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.
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.
IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES
Cowgill: Okay. Is there a quality--an aura--that's different with a projected image from a 35mm print as opposed to a beamed image from a digital source?
CP: Let's ask John: He's the owner of Cinema Revolution, a great DVD-only rental store; he has been screening DVDs of older foreign titles once a month at the Varsity [Theater] for an appreciative audience; and he's a devoted movie lover who goes to what you'd call "real" movie theaters. The question for John: Is there a way that all of this stuff can coexist? Is there a way in which one [kind of exhibition] could even be said to support the other--at least in terms of maintaining our individual and collective sense of film history?
John Koch: Yes. I do think that each arm [of film and video] supports the other. I've never been one to say that DVD is taking away from anything else. The demand for the content is there. I can guarantee you that: I see it every single day [in the store]. It surprises me, but people do come in to rent Tarkovsky's Nostalghia and other totally obscure films that most people have never heard of. There's an audience. I've seen it not only in my store, but also at the screenings we've done at the Varsity, where we get 30 to 50 people on a Tuesday night. One night we showed The Color of Pomegranates, which I think is one of the most difficult films we have in the store. And we got a very good crowd for that. I think the direction that repertory cinema needs to go is toward giving the audience an incentive to come out to a theater. We're not in the days of VHS anymore: The presentation at home is far better than it has ever been. But you can't replace the experience at a cinema. I think there's almost no one out there who would prefer to watch a movie at home. [Exhibitors] have to offer incentive. At the Varsity, there's a full bar, there's food from the [Loring] Pasta Bar, the admission price is low, the setting is comfortable, the screen is huge, and the projector is bright. The image isn't as rich as the one you get from 35mm--it doesn't have the same tonal range and the same luminosity--but I think it looks pretty good. And I'm a pretty tough judge of presentation.
Sekuler: I think the other thing you do at the Varsity that's really interesting is that you have post-film conversation. What DVDs have been able to do in ways that the cinema largely isn't doing right now is to engage the audience in a different way--through bonus features, interviews, commentary.
Koch: That's the incentive part. You have to give people something they couldn't get at home.
Mousley: We're finding at the Walker that audience engagement is important. We don't allow food [in the auditorium]; there's a pristine policy [in the museum], we don't want any crinkling going on. I don't know if that's good or bad. But we do try to have engaging conversations [after the screening]: We're setting up a sort of dialogue lounge in our art lab where people can have conversations about what they've seen. Or, as often as we can, we have the filmmaker there or someone from the community to lead a post-screening discussion. It enhances your experience [of the film], but it also helps to build a sense of community.
Wronski: We have "Talk Cinema" at the Edina two Saturdays a month, and it has done pretty well.
Jane Minton [executive director of IFP Minnesota]: People really want to have some level of interpretation of what they just saw. In terms of repertory film, it's really important to go back and look at what everyone has done--the masters and the fools of cinema--and to learn from them. Some of the best filmmakers I know have immersed themselves in film history before going on to make their own films. At IFP, we have a series that's similar to Cinema Revolution's series at the Varsity: We do a program called "Cinema Lounge" once a month in the little theater at Bryant-Lake Bowl; usually we screen work by beginning filmmakers, but sometimes the more advanced filmmakers like Jon Springer come through to show short work. We have a host who's funny, and he interviews the filmmaker after each film. The films are sometimes brilliant and sometimes ridiculously inane, but it's always amazing to see what's coming out of this [filmmaking] community. And that work needs to be fed. One way to feed it is through [the screening of] older films.
CP: Is there a way in which Oak Street Cinema could better compete by adopting some of these strategies of marketing and presentation?
Grady: I've talked to a number of people over the past few weeks, and a lot of them seem to agree on the importance of having the films introduced by someone. There are some rep houses on the West Coast that have personal introductions to every single film: Whether the film is rep or first-run, there's someone there to talk about it and pass out flyers. In the old [University Film Society] days, we always had long program notes on directors and stars; it was a way to engage the audience. But I also think that in order to really survive in a film marketplace, you have to be a database marketer. You have to create a mailing list, an e-mailing list. You have to actively find your audience. If you're not right in front of them, they're going to go somewhere else.
CP: Is that a goal of yours, then--to reach out to an audience for films at the Oak Street?
Grady: That would be a goal, yeah. It's interesting: The Oak Street Cinema has 3,000 people on its e-mail list--we went over it in the office last week--but only 18 percent of those people ever open an e-mail.
Sekuler: When I was doing the e-mail [publicity] for MFA, I'd get statistics, and our rates were about average. I think the average for opened e-mail messages is 20 percent.
Grady: Well, I think if you're a database marketer, you target your audience. I have 75,000 people on my e-mail list [for World Cycling and Cycle Sport], and more than 50 percent [of our recipients] open our e-mail on a weekly basis. What's important is how you deliver the message: It's your subject heading, it's what you're giving people--like visiting directors and stars. They want the information and they're friendly to the cause; the key is how you sell it to them. I really applaud Sheryl: She's there [at the Walker] all the time, she introduces the films, and the screenings are sold out.
