Oak Street Cinema reels

Revolution will be projected, staff says

U of M—Is this the last waltz for the Oak Street Cinema on the East Bank of the mighty Mississippi? This venerable art house cinema is dancing with life and death due to financial and organizational distress. Its future is unclear, but there is an Oak Street revolution afoot to keep it running as a repertory theater.

Minnesota Film Arts’ Oak Street Cinema has a one-time debt of more than $130,000. In September, the 11-month tenure of Executive Director Jamie Hook ended in his firing after managerial mishaps such as neglecting to apply for several grants. He has not been replaced. MFA staff are rapidly diminishing. Audience attendance has dwindled due to such factors as the convenience of Netflix DVD rentals by mail, and home theaters.

Augsburg College film studies professor Bob Cowgill and a core group of passionate cinephiles revived the historic Campus Theatre in Stadium Village as the Oak Street Cinema in 1995. Since then, the Oak Street Cinema has illuminated hearts and minds by hosting hundreds of foreign and classic films.

Two nonprofits, the U Film Society (founded by Al Milgrom) and the Oak Street Cinema (founded by Cowgill), merged in 2002 and MFA was formed. Three board members each from those two organizations (counting MFA) formed the original MFA board of directors. Then, in April 2003, Cowgill was offered a film studies professor position at Augsburg. Board member Susan Smoluchowski said the board immediately put out a nationwide call for a new executive director. Eventually, Hook was hired from Seattle.

On January 14, before a screening of “Citizen Kane,” nearly 300 Oak Street Cinema lovers attended a public meeting hosted by MFA staff and moderated by Peter Wagenius, senior aide to Mayor R. T. Rybak. MFA staff called the meeting to inform members and a concerned Oak Street Cinema filmgoing community about the problems the cinema is experiencing. The MFA directors were invited by Cowgill.

An MFA staff statement handed to moviegoers in line before the meeting said MFA is having “serious organizational problems,” with the administrative office “in an unworkable state” and the staff “largely unable to book films, place advertisements, or pay bills due to lack of financial resources and because relations between the staff and the board have broken down.”

Four board members attended: Tim Grady, Susan Smoluchowski, Larry Lamb, and Rob Silverman. Silverman, an MFA and U Film board member for 25 years, said, “We’re surprised by some things on the [staff statement] sheet but we want to hear the community’s input.” At first, the board members said they weren’t sure they were going to enter the theater for the meeting, because of the statement. Grady said, “We don’t want to be blindsided.”

Discussion at the meeting became heated among audience members, staff, volunteers and board spokesperson Tim Grady. Accusations flew and questions went unanswered, consuming the allotted meeting time of 10 minutes, and ultimately lasting an hour.

“This is a necessary act of romantic faith in our culture. There’s a romantic side and a pragmatic side to keeping it alive,” Cowgill said of the Oak Street Cinema’s mission. “If you want to point a finger, point it at me. The glue was on the merger when I took another job.

“The Oak Street is like your dog, hit by a car. You didn’t hit it, but you have to figure out what you’re going to do,” Cowgill continued. “It’s looking up at you with big brown eyes.”

Outside after the film, Cowgill said he pitched the idea of procuring a loan together with the MFA Board of Directors. He also offered advertising and fund-raising strategies. The board was supportive at first, he said, but “at the 11th hour” rejected Cowgill’s offers.

Eight-month MFA board member Tim Grady, president of World Cycling Productions and Cycle Sport magazine, said he has loaned $75,000 to the Oak Street to cover some of its expenses and debt.

“We’re not selling the building,” Grady said. “We need to raise cash to pay the bills. We might get another mortgage. We want to keep the theater going.”

Grady said the board has funding for the next Minneapolis–St. Paul International Film Festival, which MFA mounts each spring.

At the meeting, Oak Street Cinema projectionist Andy Hersey asked why the board had showed the theater building to a developer a week earlier, if they had no intention to sell it. Grady responded, “We have the right. We’re tapped out [at] the bank.”

The meeting ended after moderator Wagenius closed the discussion, saying a public meeting would be called later (the date has not yet been set). He told the audience: “I’m going to donate $100 and come more often. I challenge you to do the same.”

In an interview later, Smoluchowski commented about showing the Oak Street Cinema building to developers. “We have to look at every possibility, due to the state we’re in. We want to get a sense of if there’s interest in the building; that’s par for the course when you’re in this situation. We’re looking at the market, to see what the market value of the building is,” she said.

