Will the last movie fan please shut off the popcorn machine?
In recent weeks the rumor has been rampant in Twin Cities cultural circles that the East Bank cinema, started by Augsburg College professor Bob Cowgill in 1995, will be shuttered. After the double bill of Citizen Kane and Casablanca, the sole event on the calendar--which typically runs three months out--is two midnight screenings of the horror film Live Freaky! Die Freaky!
Oak Street is operated by Minnesota Film Arts, which also organizes the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Festival and runs the Bell Auditorium--a screen devoted to documentary film. Last month, under financial duress, the nonprofit group's board of directors voted to shutter the facility. Soon after, however, the board rescinded the decision--for now.
"Right now the Oak Street's back is against the wall," says Gretchen Williams, who resigned as managing director of the organization earlier this month. "Each week that goes by it's a stickier and stickier situation."
(Despite similarly sluggish attendance, The Bell is deemed secure because the organization has a favorable lease with the University of Minnesota that allows them to operate the theater at little cost.)
Those on the inside are largely keeping mum at present. What seems clear, however, is that there is a schism between Minnesota Film Arts' four main employees and the board of directors over the future of the theater and the organization. The staffers are publicizing a membership meeting for Saturday night prior to the screening of Citizen Kane to air their views of the situation and answer questions. The meeting may also serve as something of a pep rally to motivate supporters of the theater to lobby the board.
Given that apparent agenda, the meeting itself seems cloaked in conflict. "Please note that the staff has called the meeting as a staff, not as official representatives of the organization," the workers' email announcement reads. "There's never been much good faith between the staff and the board," Williams notes.
In recent weeks there has been an ongoing discussion about whether Cowgill will return to take over the helm of the Oak Street and possibly the entire operation. Under Cowgill's direction, the Oak Street screened movie classics and new art cinema seven days a week, and paid down the mortgage on the building. Presently, Cowgill declines to comment on any of the talks. "Obviously I care that the theater that I founded have a chance to go on," he says. "I would do whatever I could to make that happen."
Board members maintain that no decision has been made about the future of Oak Street. "There's really nothing to talk about," says board member Tim Grady. But in what limited comments trustees will make about the organization's plans, they're conspicuous in focusing on the film festival rather than the repertory house.
"The organization is liquid," says longtime board member Stephen Zuckerman. "We're not going out of business. The festival's going to go on."
"We're looking forward to a bigger better festival," adds Larry Lamb, who recently joined the board. "Exactly how we get there, I think we're looking at all the pieces."
Most people agree that much of the blame for the nonprofit group's perilous financial condition goes to former executive director Jamie Hook. He was fired last year after less than 12 months on the job. During that short tenure, Hook tried to steer Minnesota Film Arts toward becoming a player in the local indie filmmaking scene and diverted resources to that mission. At the same time, Hook missed the deadline for a $50,000 State Arts Board grant last April that left the organization with a substantial budgetary hole. The ousted director acknowledges that he was culpable for the oversight. "That was totally my fault and stupid," he concedes. "I felt really shitty."
But apparently that was not the only act of financial negligence during Hook's tenure. "He missed numerous grant deadlines," says Lamb. "His folly was on a grand scale."
Hook places much of the blame on the board members. He says that upon taking the job he suggested that the board raise $30,000 annually to support the organization. "The reaction to that, to say the least, was like I had exploded a bomb," he recalls. "They were like we don't do that." Hook also says that he pleaded with the board to bring on someone with accounting expertise to help with the books, but that they ignored him. "All summer I yelled and screamed we need help with regard to accounting," he says. "We need a CPA in here."
It's unclear exactly how deep the financial malaise is at Minnesota Film Arts. The most recent 990 tax return available is for the fiscal year that ended on June 30th, 20004--well before the organization's current problems. In that year Minnesota Film Arts had revenue of just under $800,000, with an operating deficit of $25,000.
The organization refinanced the mortgage on Oak Street last summer, bringing in roughly $20,000. But even after that infusion of cash, according to Hook, the group was operating in the red and bouncing checks last summer. He predicts that if the repertory theater closes the entire operation will collapse. "I think if you lose the Oak Street you lose the organization and you lose the festival," Hook says.
The board, according to numerous sources, does not appear to share that last theory. The film festival has ample sponsorship and has historically turned a profit.
The double bill of Casablanca and Citizen Kane is a reprise of the two films that played during the theater's grand opening in 1995. While the ending of both of those films is well known to local film fans, it remains to be seen whether the doubleheader will ultimately lead to a rebirth or to the theater's demise.