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The Oak Street tussle revives

Posted at 5:56 PM on April 7, 2006 by Euan Kerr (1 Comments)

Having talked to people on both sides of the Oak Street debate in the last few hours I can say this for certain: there is a great deal of passion about the future of film in the Twin Cities. The big questions is: what is that future?

Here are the hard facts as we know them: Minnesota Film Arts, the Minneapolis-based parent organization of the Oak Street Cinema and the documentary program at the Bell Auditorium, and the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival, is hurting financially.

The Oak Street is the scruffy former auto mechanic's shed which became a movie house a few decades back. It sits on the edge of the U of M campus, and for the last ten years it's shown movie old and new, cult and classic. Some nights jammed, but other nights it's pretty empty. Its the kind of place that some film freaks just love, but scares away some people too.

In January a couple of staff members, claiming they were being left in the dark, organized a public meeting at the Oak Street and invited board members to speak about their plan for the future. Two turned up and spoke. It was an evening of debate, sometimes reasoned and occasionally impassioned. The board revealed the finances were in pretty bad shape and that they had been personally bankrolling the operation. They said audiences were way down at the Oak street and it was as they put it "bleeding money." The meeting broke up with pledges of better communication, future gatherings, and a desire to keep the Oak going expressed by many people present.

We fast forward to the present, and Oak Street founder Bob Cowgill has called another meeting for Monday night, this time at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown. Again the board has been invited. (Cowgill left MFA a while back to take a teaching job. Another reason was that when the Oak Street merged with the University Film Society to form the MFA, he was advised by funders that it is usually best for newly merged organizations to shed their founders.)

Now, we get to the divide.

Cowgill is worried the board is not committed to the repertory film idea. In recent months the theater has been showing second run art house films and Oscar contenders. He says the board seems far more interested in the film festival, and may sell the theater to help fund a larger festival. He says the MFA's 501C3 form commits the organization to rep. He worries the Twin Cities community may lose a cultural asset which will be hard to replace.

He and a group of others have made an offer to come on the board and assume the MFA related debts. He says the group is committed to the rep idea and will work to make it successful. He has also offered another proposal to assume the debt, and split off the festival as a separate organization, leaving the rep supporters to run the Oak. Cowgill says he bears the current board no ill-will, but wants to have a chance to resurrect the theater he worked on for 10 years.

Susan Smoluchowski is on the board now. She says the board is committed to trying rep again, after the MSPIFF run at the end of the month. She says some films have done very well at the Oak in recent months, but even with local media coverage others have not been well attended. She says the the recipe for success remains elusive.

For now she says the festival has to be the board's main concern. The program just went to the printer and she's excited about the movies already lined up. She's less excited about the Cowgill group proposal. she says the board looked at it but doesn't think it's workable. She says no-one from the board will be at the meeting, although long time U Film Society and Film Festival guru Al Milgrom may well attend. When asked about selling the theater she says its just one of many options that the board has to consider if it is to be fiscally responsible. She says though that no decision to sell has been made.

Both of these people love film. Both seem to see a different way forward for Minnesota Film Arts.

Comments (1)

I have great respect for Cowgill & gratitude for his role in creating the Oak Street.
I thought some of the people in the audience were unfair to the Board members at the last meeting.
I hope Cowgill & company can make their proposal work.

Posted by Skip | April 9, 2006 10:46 PM

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