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Commercial Theatres Lag Film Groups On Top

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Commercial Theatres Lag


By Armond White

and Frank Bach

In 1973 the movie Industry

decided to look into what seem-

ed like a very large number of

film rentals by organizations not

connected to commercial movie

houses. It was discovered that

many of these rentals were done

by small, loosely-knit, indepen-

dent collectives calling them-

selves film groups or film co-ops.

The film groups had cheap 16-

mm projectors (smaller than the

35-mm type used in movie hous-

es) and they generally were made

up of die-hard film fans who

simply relished showing high-

quality movies for themselves

and their friends.

The film groups would pay for

the film, rent on their temporary

"theatres," and all other expenses

out of the receipts taken in via

a low admission price at the door.

At that time, the total au-

dience for film groups in the U.S.

was estimated to be at least five

million people. The movie indus-

try started taking the film groups

quite seriously, and soon it was

possible to get almost any first-

run film in its 16-mm version as

little as six months after it

was released. Consequently, the au-

dience, and the number of film

groups, has grown continuously.

At the University of Michigan

in Ann Arbor, students looking

for diversion from study now re-

turn to the lecture halls at night,

where long lines await the next

showing by at least three differ-

ent independent film groups,

each with extensive schedules of

top quality films: the Ann Arbor

Film Co-op, Cinema Guild, and

Cinema II. Until last year, a

fourth Ann Arbor film group -

Matrix- also had ts own inde-

pendent, self-contained theatre


Activity elsewhere is not al-

ways as intense, but most college

campuses in southern Michigan

have at least one film group or

student film society- like the

OCCC film groups, the U of M

Dearborn Film Guild, the School-

craft Cinema Series, or the Cass

City Cinema centered at the First

Unitarian Church near Wayne


For those who don't mind go-

ing through customs, there is the

very professional Ontario Film

Theatre in Windsor (also known

as Super Cinema). There are also

film programs of one kind or

another at McGregor Library in

Highland Park, the Royal Oak

Public Library, the Henry Ford

Museum in Dearborn, and the

Main Library in Detroit.

Also in the Motor City is the

Detroit Film Theatre (DFT), the

most professional film group in

the area and probably the largest

in terms of audience support.

DFT shows films every Friday,

Saturday, and Sunday at the De-

troit Institute of Arts Auditor-

ium, and the films are all 35-mm

rather than 16.

The DFT sells tickets in ad-

vance as well as memberships


Elliott Wilhelm

(which are good for admission

to 25 films) through the box off-

ice of the Art Institute, and its

well-notated schedule is printed

as an attractive poster that is dis-

tributed free at film showings and

at locations in the Cultural Cen-

ter. DFT also prints a review of

each film for distribution on the

night the movie is shown.

DFT's coordinator, Eliot Wil-

helm, got started in an indepen-

dent film group that presented its

programs in the back room of

Formerly Alvin's Finer Delicates-

sen on Cass, adjacent to the

Wayne State .campus. That first group

later became the Wayne

Cinema Guild - then, in 1974,

Wilhelm started the Detroit Film

Theatre as an extension of the

University Center for Adult Edu-

cation film series.

Although the vast majority of

theatre owners in Detroit would

argue that DFT's schedule has

"no commercial appeal," the aud-

itorium is always full or near-full

on film nights despite the ab-

sence of any paid advertising of

any kind to publicize the show-ings.

A major reason for the group'

success is the format that Wil-

helm has followed consistently

every week since establishing it

three years ago. Friday nights

are devoted to screenings of films

new to Detroit or those that have

not had sufficient exposure; Sat-

urday nights feature films of pro-

ven classic status; and Sunday

nights are for special series, which

have ranged from opera films to

documentaries to the current

program of modern Russian mov-


Major films presented by the

DFT include such artistic greats

as Hearts and Minds, The Mother

and the Whore, Images, Partner,

In the Name of the Father, Middle

of the World, The Invitation, and

Distant Thunder-films that other-

wise might never have been

seen in Detroit- along with pop-

ular movies of recognized quality

like The Godfather, Godfather

II, and Martin Scorsese's Mean

Streets. Of course, the DFT is not the

only Motor City film group that

presents a full schedule of good

movies with a good deal of econ-

omic success. The community

is dotted with several other pro-

grams which have gained enthus-

iastic patronage simply by giving

this town's movie-lovers the type

of varied, substantial film exper-

iences that the owners of local

legitimate movie houses are too

cautious or mercenary to provide.

The Cass City Cinema, for

example, is run by staff members

of the Detroit Alternative School

to raise funds for their edu-

cational program. Last year the

Cinema raised over $1700 for

that purpose in its first few

months of operation.

Because 16-mm prints of first-

run films are so easily available

(six to  8 months after release)

it has been possible for the small

Film-showing organizations to

out-maneuver the big but dawd-

ling movie house chains. Pictures

like the Jimmy Cliff Jamaican

epic The Harder They Come,

Chloe in the Afternoon, and

Two English Girls all premiered

in Detroit in 16-mm prints shown

by local film groups.

Detroit residents who follow quality

filmmaking vividly re-

member the Studio Theatre

chain, which ten years ago pre-

sented first-run foreign and art

films from three locations every

night of the week. Unfortunate-

ly for those who appreciate ser-

ious film, the Studios were sold

to the Gorelick Brothers' porno

chain, and the commercially-

sponsored art movie scene dried

up completely.

Soon the Studio One Theatre

at Livernois and Davison

was abandoned and remained dark

until it was acquired by Ed

Vaughn and refurbished as the

Langston Hughes Theatre last


People who look for quality

and taste in filmmaking still won-

der why not one commercial

house has attempted to fill the

vacuum that exists on the art-

film scene. When hundreds of

theatres show films every night

in Michigan, why do they all

show the same sure money-mak-

ers or re-runs of older box-office

draws like Billy Jack, The Exor-

cist, or Harold and Maude. And

how do some movie-house own-

ers convince themselves that

bringing back one of these movies

five or six times after the au-

dience has dropped off is com-

mercially successful?

The general feeling among

 film critics is that the vapidity

and stiffness of the film scene is

due to the crass, tasteless meth-

ods used to get the maximum

profit from every film ever made.

Movies shown on TV are a good

example of this commercial syn-

drome- because of the cost of

film rentals, TV broadcasters

search for bargains from film

companies, and, as a consequence,

often appear to be working in a

coordinated effort to run every

boring or corny film ever made.

The same process would seem

to be at work in movie houses,

where owners and managers con-

sistently look for easy profits in

the film business; forgetting every

other consideration, including

and especially taste.

The growing interest in quality

and art in film that has spawned

and supported the film groups is

indeed a healthy thing. The only real

question is, how long will it

take the commercial theatres to

catch up (if they ever do)? Right

now, little groups of poor people

with cheap equipment are out-

doing the big movie promoters,

and that situation simply can't

last forever

Metro-Detroit Film Groups

Detroit Film Theatre 832-2730

Cass City Cinema 873-1141

U.M.-Dearborn Films 271-2300

Schoolcraft Cinema 591-6400

Oakland County Community College Film Series  


Macomb County Community College Film Series

Warren 779-7000 / Mt. Clemens 286-8000

Ann Arbor Film Groups

Ann Arbor Film Co-op 769-7787

Cinema Guild 662-8871

Cinema II 761-2959 LJ