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A lot of heat, and some light

Posted at 9:36 PM on January 15, 2006 by Euan Kerr (5 Comments)

The marquee at the Oak Street declared "Yes, we are open." And that was the overwhelming message of Saturday night's meeting about the future of the Oak Street Cinema. The question of just how long remains to be answered.

While there was shouting, accusations of underhandedness, and even a brief mention of potential litigation, last night's event was not the "blood on the walls" spectacle that some people seemed to anticipate.

Some scenes from the night:

1) A long line stretched out into the chilly January night, more than 300 people in all. It was exactly the crowd you would expect at such an event. I chatted briefly with a scraggly fellow in an army surplus greatcoat, with smoke from the cigarette bobbing in the corner of his mouth curling up around the watchcap jammed over his ears. At how many film theaters and film festivals have I met this fellow and his identical siblings? They all share a passion for film, and a belief if can do good in the world. It was good to see him again, even as we met for the first time as he asked me to sign up for an alternative newsletter on what's happening at the Oak.

2) A member of Mayor R.T. Rybak's staff, Peter Wagenius, opening the meeting. He quickly outlined the problem: MFA faces, in the short term, a sizable one time deficit. In the longer term it needs to ensure enough ongoing revenue to fulfill the MFA's mission. He talked about how great it was to see hundreds of people in the theater, but stressed that if the Oak is to keep going the crowds have to keep returning. He said the mayor believed that conversations about film and film's place in society have to be part of the program. As a result he announced what will be the Mayor's Monthly Movie series, where a screening of a political movie will be followed by a moderated discussion.

2) Bob Cowgill rising to speak. He was the co-founder and long time executive director at the Oak Street. (He stepped down and left the organization a couple of years ago when he got a job teaching at Augsburg.) Standing in his trademark suit, with his red hair and beard wild around his head, he described creating the Oak Street as "an act of romantic faith in our culture." That got a round of applause. Then he went on to outline how the board was facing a difficult situation, and all supporters of the Oak Street were in it together. He said there needs to be a pragmatic side to the debate to find a way forward and to avoid demonizing anyone. He revealed he had personally asked the board members to be there, as an attempt he said to show they are real people.

3) Emily Condon and Adam Sekular, long time MFA staffers speaking together to the group talking about how they called the meeting because they wanted the community to be aware and part of any changes that might be afoot. (Emily resigned last week, but now says "that may be changing.") They admitted they had no idea whether board members were going to come to the meeting.

4) Al Milgrom, the manic elf who has driven the U Film Society since its foundation in 1962, and remained with the organization since it's merger with the Oak Street to become MFA looked out into the crowd and summing up the situation like this: "We don't feel lonely tonight, but there have been nights in the last few months when it's been pretty lonely." He said the challenge is to find programming which will attract audiences. "You are the customers, and we want to know what you want to see." He asked another puzzling question for a movie organization on the edge of the largest college campus in the state: "Where are all the University kids?" And then as only Al Milgrom can he said the MFA has a $150,000 to $120,000 deficit, but he was going on the assumption that they are going to keep going forward. He's tryong to book "Best of Youth" and "Elusive Tracks" which he describes as a "wildly absurd film that fits the current mood."

5) Board member Tim Grady facing what was at times a hostile audience and told it the Oak Street was not for sale, but it might have to be mortgaged again. He said only about 10 people a night had come to see the Oak's last film "Cape of Good Hope" and one night when he dropped by there was only one person in the theater. The Oak Street is "bleeding money" he said, and that as of next week he will have invested $75,000 of his own money in the building.

6) The crowd clearly wanting answers as to why the MFA is in this fix, and some demanded to know what the board had been doing in past months to get the situation resolved. There were also demands to know what had been done about past executive director Jaime Hook who was fired after missing an important grant application. That was when Bob Cowgill rose to speak again. He said if people want to point fingers, then they need to point at everyone. "And the first person they need to point at is me," he said, "Because I went and took another job."

But he said again assigning blame was not a valuable exercise. He said one of his co-founders had described the Oak Street as been like your dog, which has been hit by a car, not a car you were driving. "And now I feel like I am at the vet's with my dog looking up at me with it's big brown eyes, and we've got to decide what to do."

6) The audience coming up with suggestions: better use of e-mail to publicize programs; another meeting to discuss the future, and opportunities to provide ongoing feedback; hiring a development person; filling open jobs such as the Executive Director; creating an endowment fund.

7) Then there was the angry exchange over whether the board was trying to sell the building, which Tim Grady denied again, saying they had been talking to one local developer because he might loan the MFA money, because the organization could no longer go back to the bank.

The only clear plans which came out of the hour or more of discussion is there will probably be another meeting in a couple of weeks where there will be more talk about the future. Outside in the lobby, some of the people who had been asking the angry questions were shaking hands and talking with the board members. Everyone was trying to sound hopeful about the future.

Meanwhile the lights went down inside the Oak Street and the story of Charles Foster Kane played across the screen. A couple hundred people lapped it all up, and enjoyed that singular experience: watching a great movie with a big crowd.

Comments (5)

Great recap! Here's some video from the meeting.

Posted by Chuck | January 16, 2006 6:44 AM

Try again:

Posted by Chuck | January 16, 2006 6:45 AM

This is the best recap of the meeting that I have seen so far. Thank you for continually keeping us informed!

Posted by Regan | January 16, 2006 12:57 PM

Posted by ann | January 18, 2006 5:56 PM

On April 10th the Oak Street Cinema's founders (Bob Cowgill, Randy Carpenter and Barry Hans) along with the former Oak St staff and volunteers, will host a free event at the Varsity Theater. There will be a classic short silent film, accompanied by Prairie Home Companion pianist Rich Dworski.

The Oak Street's founders will explain the theater's current situation and ask the public for support of their plan to take over the challenge of funding and operating the publicly owned theater, while staying true to the original vision of the Oak Street Cinema.

Posted by Barry Kryshka | March 30, 2006 5:20 PM

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