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?

Many sources contendthat 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 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

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."

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