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Film Threat

Chicago Filmmakers stays on its feet as its funding gets yanked

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By Bill Stamets

"It's a good time to be in the arts in Chicago," opined Sun-Times reporter Kevin Williams in a July 28 article. "And even the smaller groups are getting a share of the pie." But in a subsequent letter to the editor, published under the incendiary headline "Arts scene robs poor to give to rich," Chicago Artists' News editor Jeff Abell contested Williams's view of trickle-down funding: "Thinking that if the rich get richer the poor won't get poorer is called denial and the city's fat-cat arts organizations are masters of it."

Smaller arts groups like Chicago Filmmakers have mastered survival tactics that don't include Springfield lobbyists or corporate largesse. Last week, after a precipitous decline in government funds, the nonprofit organization had to forsake its theater on Division and move Kino-Eye Cinema, its long-running showcase of avant-garde films, to a new venue at the back of Xoinx Tea Room, a cafe at 2933 N. Lincoln. That means Chicago Filmmakers has returned to the simple setup it began with in 1973--folding chairs and a portable projector. "A big part of our budget was going into rent," says Brenda Webb, who's run Chicago Filmmakers since 1978, "so rather than compromise the quality of our programming, we decided to cut elsewhere."

Almost a quarter century after it was founded, Chicago Filmmakers remains unique among the city's movie presenters. Facets Multimedia and the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute regularly screen foreign and independent features deemed uncommercial by art theaters like the Music Box and the Fine Arts, and experimental and fringe films turn up at the Onion City and Chicago Underground film festivals. But Chicago Filmmakers alone devotes itself to the most personal and least profit-oriented movies.

Originally called Filmgroup at N.A.M.E. Gallery, the organization was founded by an upstart cell of film artists, most of them students at the School of the Art Institute; inspired by a filmmakers' cooperative in London, they resolved to stage their own avant-garde screenings, starting out in a loft at Lake and Wells. When N.A.M.E. moved to 9 W. Hubbard in 1975, Filmgroup followed, then in 1977 it opened across the street as Chicago Filmmakers, sharing its space with another nonprofit, the ARC gallery. After ARC left in 1984 Chicago Filmmakers expanded its 90-seat theater to 136 seats and added 35-millimeter projection, but the River North real estate boom soon squeezed out the half-dozen galleries clustered along Hubbard Street, and by 1988 Chicago Filmmakers had relocated to Belmont near Racine, where it installed a screen, a sound system, risers, and recycled movie-house seats. In 1993 the group moved once again to a more economical site, the Chopin Theatre at 1543 W. Division.

The group's latest move was prompted by shrinking government arts grants, not gentrification. Despite consistently high ratings by peer juries, Chicago Filmmakers has seen its Illinois Arts Council funding plummet from $74,570 in 1990 to $19,500 this year. Its grant from the National Endowment for the Arts has also fallen--from a steady annual level of $20,000 in the early 90s to $7,000 last year. This year the group, which also puts on the Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival, got nothing. Still pending is its application for a $40,000 NEA grant to underwrite "Talking Pictures," a series of screenings and lectures on the history of avant-garde cinema planned for 1998. Yet even as smaller groups founder, Governor Edgar added to this year's state budget line items that mainlined $6,375,900 (roughly half of all arts dollars for fiscal year 1998) to a handful of groups, including five of Chicago's largest and most prominent arts organizations (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera got $2.5 million each).

Besides its commitment to challenging cinema, Chicago Filmmakers faces risks other film groups are spared. Neither DOC Films at the University of Chicago nor the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute pay rent to their host institutions. Facets, which bought its building in 1977 and maintains a payroll of 44 people, underwrites its screenings with a basement video emporium that the Telluride Film Festival saluted last week as "a virtual mail-order cinema." (Founder and director Milos Stehlik says that despite selling $120,000 worth of tickets each year, Facets's 125-seat cinematheque and 35-seat videotheque lose about $100,000 each year.) And while DOC Films, Facets, and the Film Center screen movies on a near-daily basis, the Kino-Eye Cinema screenings take place once a week, on Friday night at 7 PM; neither of Chicago Filmmakers' last two sites had adequate heating or air-conditioning for year-round use.

But Webb remains undaunted. This fall Chicago Filmmakers will lease the theater space back to its landlord, the Chopin Theatre, which will sublet the stage to theater groups. By moving Kino-Eye Cinema to Xoinx, Filmmakers cut its rent from $5,000 a month to $1,750; it will keep its second-floor office and a basement space housing an editing facility, an equipment coop, and nine filmmaking classes. The organization currently has two full-time staffers, programmer Patrick Friel and education director Mary Ann Naas. "When arts organizations face funding cuts, they can go in two directions," Webb says. "One is to go more commercial. But we chose to maintain the integrity and artistic value of our programming." She plans to upgrade the education component while economizing on screenings. "Classes make money for us," she explains. "There's growth there. The stability of the organization is more in the classes."

The declining commitment to avant-garde cinema at the city, state, and national levels was underscored by the ending credits of two local films screened last week at Xoinx: instead of acknowledging the NEA, the Illinois Arts Council, or the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, one artist thanked the Scottish International Education Trust, and another cited the Lebanese Ministry of Culture. Meanwhile Cineplex Odeon is opening three new multiplexes in Chicago this fall, increasing the number of screens citywide by more than three dozen, and the chairs are sure to be comfortable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mary Ann Klaas, Brenda Webb, Patrick Friel photo by Paul L. Merideth.

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