Cowgill: Well, there's the issue of venue difference. I didn't believe in introducing films [at Oak Street]. The only time I would introduce a film is if there was a silent film accompanist, because that's a courtesy. There was this larger gestalt that I thought was important: that on a given night, in February or March, you would wander into this theater and see some classic of cinema--by Bergman, Fellini, whoever it is--or even a bad film noir, and you were just going to the movies. In other words, you were being given museum-quality presentation without the museum. The question I have is this: If you show a film at the Oak Street, is it different than if you show it in the exact same print at the Lagoon or the Walker or the Riverview [Theater]?
Wronski: Sure it is. Because it's about more than just the film. Some people don't like old theaters. Some people would rather go to the Bell. Some people would rather go to the Lagoon than the Uptown. People who really like the Oak Street like the fact that it's a funky old theater. I mean, you've got RC Cola! That's fantastic! It's a throwback to my youth: That's what we had at the theater in Red Wing where I worked when I was 14. I like that. Some people say, "We don't want to be 14 anymore." Me, I like that.
Minton: It would be interesting to hear from Tom Letness [owner and manager of the Heights Theatre]. He does an interesting mix. There are people who are passionate about that theater and its restoration, the organ. [Letness] plays Westerns for the old guys in Columbia Heights on Saturday mornings and they come in droves. And then he does first-run movies throughout the week and then he'll have rep titles here and there.
Richard Cohen [state senator and Minnesota Film Arts board member]: Well, speaking as a politician, I wonder: Could you put together a repertory series at Oak Street of the great political films? Z would be at the top of my list; The Candidate is a pretty good film. Could you market something like that to political types, to people who otherwise might not come to see repertory film?
CP: Couldn't you say that any old movie at this point is political?
IN A LONELY PLACE
CP: Both the Riverview and the Heights [Theatre] are neighborhood theaters that serve specific communities, which are largely geographic and also working class. My hunch is that Oak Street's location--on the U of M campus, in Stadium Village--doesn't help.
Cowgill: The Oak Street's location is no better now than it was in 1997 or 1999. And yet [the theater] was able to succeed [in the late '90s]. I would argue that every single-screen theater that remains in this town has survived despite its location. The main reason for the survival of those theaters is that the people who run them do so with a strong commitment--as if that location was just fine. I think this kind of endeavor around alternative film exhibition has to be seen as a larger act in our culture. We have to act as if showing films in a community setting makes a difference--in spite of the fact that we know there are these larger forces that are making it harder and harder. I think if we don't do that, then we start losing qualities of our urban culture, qualities that we're going to miss.
Wronski: Bob is right: You need to act like a success or you won't be a success. There's this baggage, this weight over the industry, and I think it's false. For some reason, every journalist in the country--including the fine one at the end of the table here--wrote a variation on a theme last year: The movie business is dying, and the movies suck. Everyone was rewriting the exact same article, it seems to me. And the story is false. It's the movie business: Anyone who has been in the movie business knows that it's an up-and-down thing, that it's not that simple to say that DVDs are killing theaters. But people have bought into it. I have people coming up to me [at Lagoon] saying, "Oh, are you doing okay?"--like I'm about to be unemployed or something, 'cause they've read so much crap about the movie business. I'm fine. We [at Landmark] are fine. I know the Uptown needs new seats. But we're paying the heat bill. If the Oak Street goes around acting as if it's an organization that's dying, it's gonna die. It needs to act as if it's an organization that knows what it's doing: "This is our mission, it's a good mission, and damn it, we're the ones to do it." Or it won't succeed.
CP: The thing that Oak Street has uniquely is this legacy--this tradition, these memories, which are particularly acute to the extent that films of the past are about memories. It's not just nostalgia--though there's certainly that--but history, too. I mean, to me, Oak Street Cinema is the place where I sat directly behind Gordon Parks watching Shaft. I have a hundred other invaluable memories of the theater, and other people have theirs. If that's part of what [Oak Street] possesses uniquely, then is there a responsibility to maintain some or all of that tradition? Is there an even greater responsibility if that tradition finds itself under siege in this economic and political climate? Is the responsibility greater still if the theater is run by a nonprofit organization?
Sekuler: That's sort of the key right there: [MFA] is a nonprofit organization. And if you look at nonprofits, you see that they're all fighting against these cultural changes.
Jane Minton [executive director of IFP Minnesota]: There's an analogy to IFP here. When we built our [new] space [in St. Paul], the question was, "Do we build black-and-white darkrooms? Isn't digital photography the wave of the future?" And the answer, after millions of conversations and surveys, was, "Yes, we build black-and-white darkrooms. Because if they go away, this rich, beautiful process of black-and-white film will disappear forever." So [the darkrooms] are there.
