March 12, 2008

If An Oak Falls In a Forest...Does Anybody Hear It?

Or is the better question: Does anybody care? After persistent rumors of its imminent closing in the last few years, the Oak Street Cinema is finally done. I know I'm not breaking this; it was announced earlier this week. But now that it's been official for a few days, I'm wondering - where is the outrage? Some bland articles that read like obituaries and a passive U of M editorial, and that's it?

I plan on doing a longer post dedicated to the Oak before it closes after the festival in May, but for the time being I'll just say that I'm pretty much stunned that the fight is over so quickly and quietly after what had looked like a resurgent year. The last time it was really threatened, in 2006, I hadn't yet moved back here, but a movie could have been made about the dramatic turmoil happening within Minnesota Film Arts , led by the one and only (85 year-old) Al Milgrom. Well, working with Al when I was volunteering at the festival last year, I wouldn't say he's lost any of his passion or his spirit. The problem is that this time it was Al vs. The Developers, and you know that unless this is a movie (Be Kind Rewind, anyone?), The Developers always win. Even Save the Oak Street has nothing to say anymore.

I walk or drive by the theater twice daily on my way to work, and I've really come to enjoy it this last year that I've been back - the free screenings, the festival, the one-night-only shows, and even an appearance by Crispin Glover (!) that I skipped last month. I'm not even holding it against MFA that I saw early preview screenings of three terrible "Terror" movies in a row last year (The Kingdom, Rendition, Lions for Lambs).

Since 1916, that tiny spot of real estate has featured movies that simply can't be seen anywhere else (Why did I miss Manos: The Hands of Fate Last Year last year again?). Now the only films that will be shown will be in some spoiled college kid's ultramodern room on the 5th floor who's probably watching Meet the Spartans for the 23rd time.

That's where we are now. Hope Al Milgrom has some tricks up his sleeve for the future of MFA...


  1. I'm ashamed to say I've never actually been to the Oak. I know... I suck.

  2. No no, you don't suck. What sucks is that you might be able to say that in a few months with certainty. Make sure you get in before it's gone. It's a dingy little place, but you know you're there when you're there.

    Weird, just hours after I posted this I got the latest email newsletter from MFA, led off by a letter from Al:

    "Dear Minnesota Film Arts supporters and film friends,

    Please note message of encouragement from your leader.


    As sure as the swallows return to Capistrano, the annual "Nightmare on Oak Street" stories surfaced again this year in the papers, not long before we launch the 26th Annual Mpls./St.Paul Int'l Film Fest Apr.17 - May 3, 2008

    As per print, do we qualify for "arts whipping boy of the year" in this self-congratulatory arts-lauded Twin Cities? (Yours truly, with a near-50-year programming-track record, back in town for more than two weeks before certain articles and blogs appeared, missed being quoted in his own personal vernacular.)

    Let me assure you faithful supporters and film friends, contrary to impressions left, both the Oak St. Cinema and Bell Aud. will be (and are) in business after the fest in May and who knows how long after? Expect programming to continue as before. Nothing is written in stone in this current real estate market, as you well know. (Yes, the Oak will eventually be sold. How else can we continue our mission given our current deficit?)

    To switch to a positive note, the website is carrying some fest info now. We hope to have most of the program up around March 28, with more than l00 titles, over 40 countries. The venues include: Oak Street Cinema, St. Anthony Main's five screens, (easy day-long & night parking for only 50 cents total), spot satellite screenings Kerasotes Block E, and the possibility of a screen at the Riverview and AMC Roseville.

    The Festival is set to include Oscar nominees (Katyn, Beaufort, others); Sundance titles: (Nerakhoon, the Betrayal, an epic Hmong story, and more), other top fest pics, expected visiting directors: China, Africa, Russia, Canada, Czech Republic and U.S.

    Thanks for your continuing faith in the organization and your support.

    Al Milgrom,

    MFA Artistic Director & one time east-city-editor, Washington Post"

  3. Wow, sad story, yet again, but thanks for the slightly hopeful update too. I was really upset when I thought it was over and done in 2006; we all just have to keep on enjoying it while it lasts.

    The "trilogy of terror" movies which you mentioned in the post were indeed disappointing in the end, but the experience of going to the Oak Street preview screenings was still a good memory, among many others worth remembering since I first went there 17 years ago. :-)

    Question about Al's letter: I didn't see the Bell Aud. listed as a venue for the Int'l Film Fest -- an oversight, or do you think it is really out of the loop this year?

  4. Between the Strib article's note on it and his lack of mention, I'm pretty sure it's out. Too bad, because they closed it down all of last summer to renovate the entire thing:
    It's not really the ideal theater and it has a pretty small screen, but it was convenient and historic. Ironically, the Bell's event calendar lists the Climate Change Film Festival - that directly conflicts with the MSP festival dates. So it must be out.

  5. The last time they thought they were going out of business they had a Citizen Kane/Casablanca double header, which they should totally do again.

    Before that brush with death they used to primarily screen older movies, usually a different theme each month. Since its comeback they seem to be more of a Landmark minor league system. I definitely preferred the former version. Either way it's apparently impossible to make money doing either one of these.

    In two years we've lost Har Mar, Crossroads and Oak Street, which sucks. Hopefully Lagoon and Uptown are still making enough money.

  6. Yeah, I'm going to plead ignorance on how these theaters can survive without the backing of people like Mark Cuban (Landmark). The weird thing about the Oak is that it's kind of owned by "the people" since MFA is a nonprofit with membership dues. I'm sure they have other funding, but still.

    I'm sure I would have paid more than $5 or whatever it was to see those classic doubleheaders if I'd known this would happen.

    It's been an odd trade-off with getting AMC among all of these closings. I've got a Roseville theater obit in the pipeline...

  7. Obviously this doesn't impact me directly because I don't live in Minneapolis, but let's just say I feel a disturbance in the Force and it inspires to increase my support for some of the independently run neighborhood theaters in LA.

    I hope this story has a happy ending. Good luck, Al.

  8. "You can't stop what's coming," Craig. You're probably in one of the safer areas of the country, but when these are what people pack a theater to see, anything is possible:

    Hope I didn't ruin anyone's lunch.


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