Theater faces uncertain future

by Derrick Biney

Avid moviegoers might have to say goodbye to the Oak Street Cinema, one of the few theaters in the Twin Cities that still play classic movies.

Oak Street Cinema is a single-screen theater owned and operated by Minnesota Film Arts, a nonprofit organization committed to developing an appreciation of the history of cinema.

The theater has a mission of showing classic movies such as “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane.” Bob Cowgill, a film studies professor at Augsburg College, who founded the theater in 1995, said it is dedicated to a certain vision of cinema that no other local theater or organization has.

Throughout the years, the cinema, which is affiliated with the University’s Bell Auditorium through Minnesota Film Arts, has showed various classic, independent and art house films, as well as brought in special guests, including Terry Gilliam and Winona LaDuke.

Because of what staff members of the Minnesota Film Arts call “organizational problems,” the theater faces having to close its doors to longtime movie viewers.

Wanting an answer

Minnesota Film Arts staff members called a meeting Friday to demand an explanation from executive board members of how the current deficit could be solved.

The meeting, which was Saturday before a screening of “Citizen Kane,” was the first of its kind, according to staff members.

The community was given a chance to see some members of the executive board for the first time, said Ian Whitney, who has volunteered with Minnesota Film Arts for the past seven years.

The cinema was packed with concerned members of the art organization and community members, which Whitney said shows that “people want the place to stay open.”

One board member expressed his concern about not being informed about the meeting. He also voiced his opinion about the programming of the Oak Street Cinema needing to change to attract more customers.

The meeting was facilitated by a representative from Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s office. As he tried to brush through comments from the audience, a frustrated attendee shouted as he was leaving. He said the members of the board were not addressing the critical issue of the deficit.

According to a Sept. 23 article in the Star Tribune detailing the ouster of then-executive director Jamie Hook, Hook’s failure to apply for a $50,000 State Arts Board grant put the cinema’s budget in dire straits.

Cowgill spoke at the meeting and encouraged the audience to let their emotional ties to the organization fuel their participation in keeping the Oak Street Cinema open.

Even though the audience was able to voice both concerns about the rumored closing and hear the perspective of the board members, Whitney said, the conversation was too short.

“There needs to be more meetings like this,” he said. “There is no relation right now between the board and what the paying customers want.”

Emily Condon and Adam Sekuler, program directors for the Minnesota Film Arts, said there is a lack of communication between the board and the staff of the arts organization.

They said they called the meeting hoping they would be able to find solutions to address the issues surrounding the impending shutdown.

Whitney said he has dedicated a lot of his time to the cinema and said he would hate to see the place close now. He said the theater needs to better get the word out on the type of movies it shows.

Cowgill said he is frustrated and concerned about the current state of the cinema. He said he hopes the board and the community can find a way to save the place.

Right now, the theater’s future remains uncertain, but Cowgill has his ideas for improvement.

“What this theater needs more than anything else is a leader,” he said. “The board needs to hire a very competent executive director.”