Wronski: The public seems to have really bought into the myth that DVDs are better than 35mm. I have people who come to the theater and tell me that they believe their home theaters are better in terms of presentation than what we have at the theater--which is absurd. And I've seen some pretty fancy setups--$50,000 home theaters, like that. I'm sorry, but [video] is not there yet. Maybe in 10 years.
Mousley: [Home theater] salesmen tell people that home theaters are better than movie theaters because they're trying to sell home theaters.
CP: The main thing you don't get at home--unless you invite everybody you know to come over--is the sense of community.
Sekuler: The other thing that you don't get is exposure to someone you don't know.
CP: That's true.
Sekuler: To me, [being among strangers] is what the cinema experience is really about.
Wronski: Lots of people don't like that.
Sekuler: I know.
Cowgill: The cinema is small-D democratic.
Minton: An educated public will go, "Fun With Dick and Jane? I'll see that at home. The New World? That has to be on a big screen."
CP: Or Badlands.
Wronski: You'd hope they would say that.
Grady: They do if they have some history. But a 19-year-old kid at the university is gonna think that a DVD is fine to watch.
CP: So what do you do?
Grady: I want to state that the [MFA] board is 100 percent behind repertory-style programming at the Oak. The situation we're going through now is that the theater has lost a lot of money over the last couple of years, and we're in this sort of Band-Aid programming stage. We're going to re-launch [the Oak Street] with a calendar, including repertory titles and some first-run titles. We really have to get a marketing campaign going. We have to find this audience. It's a concern to me that we're not marketing. Al Milgrom is a guerrilla-marketing guy, and I really believe in that. He does it--he gets around the campus and puts up flyers--when no one else will do it. You have to be 100 percent behind the programming at the Oak, you have to love the programming, but you have to be analytical, too. You have to figure out how to market it.
Condon: I don't think anybody would disagree with that. To market [the programming], you need money and you need leadership.
Cowgill: You know, Al [Milgrom] and I have had this running debate about how you market things. Al is a guy who believes that you put a flyer in everybody's hand and that's what you do. And before the merger of our organizations [U Film Society and Oak Street], he was always frustrated with the fact that the Oak Street did really well compared with how the Bell was doing; he argued that it was because we were showing old movies. And I argued that it was because I have this top-down theory of marketing: You make sure you get a calendar out regularly, you get it to as many people as possible, you train people on where to look for your ads, and that's all you need to do--besides stay light on your feet. But there has been a structural change that I've perceived [in the culture]--as an audience member, I mean, because obviously I'm not marketing the Oak Street anymore. I know for myself that I get my movie information now from disparate sources, not often from the newspaper. I go online, for example. And so it becomes very hard for a niche-marketer to know how to reach the audience--or how to train [the audience] on where to look for your stuff.
Wronski: You think the Star-Tribune's Movie Guide redesign has hurt?
Cowgill: I hate [the redesigned page]. It's harder to find a movie you want to see [on that page] than it is to go online.
Grady: People find out about movies in an entirely different way now. Also, advertising [in newspapers] is so expensive now--and there's not enough [ad support] from film companies. I would say, having booked a lot of films in the past, that you [have to] force these distributors to pay for some advertising. You cannot give a documentary filmmaker a week-run at the Bell without [having] him contribute to advertising. As the exhibitor, you're holding all the cards, because [filmmakers and distributors] are not going to get that one-week run anywhere else. They have to play Minneapolis.
Sekuler: That's an interesting comment in relation to DVDs. You say they have to play Minneapolis. I actually think they don't have to play Minneapolis.
Wronski: I think you're right about that.
Sekuler: For a filmmaker, a theater provides a different experience [for the viewer] than a DVD. But the filmmaker will say, "You know, I have to figure out a way to reach an audience, and it's not necessarily in a theater."
Minton: There are some really interesting ways that filmmakers are marketing themselves these days. [Their marketing] maybe doesn't end up in the newspaper, but in myspace. [The filmmakers] can create a Web page for themselves. Or they upload a trailer onto iTunes and people can put it on their video iPods. One IFP member recently made a short film--it's about 10 minutes long and very funny: He hosted it on Google video, told eight friends, and within a week he had 500,000 hits and calls from agents and people at MTV.
Sekuler: That's actually a fairly good example of what Oak Street or Minnesota Film Arts is trying to fight against. I don't want to see a movie on a Google screen. I want to experience it in a theater.
Grady: The distributors who own these films want them played in certain ways. I think you're in a strong position if you can negotiate with a filmmaker to give him a [run]. And if you can prove [an ability to] do something at the box office, [the filmmaker or distributor] should give you some ad dollars. When we talk about building the Oak from the ground up--from the point of view of dealing with distributors, from the marketing point of view--I think it can succeed. And [the board is] 100 percent behind it. But things have to change. It's an evolving market. I agree with Hugh that the DVD [threat to exhibitors] is somewhat overstated; people read in the paper that consumer confidence [in theaters] is down and they believe it. Does Target like to hear that [consumer confidence is down]? No.
