Arguing over the Oak Street's future

The Oak Street Cinema
The Oak Street Cinema on the edge of the U of M Minneapolis campus is the subject of a dispute involving its parent organization, Minnesota Film Arts
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

In an age of DVDs and cable channels dedicated to showing classic movies, can a repertory movie house like the Oak Street make money?

For the last six months the Oak Street has been kept open only through personal loans from a Minnesota Film Arts board member. Another board member, Susan Smoluchowski, says the staff has been trying to attract crowds with a mix of Oscar nominees and second-run art movies. But she admits it has been hit or miss.

"We don't quite understand why yet. So we want to go back to the rep programming to see if we can make it work," she says. "You know, we get a lot of attention from the press but people don't seem to be coming to that theater the way that they ought to."

But Oak Street founder Bob Cowgill says it can work, if you know what you are doing.

"Running a repertory cinema is an exquisite balancing act," he says. "It is not easy. And it requires a lot of understanding about a lot of variables, variables about what is going on in the culture now, what's available in cinema, having your finger to the public pulse. And I don't think the Oak Steet has been run with that awareness for a while."

Several of the founders of the Oak Street Cinema will gather at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown tonight to, as they put it, "Celebrate the spirit of the Oak Street." They'll watch a silent short, with live musical accompaniment, and Bob Cowgill says, they will make their pitch.

"The Oak Street can survive and prosper and benefit the organization if it's given competent management, and we are the competent management," he says. "At least we were."

Bob Cowgill ran the Oak Street for several years. He was at the helm when it merged with the U Film Society, which also ran the annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

At the time it seemed like a marriage made in heaven.

The new organization, Minnesota Film Arts, had two theaters to show movies, and the film festival to raise visibility and generate money.

The Oak Street would focus on a repertory program, as it had in the past, and the Bell Auditorium became the first theater in the country to present an all-documentary program. Cowgill stepped down from the MFA shortly after the merger to take a job teaching at Augsburg College. He also stepped down from the MFA board. He says it made sense at the time.

"If a new person is going to have any kind of autonomy, creativity, without having to feel that he or she will have to look over the shoulder to see what the founder is thinking, you have to step aside," he says.

Then things began going wrong.

In September 2005 the MFA suddenly parted with its executive director, Jaimie Hook, after he admitted he had botched an important grant application by forgetting to send it in. He was not replaced.

Then at a public meeting in January board members revealed the organization was severely in debt. Some audience members charged that the board didn't get rid of Hook soon enough. Some staff members also accused the board of getting ready to sell the Oak Street to a developer, a claim board members denied.

The board members said they had a plan. And Susan Smoluchowski says they have stuck with it.

"We have been, as an organization, completely focused on pulling off the film festival this year," she says

Smoluchowski says the Minneapolis Saint Paul International Film Festival, which opens April 20, will be one of the best they have ever put on. There are already over one hundred films booked. If it's successful it could make the MFA finacially healthy again.

But when the question of money comes up, Bob Cowgill says he's worried the present board may sell the Oak Street to pay off the MFA's debts and build the festival. He says that would be a loss to the community. Cowgill and his group have asked the board to step aside for a new group, which will assume the responsibility for the MFA debts. Alternately they have proposed splitting the film festival and the Oak Street. The current board could focus on the festival, and Cowgill's group would focus on the Oak Street.

The MFA's Susan Smoluchowski says the proposal is too vague for the board to consider. When asked if the board is considering selling the theater, she says the board has to look at all its options.

"So along with a lot of other options, we explored the possibility of selling it. That in no way means that is the direction we are going in," she insists.

She says no board members are planning to attend the meeting this evening, although longtime U Film Society director and film festival programmer Al Milgrom may be there.

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