There is, among many long-time members of film societies at the University of Michigan, a distinct nostalgia for the "good old days" before video home rentals, competing commercial houses, and cable television eroded their base of support. It seems difficult to believe in today's university film market that as little as a couple of years ago, the number of films screened on campus was three-times as varied and rich as today. Those days are gone.
The question before us is relatively simple: How committed is Ann Arbor to non-commercial cinema? Last year witnessed the steady erosion of the University of Michigan film cooperative's motion picture schedules. Their ability to diversify the film fare of this community has been literally crippled.
One organization, Cinema II, has temporarily suspended its operation. Although that society is gamely committed to its program this winter, it is equally possible, and perhaps even probable, that their ultimate fate is before us.
When one adds the consideration that all the other film cooperatives at the University of Michigan are in fiscal dire straits, the plight of Cinema II is all the more alarming. It should be relatively clear that this next calendar year will be decisive in the survival of these non-profit organizations.
It is, quite frankly, impossible to attribute blame to any of the affected parties in this sad scenario.
The University of Michigan charges rent for the auditorium space being used by the student cooperatives. And although this university is one of only two schools in the Big Ten to affix an auditorium rental fee, the right of the administration to protect the state's property is an unassailable prerogative. As far as the university is concerned, it is behaving like a prudent and responsible custodian of public property.
At the same time, the rental of the film is, paradoxically, a commercial venture. The film cooperatives are responsible for the collection of receipts during each showing and must pay a large percentage of their box office gross to the distributor with whom they have contracted. Film organizations based in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, have obviously little sympathy for the plight of local organizations in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The burden, thus, unfortunately but also realistically, rests entirely on the film societies themselves. These organizations exist solely for the love of film. And only for the love of film: both as an art-form and as a social medium.
Let's therefore not be mistaken: There is no profit to be made in exhibiting non-commercial film. The very term indicates a not-so-subtle distinction between this fare and the typical sort of cinema exhibited at the movie theaters around the Ann Arbor vicinity.
Even more important, whether one approaches cinema from the vantage of an art-form or social commentary, these films typically attract a very special market which must actively support its interest in the presentation of this subject matter.
This often means "targeting" a potential audience, a time-consuming chore which is dependent on both a miniscule advertising budget and the publicity generated in the bimonthly "Cinema Guide."
But even with this limited exposure, quite bluntly, the film societies are on their own.
When the Ann Arbor Film Cooperative hosts its occasionally quirky, but always hip and entertaining, series of cult films, they are relying upon the interested public to defray the expense of their hosting the presentation. Likewise, Cinema U's preference for foreign film; Altemative Action's ventures into political film-making; and Cinema Guild's "classic" film format, all depend on the viewers of non-commercial film to give them the margin of support allowing these programs to exist.
There is, among many long-time members of film societies at the University of Michigan, a distinct nostalgia for the "good old days" before video home rentals, competing commercial houses, and cable television eroded their base of support. It seems difficult to believe in today's university film market that as little as a couple of years ago, the number of films screened on campus was three-times as varied and rich as today.
Those days are gone.
It requires tremendous imagination, financial fortitude, and even a complete and total disdain for commercial film to keep these societies alive. What is more, the survival of these groups requires an educated public - a discerning public- for their maintenance.
There is no value therefore in mourning the fate of these organizations. They will survive if they are patronized. And their fate will be no better or worse than this simple fact.
In an increasingly competitive market with an explosion of technological ancillaries, the fate of Ann Arbor's film cooperatives will rest on the simple economic principle underlying all such entertainment ventures: A ticket sale is a vote for alternative cinema.
And for those who prefer a more laid-back attitude towards consumerism, box office sales are, at the very least, an indication of a preference in cinema. When rarely seen film classics, foreign titles of all nationalities, feminist and alternative life-style cinema, political documentaries, and all other sorts of ostensibly non-commercial movie fare disappear from this region . . . it will be too late to do anything about the situation.
At best, one will have to drive to Chicago or Detroit for what meager opportunities they have to offer.
Going back to the notion of "the good old days," (and, actually, not so long ago), Ann Arbor was nationally noted for two interesting civic characteristics: the social commitment of its citizenry and the wide-ranging fare of its cinema.
At the risk of sounding theatrically melodramatic, it is quickly reaching the point where both traits had better activate one another or each will suffer immeasurably.