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Friday, March 03, 2006

SHIFTING SOIL UNDER THE OAK

At the staff organized community meeting between Casablanca and Citizen Kane, when the topic of the future of MFA was raised, Board member Tim Grady stated that the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF ) was fully funded and would go forward, following on a twenty plus year tradition in April. This assurance seemed to place a China Wall between the crisis of operating the slumping box office at Oak Street for revival films and our world-class film festival.

Now, the international film festival seems to be in doubt.

First, Al Milgrom founder and driving force behind MSPIFF went in for heart surgery during the Berlin International Film Festival (traditional a well-spring of film bookings for MSPIFF) and other Minnesotans hoped to see into Tim Grady in Berlin acting on Milgroms behalf. But nobody saw Grady there.

Second, placing a phone call to the offices of MFA will reveal and entirely new and inexperienced, if not, enthusiastic staff. Adam Sekuler has left for Seattle to began working at the Northwest Film Center. Al Milgrom is still recuperating at home, albeit it reluctantly. Gretchen Williams was picked as one of the hip and cool in Mpls/St. Paul magazine but not an employee of MFA. Emily Condon is gone and needless to say (despite that fact I had coffee with him in the skyway this week) Jamie Hook is happily engaged at a new cinema/live theater organization in Williamsburg Brooklyn. A week ago the MFA staff and board had not booked any films for the April schedule. If the problem at MFA was the staff, as Grady contented and not the board, now that the staff has been wiped out, where is the healing?

Third, according to a source close to the situation, the festival will not be held in April breaking with a decades long tradition and in its place a scaled down film schedule in unreel. The talk around the community is the next main festival will be moved to the fall of 2006.

This is bad news for Minnesota film lovers and could mark the end of our international film festival forever. A fall international film festival is a completely different species than one held in the spring from a programming standpoint. Moving a film festival six months downline is not as simple a task as it might seem -- its not like extending the deadline.

Probably the most disturbing aspect of the situation at MFA as it has unfolded is the lack of communication from the board with the community. Mostly, this is marked by two completely polar assessments of the condition of the organization. Other revival houses like the Oak Street around the country, more specifically the Bratttle Theater in Boston, experienced similiar downturns in box office revenues and declining membership.

Faced with the impending emergency, the Board of the Brattle jumped into action, came up with a comprehensive plan to rescue and revitalize the organization and set a deadline for the community to raise a targeted $400,000 otherwise the Brattle Foundation would close the doors. This clarity of purpose and resolve to go forward with community support is the leadership we need from MFA. Unfortunately, issues and analysis of the problem seem to have polarized the core of the non-profit board and membership.

One pole in the argument says revival cinema and Oak Street are completely healthy and artistically necessary while the Bell Museum and U Film is a drag on the organization. The other side says Oak looses money and has high overhead in keeping the doors open while the Bell with its documentary focus has been programmatically stable. Both positions now have begun to cannibalize the entire organization. And what's missing is responsible leadership and effective fiscal management.

Probbaly the most encouraging sign was a roundtable discussion hosted by Rob Nelson in the City Pages with leading curators and media arts administrators as well as Adam, Emily and Tim Grady from MFA. This community dialogue needs to continue.

6 comments:

faremo said...

Speaking as a long time Oak St volunteer, I'd like to say that I believe revival cinema and Oak Street are entirely viable and artistically necessary, as are the Bell Museum and U Film venue and concept.

I don't believe that Bell, the Oak St Cinema or MSPIFF are a drag on the organization. All three serve a purpose, and we should be working to keep all three vital.

Like the hundreds of people at the open meeting in January, I am ready to contribute my time, and my money, for this cause. It's time for MFA to stop discussing how "difficult" it is to run a theater. They need to present their plan for the future, and give us the opportunity to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Executive Producer said...

Right on! You're one the people who will save the Oak and Bell from going away forever. I applaud your efforts in the past and cheer you enthusiasm for the future! Keep up the good fight.

from said...

Despite my never ending attempts to emotional detach myself from the trainwreck of MFA, I continue to pay attention even though I no longer go to the theatres. The news, as you can find on the frontpage of the MFA site, is that the festival tickets are going on sale soon. I have no idea what the program is going to look like. What I can say is that I see what they've been doing at the Oak Street, and well it might as well be nothing. It looks to me like they've been lazy. Films that haven't made any money, they keep extending because no one is working to program the space. there arre no programmers left, none. They have made no attempts to secure any either.

What I can tell you is that the Bell program is one Adam put together before he left. I'd be surprised if they continue to screen docs after that program expires. Really surprised, delighted if it happened, but I doubt it will.

I plan on continuing to watch the situation because I care alot about MFA and Minneapolis. We deserve better then what we're getting. We should fight for it cause if we don't no one will. Demand another community meeitng. Demand to know what's going on, why they haven't hired programmers, what the program is, what the intention post festival is. Demand to know what steps besides some personal financing of MFA has there been to rectify the situation. And get the press involved because they are the real pressure. The press and the community.

faremo said...

I believe that the explanation behind the recent lackluster Oak St programming is that the MFA Board has no interest in operating a rep cinema. They plan to charge $8 for Match Point until they find a developer to buy the building and tear it down to build some student housing.

Bob Cowgill is ready to bring back the programming that worked at Oak St. He put together a group willing to refinance the Oak St and operate it on a volunteer basis until it was back on its feet. The board won't even talk to him.

I just don't see how they can claim that killing the Oak Street Cinema is acting in the public's interest.

Executive Producer said...

The talk, I guess more than just talk at this point, is that MSPIFF will open on April 20th with Al Franken's documentary about starting and touring for Air America and close on the 30th with Ali Selims unreleased SWEETLAND, shot in Minnesota with a B-level cast of recongizable faces based on Will Weavers novel "A Gravestone Full of Wheat."

Frankin is scheduled to make an appearance for the screening of his film on opening night.

Executive Producer said...

faremo:

The resistance to public help from the MFA Board and lack of communication is truly puzzling. I heard very little from that body in terms of a plan for the future, a set of guidelines or deadlines for the Oak Streets fate. Very odd public behavior and sense of community responsibility.