CP: Okay--I'm going to interrupt. I have Al Milgrom on the line; I'm going to put him through on the speakerphone. My question for Al: How do you see the climate for, let's say, eccentric or alternative film exhibition in 2006 as opposed to how it seemed to you at any point in the past? What are some of the new challenges for someone who continues to present unusual films to an audience that is increasingly disinterested and distracted?
Al Milgrom [founder of the University Film Society and director of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival]: Well, I'm in a rehab place right now [after having had surgery], so if I have to call [a nurse] for something, [you should] take that into note. Let me say that eccentric is in the eye of the beholder. When I look back to the '60s and '70s, I see that everything was eccentric. The challenge now [as an exhibitor] is to place yourself within different levels of culture that are changing all the time--especially with digital media and the Internet and so on. Most of us work in the high-culture area, it seems to me: auteur cinema, the glorious past, all the hearts beating together in one dark space--the old cliches. If you mean alternative when you say eccentric, then yes: There are a lot of new groups that have their own ways of being alternative. Any little basement bowling alley with a bootleg video now can get an audience that's just discovering Bunuel's "Andalusian Dog." Big deal. To them, that's eccentric.
CP: What do you do?
Milgrom: We [independent exhibitors] know that we have to compromise and bring in the new [culture], seek out new trends, and not lose sight of the past. We're all trying to do that in our own ways. At the Oak Street, the mission has changed: Bob [Cowgill]'s mission was a very conservative mission based on redefining or rediscovering the past. And we all know that didn't work--at least if you want to look at it in terms of box office. I say that with all due respect. There were some excellent programs [at the Oak Street]. When Peter Fonda comes in [for a screening of his film The Hired Hand], or you have some big festival, you do get people interested. If you show a [Robert] Bresson film at 11 in the morning, it's eccentric, but no one is gonna show up.
CP: Is the point here that in seeking a balance [as an exhibitor], one allows the appearance of Peter Fonda, for example, to support that morning screening of [Bresson's] Au hazard Balthazar?
Milgrom: Well, those two examples are too far apart to have a direct relationship. But yeah: Balance is a key word if you want to attract people. You're not going to get people to care about Robert Bresson. You'd almost have to go back to their high school teachers and deal with their cultural patrimony.
BRINGING UP BABY
CP: Well, if we have to get [new audiences] when they're in high school, that's going to be difficult, but...
Milgrom: How many kids do you know? They're taking a film course at Kennedy High School in Bloomington and the teacher has never even heard of Potemkin.
Mousley: Speaking of high school kids: Next week [at the Walker] we're screening [the documentary] Lost Boys of Sudan, which is not even a current documentary, and we have kids coming from all the high schools. We've got morning screenings...
Milgrom: Yeah, but Sheryl: You can do it. You've got a budget. You've got people there [at the Walker] whose whole passion in life for the last month [has been] to get all the kids you can to come in. It's great that you're doing it.
Mousley: That's the point: We're doing it. We have the resources, yes--I admit that. We have 200 kids coming from South [High School], kids from a lot of other high schools as well. Kids want to come to movies.
Milgrom: But will they come [to the Bell] this weekend to see The Untold Story of Emmett Till? No.
CP: I'd say we need to make it a mission of ours as exhibitors to seek out those audiences and devote whatever resources we have--whether it's volunteer time or whatever is at hand--to inviting young audiences to come and discover this world that's vanishing.
Milgrom: Yeah. It's a noble idea. I think we've been trying to do that--with our limited resources and limited personnel. Everybody has got to go out and interpret what his audience is going to be. The guy who's doing that Cinema Revolution series--I don't know how revolutionary it is, I need to check [his] program [schedule]. The criteria for everyone is success--measured mostly in terms of audience-size and finance. You've got [MFA] board members sitting there [on the panel]: They're gonna be the first ones to veto anything that's not [likely] to be successful at the box office.
CP: Do any board members here want to respond to that?
Milgrom: I'm saying that each person on the panel represents a certain audience and measures success by the usual standards--material and pragmatic.
CP: What's your measure of success in film exhibition?
Milgrom: Well, if I could get Lost Boys of Sudan and do what Sheryl is doing with it, I would--and I'd be very happy. But there's so much opportunism in this game, so much horse-trading, that you're lucky if you can pull it off. Once in a while, you get something [unexpectedly profitable] like [the Bell's] Ganges: River to Heaven or Bonhoeffer. I'd love to see Illusive Tracks run [at Oak Street] for five weeks--just 'cause it's a lot of fun. But you can't translate that to an audience. We don't like to read at movies because we never had good reading teachers. Too bad: We don't go to subtitled movies. This is the rationale that you hear all the time. My measure of success, basically, is survival. It's about doing what you want to do in a way that will work and bring the greatest benefit to the greatest number [of people]. Think how democratic that sounds.
