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Oak Street update

Posted at 5:32 PM on January 13, 2006 by Euan Kerr

Spent a lot of time on the phone last night with people involved in the Oak Street Cinema situation, and it seems the only thing people agree on is, it's a mess. There is a huge debt, and the MFA is looking for a way out.

The Minnesota Film Arts Board issued a release in the early evening saying it's looking at options for the future of the Oak Street. While the board members I talked with, Tim Grady and Susan Smoluchowski, say their preference is to keep it open, they say one option is selling the building. They say the board has secured funding for the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival, and it will continue to screen documentaries at the Bell Auditorium, as it is basically a break-even proposition.

The problem they say is a combination of financial mismanagement, and the changing art film market. More people are watching the kind of movies they show on DVD. They also openly admit they suffer from having to compete with the Landmark chain, which runs the Uptown, the Lagoon and the Edina theaters. And they say they have not been smart in publicizing the Oak Street's program and developing audiences.

Two MFA staff quit last week, and the board release talks about hiring new staff.

Meanwhile I talked to MFA staff member Adam Sekuler who says the remaining staff feels left in the dark, and they are suspicious of the boards intentions. Sekular says he's not sure of his own future with MFA. He says the staff are still hoping to meet with concerned MFA members on Saturday night before the 7.20 screening of Citizen Kane. They say the board is invited, but when I talked to the board folk they said they didn't plan to be there, although they also said there was always a possibility that might change.

So what does this mean in practice? As of this writing the Oak Street has films booked through Thursday January 19th. The board is looking for possible partners to come in and show second run films, or Golden Globe nominees which have not either not received much attention, or played much around the University area. "Capote" and "A History of Violence" were cited as possibilities.

There is a chance the Oak Street may go dark around the 19th, but Smoluchowski and Grady say they are working to avoid that, as they work towards a plan for the future.

When I asked them if, in hindsight, they thought the merger of the Oak Street Cinema and the U film Society a few years back may have been a mistake, both agreed. They say it's not clear whether there would be an advantage to try splitting the programs now.

One other thing clear about this situation is the frustration and ill feeling on all sides.

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