Revival Meeting

Can rep cinema's old-time religion be resurrected in the soulless Netflix age?

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.

 

THE CONVERSATION

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.

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