CP: With a small d.
Milgrom: In this kind of market and this kind of atmosphere, everyone, I would assume, is in survival mode. It's not a good situation right now. We're on a university campus and the question is, How do you attract kids? Even kids who major in cinema have never heard of Robert Bresson. Maybe it's our fault for not letting them know that [the Bresson retrospective] was going to be there [at Oak Street]. All these small arts groups are really struggling--with small staffs, with no money. The criteria for state subsidies is changing, I'm sure. And the foundations use the same criteria. Now, if you were in Europe, it would be a totally different situation. The politicians in Zurich or wherever vote [for] you [to receive] a certain chunk of money, and you roll with it. In Canada it's the same. But in the U.S., it's about small entrepreneurs, private capitalism.
CP: I'm wondering if Rob [Silberman] could speak to the potential for fortifying the connection between Minnesota Film Arts and the university community with its young students. Could this [effort] increase both attendance and interest in the young people who we hope will be supporters of alternative exhibition in the future?
Silberman: I'm someone who is introducing 19-year-olds to Potemkin; I did that exactly one week ago [laughs]. And "Un chien Andalou" next week. Once upon a time, I even taught [Bresson's] Diary of a Country Priest. I know a cultural studies professor [at the U of M] who required his students to attend the Bresson retrospective [at Oak Street].
Milgrom: But nobody came.
Silberman: There were a few.
Condon: Bresson actually didn't do that badly [laughs].
Silberman: Students do attend [MFA] screenings. I recommend the Oak Street and the Bell to them all the time.
Milgrom: I think it boils down to the importance of letting everyone know what's [playing]. Then you see what happens. If it doesn't work, you try something else. Isn't it odd that, from my perspective, [the basic challenge] hasn't changed in 45 years?
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE
CP: In terms of the need to let everyone know what's playing: I think we might find out pretty soon what happens [to attendance] when people can't find out from [newspapers] what's playing [at alternative venues].
Milgrom: Print, yeah--that's another big problem!
CP: What I'm saying is that the coverage of "eccentric" films seems as much under siege right now as the films themselves, and by some of the same kinds of forces.
Milgrom: Yeah. But Bob [Cowgill] would vote to support the non-eccentric films. The mission of the Oak Street when it joined [with U Film Society to create MFA in 2003] was to present the great classics.
CP: You're being called out, Bob. Would you like to respond?
Milgrom: I'm much more interested in finding the cutting-edge stuff, the new stuff. Do you really expect anyone to go out and read War and Peace anymore?
CP: Bob [laughs]?
Cowgill: Well, the idea of a repertory cinema is not the idea that it would be the only cinema in the culture--just that it would support and augment other cinemas. The idea is that you show the mainstays--the classics, because people do come out to see, for example, Casablanca--so that you can show other films that are not the mainstays. Sometimes you [book] an entire program simply because there are two films in it that you couldn't play otherwise. And you surround those films with titles that you think a mainstream audience will support--so that you can show the films that are maybe a little more dicey. You're constantly recreating contexts in which you can show the full history of cinema--and you don't know from one year to the next what's going to be most interesting to people, what's going to speak to the moment. We could never effectively play melodrama; maybe melodrama is a dead form. But I'd like to think that 10 years from now, 15 years from now, or tomorrow, films that never performed [well] before will suddenly be interesting to people.
Milgrom: We need more data on the audience. We're the suppliers--we're the tastemakers, the cultural purveyors--and we don't know what the demand is.
Condon: This conversation troubles me in a couple of ways, Al. You say nobody wants to read Tolstoy anymore. And Bob earlier made the analogy to symphony orchestras. When you go to Orchestra Hall, you don't see anyone [in his or her 20s] or younger--or [you see] very few. If we're a nonprofit, mission-driven organization, are we only responding to the audience? Or are we trying to say something to them? Are we trying to create the audience along with responding to it? If you say that you need data to know exactly what the audience needs, that makes a lot of sense if you're a for-profit organization--if you're Landmark, for example. But the whole reason [MFA] exists--the whole reason it should get subsidies, donations, and contributions--is because it has an obligation to help create and shape a critical culture, to challenge people and not just show them whatever it is they want to see. Don't you think, Al? You've been doing that forever.
Milgrom: Well, yeah. The whole idea of mentioning Tolstoy is just to ask the question of whether anyone would listen to you if you went out on a street corner and started reading [aloud]. What are these young people doing if not coming to the movies?
