Will the Last Movie Fan Please Shut Off the Popcorn Machine?

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

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?

The last picture show? Minnesota Film Arts treasurer Tim Grady (left) and Oak Street co-founder Bob Cowgill
Paul Demko
The last picture show? Minnesota Film Arts treasurer Tim Grady (left) and Oak Street co-founder Bob Cowgill

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 Soon after, however, the board rescinded the decision--for now.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."

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