Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Minnesota Film Arts: What's next?

So: My favorite movie theater is in serious trouble, and I'd like to tell you about it. I'll keep this brief, since those of you who don't live in Minnesota (obviously, a majority of the people who read this blog) may not care about the problems of one small independent cinema somewhere in the cold part of flyover country. But I hope it's of interest to everyone here who cares about good movies, especially the ones that don't come with a marketing budget larger than the Venezuelan gross national product. (Which is also, I think, a majority of us here.)

To summarize a complicated situation briefly: Minnesota Film Arts is a local nonprofit which runs two theaters, the Bell (which screens documentaries exclusively) and the Oak Street Cinema (which screens a mix of older classics like Casablanca and new independent film), as well as organizing the annual Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, which is the third-largest cultural event in the state. Like many nonprofit arts organizations, it's often fueled more by willpower than money, and, in a nutshell, the organization is deeply in debt. There are a number of reasons why. One is that cinemas across the country are battling declining attendance, as people stay home to watch Netflix, surf the Internet, play The Sims, or basically anything but go to the movies. A second reason—and here's where things get tricky—is the financial mismanagement of MFA's former executive director, who was shown the door after a tenure that included missing at least one, and apparently several, vital grant deadlines that cost the organization tens of thousands of dollars. There are allegations, which may have some merit, that the board of directors has been unsupportive and foot-dragging in filling key positions (like an on-staff fundraiser), though it should be noted that one of them has put thousands of dollars of his own money into keeping the operation afloat. It's also possible that the Oak Street hasn't been screening movies that enough people want to see; a recent run of the South African film Cape Of Good Hope grossed only $700 in a week. To make matters worse, the relations between the staff and the board have deteriorated alarmingly, with two resignations in the last two weeks, both reportedly precipitated by a board decision to close down the Oak.

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Minnesota Film Arts staff organized a public meeting abou the situation before last Saturday's screening of

Citizen Kane, which I attended. At the meeting, a statement from the staff was distributed, declaring that things had reached "an unworkable state." I won't try to reconstruct a detailed account of what happened, since it's been covered extensively already both in the two daily newspapers, the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune, as well as reports by local bloggers Peter Schilling, MNSpeak, and Luke Francl, a report from Ian of Save The Oak Street, and video shot by Chuck Olsen of MNStories. But it was obvious that more questions were raised than answered, and that emotions were running too high for a genuine dialogue to begin. Another public meeting needs to be held, and soon, so that the board, staff, and moviegoing public can meet and discuss what should be done to save the theater.

Because it does deserve to be saved. It would be a terrible shame if the Oak Street closed. I won't try to write a long essay about why independent movie houses like this are vital and irreplaceable parts of civic culture. I'll just quote Bob Cowgill, the Oak Street's founder, who spoke at the public meeting and called the theater "a necessary act of romantic faith in our culture." Yes, we've got Netflix and a local Landmark Theaters multiplex, so nobody will lose arthouse movies forever, but Oak Street, both for its place as a linchpin of the film festival and on its own terms, is a special place.

Clearly there are problems to be solved, big ones. MFA's debt is apparently around $150,000. That's a lot of money, but it doesn't seem like an insurmountable amount to overcome. Surely a solution can be found to keep the theater alive, because when a hole the size and shape of the Oak Street opens up in a community, you can't count on anything like it showing up to fill it.

Save The Oak Street has compiled a list of contacts for anyone interested in sharing ideas. If and when the second public meeting is announced, I'll post the information here.

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