Wronski: I think you need to stop wasting energy trying to [attract] the college audience. You guys [at MFA] have had some great successes over the years at both venues. But you know, Landmark had two beautiful theaters within the [University of Wisconsin] area in Milwaukee and it never got that [college] audience. We tried year in and year out. When did we get 'em? We got 'em twice: for From Dusk Till Dawn and for Kids. You don't want to write off [college students] or make them feel unwelcome. But your core audience is not the students.
Milgrom: But we're talking about change.
Wronski: Yeah, but why? The audience that you do serve--and it isn't students--can be served better.
Milgrom: Why should I want to serve these guys?
Cohen: I think there's a middle ground between what Emily suggests and what Al suggests. Let me speak again as a politician. If I do polling [as a politician], it's not because I'm going to change my position. If I find that 40 percent or 60 percent of my district is against abortion rights, my position on abortion rights is going to remain the same [as it was]. But what market-survey work will do is allow the nuances to come out and give you a sense of what's at the corner of things. And that might make a difference--not in a way that's going to be contrary to the mission, and not in a way that goes against challenging people and pushing them and educating them and being visionary about how you express the mission. [Research] would be a way to identify some things that you haven't noticed, that you haven't thought about.
Mousley: It's also about strategic thinking. The Walker is what it is because of a lot of careful planning to get to that point. When we looked at the youth audience and saw that it wasn't coming to films [at the Walker], we set up this program where we literally have free screenings at 9:30 in the morning for high school kids. And they come by the busloads. You have to get it into the [school] curriculum.
Sekuler: We did a very similar thing with the [M-SPIFF] last year. We wrote a grant to the Academy Foundation to pay for busing students and providing free screenings to them at the Oak Street. We brought in brand new kids' films. We hired a programmer.
Condon: And it was a huge success.
Wronski: But what happens when you go back to [school teachers and administrators] with a really good film like Emmett Till or something? What if you say, "Well, we need to charge you for this one--it's a first-run film--but it's really worth it, even if you pay for the buses"? Are they gonna go for that?
Sekuler: Often times they will. I wouldn't say that [MFA] has been negligent [in extending those invitations]; we have reached out to the community at a number of different times in order to try to bring students in. We're not at the luxury, unfortunately, to say, "Hey, we have enough sponsorship money or foundation money behind us to provide a free screening; you [at the school] just need to pay for the buses." Sometimes [the school] does need to pay two or three dollars [per student].
Mousley: We [ask for some financial support from the schools], too. But again, what's important is the strategic thinking that's required to go to a foundation and say, What does the community need? It needs a new generation of [filmgoers]. How do we get that? We get it by getting the school kids involved, getting them to come and see films on the big screen and to engage in conversations afterward so that they know the benefit of having that kind of experience. And then we screen foreign-language films and have [the subtitles] read [aloud to young viewers].
CP: Or you invite them to make movies.
Milgrom: I always saw the [U Film Society] and Oak Street as educational; that was maybe even their primary function. As you say, Sheryl, it takes work to drum up [young audiences].
Sekuler: To me, there's a certain travesty in the fact that, over the 45 years, Al, that you've spent putting this [organization] together, the infrastructure of the place is still not at a point for us to be able to bring these kinds of screenings to students. All along the [organization's] history, the people who have been stewarding the organization have dropped the ball.
DO THE RIGHT THING
Susan Smoluchowski [VP of Development and Marketing at the Council on Crime and Justice, and MFA board member]: I'd just like to say that I think this is where we [at MFA] have an opportunity. I think we've begun to recognize--all of us involved in the Oak Street and Minnesota Film Arts--that there have been some missed opportunities, that there may be a place for [the organization] in this community. We still have a lot to explore, and that's what we really need to do here. We need a strategy. It seems to me that there are a lot of idealists sitting around this table, and that's wonderful. But there are also some very practical thinkers here. And what we need to do at Minnesota Film Arts is to get a little bit more practical about where we're going.
Milgrom: We know where we're going--we just need the support from the board. We're trying to get [the next M-SPIFF] going. We know where we want to go, but there's all this dalliance.
Cohen: There has to be a change, I think--and there have been some discussions of this--to the nature of the infrastructure. Probably the arts organization that I've been the most involved with over the years is the Guthrie: I worked there as a kid, and I've been on and off the board for the last 15 years. In the early '80s, the Guthrie--the second-largest arts organization in Minnesota--had gone from having a visionary founder [Tyrone Guthrie, who died in 1971] to almost shutting down. As I understand it, what [the board of directors at the Guthrie] did then--it was more of a blueblood board than [MFA's], obviously--was to renovate the marketing department and development office, and restructure the organization.
Cohen: And that's what we're talking about doing now [at MFA]. But it doesn't happen overnight.
CP: Hey, John [Koch]--do you know of any visionaries who might be available?
