the community could possibly invest in this kind of programming?

Robert Cowgill [co-founder of Oak Street Cinema and former executive director of Minnesota Film Arts]: I'd like to take a step back and just pose the question of whether the experience of seeing a repertory film is even valuable. Is it that valuable for us to go through all the difficulty that it takes to keep the theaters that run [old movies] open? I think that's a theoretical question that needs to be embraced.

Rob Silberman [cinema studies professor at the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Film Arts board member]: That's a rhetorical question coming from you [laughs].

Grady: I think we all would agree [that rep cinema is valuable]. My concern in the overall marketplace is dealing with the fact that, as people like Gary Meyer have told me, repertory is a nightmare right now. You can't find an audience with repertory [programming] alone: You have to juggle the great repertory shows with first-run art films, retrospectives, visits by directors, and so on. You can't strictly do a rep house any longer. It's just not possible.

Condon: Well, the Brattle is doing it. Their board [of directors] is committed: [Its members] have said, "We believe in this mission enough that we'll find the resources." And they have.

Grady: The old theaters--like the Balboa, which [Meyer] handled, and the Brattle--are great old movie houses that need to stay. They maybe need to be programmed properly; they need to be advertised and marketed. We'd all love to see a brand new print of North by Northwest or Citizen Kane, and that's important to us [MFA board members]. But delivering the message to your audience is the key.

Hugh Wronski [manager of Landmark's Uptown Theatre and Lagoon Cinema]: The Uptown runs rep every Saturday at midnight. Granted, it's midnight, so it's a little different, but it's still frustrating. Everyone who has booked rep knows the frustration: Why do people want to see Casablanca for the 40th time on the big screen rather than see a Humphrey Bogart film they've never seen on the big screen? Generally speaking, the stuff that works at the Uptown at midnight is bad '80s stuff.

Cowgill: In five years, it'll be bad '90s stuff.

Wronski: It could be. In my very limited experience with rentals of rep titles, I'd say that the fees from distributors are generally reasonable--so that occasionally I can get one pet title in there. I mean, we got The Man Who Would Be King because I wanted to see it on the big screen. It was fantastic. And there were maybe 30 people there, which was enough to pay the shipping--barely. I think that's what [a rep programmer] needs to look at: If your mission is rep films, you need to be happy with 30 people having a great time on a given evening. At least the Oak Street is on the nonprofit end of things; it's a little harder to justify within Landmark. That's what I experienced in college, too, back in the '80s: There was a limited audience, but a passionate audience. And I think it's important to do [rep programming] and do it well.

CP: Sure.

Wronski: The other thing, though, is that the number of bars, restaurants, and other nontheatrical venues that show films--and I really question the legality of a lot of those shows--is becoming quite substantial. Do [these venues] have rights [to the material]? Are they paying rentals? What's the story there? You look at the film listings in City Pages on a given week, and they're impressive. But is it fair for the Oak Street with a new print of a restored classic to be placed in the same review category as Bobino showing a DVD of something? Because that's apples and oranges to someone who knows better. But a lot of people don't know better. And then those people come to a real movie theater and say, "Why should I pay [to see an old movie]?" Well, you should pay because you're seeing [the movie] in a real theater on a screen; you're not watching it in a bar.

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