Last Saturday night, the troubles of a long-standing icon of campus life, the Oak Street Cinema, were made public. It was revealed that the theater is stuck between a rock of debt and a wall of low attendance. In short, this could mean the death of the Oak.
The small, independent theater is funded and operated by the Minnesota Film Arts Society, which also funds and operates the Bell Museum Auditorium and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. The troubles of the Oak are an extension of the troubles of the Minnesota Film Arts Society.
The organization lately has lost several key staff members and has suffered from bungled money handling. However, according to the board of directors, the program does stand prepared to finance this year’s Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival and the Bell Museum Auditorium.
So why is the Oak different? As I said, the Oak does not generate attendance (i.e. income) like the film festival, and it generates major debts, unlike the Bell, which is run jointly with the Bell Museum and sits on University property, not high-price real estate.
The Oak, as it stands now as an institution, is doomed to be crushed out of existence. Blame whom you like, but I can blame no one, for I am not intimately familiar with the characters in this melodrama. All I can do, as one who supports and enjoys the independence of the Oak Street Cinema, is offer my humble opinion for what should be done next to save the theater.
Expand the Oak Street community. The two problems that face the Oak are actually only one ” attendance. It is pointless to discuss the theater’s debt if no one attends the theater. Though some great suggestions were made Saturday night about what the Oak can do to finance itself ” including both programming changes and endowments ” they are empty chatter if no one is watching the movies.
One block from the Oak live 5,000 people who cannot go to the bar on Friday night and are looking for something to do. Yet they never attend the Oak. Why? Because the Oak Street “community” is selective and insular.
Instead of actively pursuing the patronage of students, the Oak sits there content to care less about those who don’t seem to care about it. However, students don’t seem to care about the Oak because they don’t know what it is … and they are not going to start caring one day out of the blue.
The Minnesota Film Arts Society needs to actively pursue student interests not only for its survival, but also to fulfill its commitment to its mission as a promoter of the appreciation and education of cinematic art. This means that perhaps Werner Herzog might have to take a back seat to “The Jerk” on Friday nights, but such is the nature of education. Freshmen literature students aren’t expected to understand Ulysses.
The Minnesota Film Arts Society needs to get over its high-mindedness and recognize that cinema is fundamentally both entertainment and art. Show a discounted classic comedy on Friday nights, hand out fliers
at Northrop Mall, have local comics host old bad movies ” anything to get kids attending the Oak. Because once they appreciate cinema’s entertainment, they can begin to appreciate its art.
Consider a quote from Howard Franklin: “Franois Truffaut defined a great movie as a perfect blend of truth and spectacle. Now it’s become bifurcated. Studio films are all spectacle and no truth, and independent films are all truth and no spectacle.” One night a week, a classic “popular” film is not a bad sacrifice for the life and independence of the theater.
The Minnesota Film Arts Society should reorganize. I am not familiar with the organization’s financial means or current employment, but I will attempt to offer a workable suggestion. Ideally, I suggest, one person employed to manage issues of promotion and attendance ” including increasing student attendance ” and one person employed to handle the nonprofit financing through endowments, donations and fundraisers.
By increasing attendance, the society will ensure the independence afforded through endowments and donations. No one is going to endow or contribute to an empty theater. People and organizations will, however, give money to theaters that creatively encourage the appreciation and education of the cinematic arts. Strengthen these positions by offering credit-based internships through the University to students of film arts, nonprofit management and business. This will benefit the society threefold by providing free assistance, connecting to students and infusing new ideas on an annual basis.
The Oak Street Cinema and the Minnesota Film Arts Society need an attitude change that will allow them to grow beyond the narrow group of cinema fans who now support it. This was made no more apparent than on Saturday night when the audience was asked how many students were in attendance, and only half a dozen people raised their hands. Contrast that to when the audience was asked who were Minnesota Film Arts Society members. A large majority of the audience raised their hands.
When it came time to actually watch the evening’s film instead of bickering over who’s to blame, a quarter of the audience got up and left. On one of the most crucial nights of the Oak’s life, its supporters cannot even stay around to enjoy what they are supporting. The Oak cannot survive on such a limited community; it needs to reach out to students.
Charles Willis is a University employee. Please send comments to [email protected]