Koch: Well, what I can say about working with limited resources is that nobody at this table has more limited resources than I do. I started my business with nothing. And I'm not a nonprofit organization: I can't go out and get donations, I don't have a tax shelter. All I have to rely on are my sales. So I think that there are ways to get around limited means. Each of us has an audience, and the best way [for each group to grow] is to share those audiences, to work together. Because we're all trying to get the same people into our particular venues. One of the things we're working on through [our screening series at the Varsity] is trying to put a publication together that shows everything that's going on film-wise in the Twin Cities...
CP: You're coming along at a really good time, John.
Koch: ...whether it's productions, in sense of IFP [member] productions, or film exhibition or DVD rentals--all of it, so it's all in one place.
CP: Can you start next week [laughs]?
Koch: We can try. Someone touched on this earlier: Right now, the way people get their information [about film] is sort of disparate.
Grady: I would agree with that. But we're talking about the struggles of Minnesota Film Arts and the successes of the Walker and Landmark. I don't think it would work for [MFA] to say to the Walker or Landmark, "Can we have your e-mail list so we can advertise a film or a festival?"
Wronski: Well, on some occasions [that kind of arrangement could work].
Grady: But that's what it's going to take if people want to support the Oak. I want to go back to the point about the school bus program: I will tell you, Adam [Sekuler], that you never said to me [or other board members], "We need to start this [kind of] program [for school children]--we've never been able to do it, and that's what we need to do." You criticize Al [for not establishing such a program], but you [were] the programmer [of the Bell].
Sekuler: Well, I can tell you that Deb [Girdwood, director of last year's Childish Film Festival] delivered to you a proposal that was pretty similar [to what we're talking about], and you did tell her [that you didn't accept the proposal].
Grady: I think the issue is that this is a struggling organization, and there are a lot of holes: There no marketing person in place; there has never been a marketing person, there have only been programmers.
CP: Okay--we've been talking for almost two hours now and we should probably try to wrap it up. Can we go around the table and collect a final comment from everyone?
Cohen: That's [a good idea], but I want to ask one question of Bob [Cowgill] first: This conversation has been divided between a discussion of repertory film and whether it can work, and a discussion of [particular venues]. And if I were to recreate a venue--and I think Tim [Grady] would agree with me here--it would be the Orpheum in downtown St. Paul, the greatest movie theater I've ever been in. Is there a qualitative difference [between venues]? I've been in the Oak Street for years and years and years--I love the theater. But is there a qualitative difference between watching Grand Illusion at the Oak Street and watching it at the Riverview? Is there a difference between watching it there and watching it in, say, a small box at the Har Mar?
Cowgill: Well, yeah--I believe that there is [a qualitative difference between experiences of the same films at different venues]. When I opened the Oak Street [in 1995], it had not shown films for five years. And I was very afraid that [the theater] would have the wrong ambiance. I had no idea what the ambiance would be. You can watch a film in a particular space and it just feels wrong. My memories of the Campus Theater [the building that's now the Oak Street] were that [the ambiance] wasn't that great. But the Oak Street had [ambiance]: You could sense it that first Monday night when we had people show up for a noir film. There's a way in which you can define why it is that an ambience exists [at the Oak Street]. I think it's because [the theater doesn't have] stadium seating; you have to look around people's heads to see the screen. I think it's partly because a crowd of 70 [people] feels big there and makes the rep mission feel alive. I think it's partly because the lobby is cramped and cold. But whether or not one likes those [qualities], I believe that it does make a difference where you're showing a film--that there is no other Oak Street Cinema [in the world], just as there is no other Brattle. That's a romantic, visionary, maybe impractical fact, but I believe it. The evidence of the Oak Street over the last 10 years is that you can manipulate the market--you can work within the market and succeed there.
CP: Do you want that to be your last comment, Bob?
Cowgill: That's fine.
THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW
Grady: You know, I think the Oak has some charm--Bob created it, and it looks good. But I think Dick [Cohen]'s point about these grand old movie houses--like the Castro [in San Francisco], the Balboa, the Walter Reade, these theaters that do survive--is that they really exude charm. The Riverview is another [theater I think really exudes charm]. But I have to be honest with you: The Oak was built as a garage and [was] turned into a movie theater. So it's not one of the grand old houses that exude all that history. I think in some towns, theaters work because of their historical presence in the marketplace, because people like to go there. It's a really interesting issue. And I think the Uptown--it's kind of falling apart, it needs some new seats and so on--is one [theater] that has this great old tradition and history; it's the classic kind of big rep house that's succeeding in the country right now.
CP: Let's continue around the table with final comments.
Smoluchowski: I was just thinking about audience. Because I know that when you have 70 people in the Oak, it feels good--it does feel like a full audience. But I think we know that in the past three years, on a given night, you might find two or three people in the Oak Street. And so that means to me that we have a lot of work to do--just to figure out who our audience is and bring [it] in there. I think we need to get practical about this, and I think we need to strategize about how we're going to do that.