They are also considering programmatic changes for the Oak Street. “Second-runs are one of many ideas,” Smoluchowski said. “Tim [Grady] has done much programming in his past. We’re exploring every option barring big commercial production.” She said the board would work with Al Milgrom and staff on programming decisions.

“A significant number of bills are outstanding. We paid a number of them last week. We’re paying film distributors, and the most imminent bills,” she said, adding that there is currently “no money for anything,” although the board has been able to continue making payroll.

“The board of MFA plans to move forward with the festival, maintain programming at the Bell and do everything we can to keep the Oak Street open.

“We didn’t make a pitch for donations at the meeting because we don’t know if the Oak Street will be viable in six months,” she said.

Oak Street Cinema Program Director Emily Condon, who had resigned the week before, said staff didn’t know about the financial problems and earlier board considerations of closing until a Christmas party. “If we’d known, we could have begun fund-raising sooner.” Audience members and volunteers at the meeting expressed similar concerns about not knowing the theater’s dire straits earlier.

“The experience of being able to come to a movie theater and not be lonely is important,” Condon said.

Film Festival Program Director Milgrom said, “This loneliness adds up to a lot of debts. We’re in a market force. You’re only about as good as your last movie. You have to come next week or this meeting means nothing.” Milgrom noted some problems are DVD rentals and market decline and lack of University of Minnesota student attendance. “Where are all the university kids? There aren’t many here!” He told the audience, “We want to know what you want.”

Oak Street Cinema Theater Manager Joe Midthun said, “If the community loses repertory cinema, it loses a lot.” He said the importance of repertory and revival films “delving into the deep cache of films since the beginning of film, is bringing back films to the big screen and bringing films that help people understand their world.”

Hersey said, “I love the films you can’t see anywhere else. The experiences you get from this theater are as important as the films themselves.”

Filmmaker Mark Wojahn said, “The value of the Oak Street is as a meeting place for the community. It’s where we learn about our world. It’s a place to hear stories. It’s a hall or a piazza where we go to hear these stories and meet with each other. At the beginning and end of every film is a meeting for audiences. How we tell our stories and how we come together as a community will decide how we thrive as a culture.”

“The Oak Street has the potential to bring stories more relevant and significant to people’s daily lives than the multiplexes bringing us the same stories 30–50 different times a year.” Wojahn offered an idea to set the Oak Street further apart from the mainstream—invite film hosts such as programmers, students, and filmmakers to introduce films and facilitate post-film discussions with the audience. He’s observed how this brings out the personal side of the viewing at film festivals he’s attended.

This could happen soon. Wagenius announced that Mayor Rybak, whom he called a “huge supporter” of the Oak Street Cinema, is planning a “Movie with the Mayor” night there, and Ward 2 Councilmember Cam Gordon would like to host a movie night, possibly called “Cinema with Cam.”

Al Milgrom, founder of the U Film Society in 1962, said a couple of the problems are: The number of social and cultural forces to contend with, and a small budget and small staff trying to compete with bigger films. He noted that the last quarter of programming was set in place before Hook left, and “some choices were not so smart.” He and staff are calling to bring in new films. They hope to get a balance of repertory classics, and recent foreign and independent films that “people may have missed across town.”

Condon and Milgrom both noted that the Oak Street Cinema is not alone in its troubles. The Boston Brattle art house cinema, in Harvard Square, Boston, Massachusetts, is $400,000 in debt. It’s getting much public support. “There are theaters like this that aren’t as vulnerable—that are receiving more corporate and funding support,” she said.

Hersey, Oak Street projectionist for 10 years said, “Problems were beginning when Hook arrived. No one who was working here, I felt, had managerial or bookkeeping abilities.” He added, “I hope that the theater will continue. It’s still of value to the community. But not with this board, as they’ve shown no commitment to the theater’s programming. The staff feels kind of powerless, because the board is not sharing with anyone what their plans are.”

Condon said that concerns about the board of directors’ management of the organization led her to resign. “I wasn’t supported,” she said. “Over my four-and-a-half years here, my vision of the mission was different than the board.” She said there are no remaining board members who were originally affiliated with the Oak Street Cinema.

“It’s hard to get the word out. The less financial resources, the less we have for marketing and the less people we get,” Condon said. “There’s a community that’s growing quickly, working toward maintaining the vision of the classic, foreign and art house cinema,” she said, referring to a recently formed organization called the Friends of Oak Street.

Staff member Adam Sekuler said, “I hope the board can come up with a good long-term plan, and I’m happy that the public is now aware of the situation.”

Visit www.mnfilmarts.org/oakstreet and www.savetheoakstreet.com to learn more. Z

last revised: August 9, 2006