Koch: I just want to touch on the importance of cultivating film culture. I think DVD is a perfect way to [maintain film culture]. If people are exposed to, say, Ingmar Bergman films through DVDs, the next time [a theater] plays a Bergman film, people are going to be more likely to attend. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about how each [group] can be a part of the same mechanism. I think DVD can be an aid in this process [of maintaining film culture] and not a hindrance to it.
CP: Limited as your resources are, John, would you like to sponsor a Bergman retrospective at the Oak Street?
Condon: John has sponsored a number of things at the Oak Street.
Koch: I'd love to do whatever I can. In closing, I would just say that I want to help: Anybody at this table can come to me for access to my customers--I can't give out my e-mail list, but I can get you included on my e-mails, I can put your flyers up in my store. I'll do whatever I can.
Sekuler: Speaking as a departing member of this community, I'm saddened to be leaving [town] at this particular moment, which I think is somewhat historic in a number of ways. I'm leaving an organization [for which] I worked for five years: I saw it grow and then saw it decline in some ways. I hope that [MFA] doesn't continue to decline. To me, the film [exhibition situation] in this town is indicative of a number of other [situations] that the community is experiencing. I feel that [at MFA] I've witnessed the potential loss of a cultural institution. I see the potential loss of the Oak Street as a loss for the community. I think that the demographics of this city are changing pretty rapidly, and that there are new audiences coming to town; maybe those audiences are experiencing [movies] at home and not [in theaters]. There's also potential jeopardy to press support [of alternative film exhibition] here, and to me that's also a serious travesty: I see it as an indication of changes that are happening globally and locally in relation to the way that media is being disseminated and owned--and that probably has something to do with this revolution, if you want to call it that, of digital technology and the way that people are consuming these things. I see the whole urban experience in jeopardy: It's not just the film experience. I'm concerned about where culture is headed here. I hope that what's left continues to fight [to survive]. I think an organization like the Walker or Minnesota Film Arts has a purpose in the community, and that purpose is to fight against these changes that are happening, to try to preserve something that once was. I think this [kind of struggle] is one of the reasons that Bob started the Oak Street in the first place: It's the idea that there are values that you want to have--you want to hold onto them, and the world is making it increasingly difficult for you to hold onto them. I hope that when I look at Minneapolis [from afar], I'll see that you've created a barrier around yourselves to preserve what it is that's so special about this film culture that we've all been a part of.
Cohen: That's an excellent point. I think that technology coupled with the diffusion of the exurban Twin Cities is a real concern on a variety of levels, not the least of which is cultural.
Condon: Well, Adam just wrote a book there [laughs]. I would just second the notion that, yes, it's a question of pragmatics, certainly, and of circumstance and logistics and all those things. But most important, it's a question of values, just in terms of what kind of world we want to live in, what kind of world we want to help construct. I would hate to see mere pragmatic solutions carry the day. [Repertory cinema] is made to sound so conservative, as if it's just rehashing the past. But I think it's more than that. I think [repertory] is a continual creation of the present. And that [project] needs to be valued by people.
Mousley: We've been talking about mission. I think if you have a really clear mission--part of the Walker's overall mission, certainly, is to be a catalyst for change, and to examine the questions that affect our culture--then that [mission] can be a way of focusing the programming. We can take on all of these things in different ways. I know that the conversation today has been mainly about repertory film, but we [at the Walker] have also been able to expand into a lot of different areas--so that we can have webcam [images] sent to us from China, or conversations with filmmakers by podcast before screenings. So when you're sitting in the cinema waiting for the film to start, you can actually call on your cell phone and hear the filmmaker talking about his or her film, the one you're about to see. Those are ways of using technology to be part of what we do even while we work to maintain this sense of a cinema space in a more old-fashioned sense. So we're trying to balance all of this out: to go into the future with a great enthusiasm for technology and change, but also to maintain this sense of community, of people coming together to breathe each other's air and feel each other's heartbeats during a [screening] and then have a conversation about it afterward. So I think we're really trying to embrace all of these things and look at how to move forward.
Wronski: I would point out that when people talk about technology, they seem to forget that film is a technology. And it's a great one--it just happens to have been developed a long time ago. For my money, [35mm] is still the best technology [with which] to show a film--or most films, which the exception of something shot digitally. I think digital [exhibition technology] isn't quite [adequate] yet: The rhetoric [about its superiority to film] is ahead of the reality. I've always thought that Minneapolis is a great film town. I've always hoped it was: I have to believe it in my job, I have to believe it in my life. And the Oak Street is a big part of that. I hope that [the Oak Street] prospers--that it continues to prosper. I know that it has prospered. I know you guys have done good work and that you've done it thanklessly and for not much money, and that you've put on a lot of good stuff over the years. And I thank you for that. When I moved back [to the Twin Cities] from Milwaukee, the Oak Street was a new thing: It was an addition to the quality of life in the Twin Cities, something that wasn't here when I was here in the late '80s and early '90s. I would be sad if it went away.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.