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Friday, August 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 72.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Why is downtown Madison film culture disappearing?
It's easy to miss some of the most interesting movies that come through town
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Perhaps you read Roger Ebert's rave review of Leos Carax's Holy Motors earlier this month, when the film opened in Chicago. Perhaps you were intrigued. Unfortunately, you've already missed this movie in Madison. You're likely to miss nearly all of downtown's most interesting films unless you venture to nontheatrical venues. Though former movie palaces pepper the city center, permanent projectors are few and far between near the Capitol.

When the Wisconsin Film Festival announced its dates and venues for April 2013, some were alarmed that no downtown venues will hold screenings. Instead, screenings will take place at UW venues and Sundance Cinemas Madison on the near west side. Outside of the festival, does a downtown film culture exist without commercial theaters? And do downtown audiences value alternative film programming like they value the Capitol area's music and arts scenes?

Vanishing movies

Film distributors define nontheatrical venues as theaters that don't have weeklong commercial runs. Right now, only nontheatrical venues - UW Cinematheque, WUD Film and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art - provide access to new films downtown. They were designed to supplement, not replace, movie theaters, so depending on them has some negative consequences.

Some new films never make it to Madison screens, especially since the lineup for four of the six Sundance screens usually looks like that of any other multiplex. The problem with depending on nontheatrical venues for new films can be illustrated with the recent screening of Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz at MMoCA's Spotlight Cinema. While Spotlight is an off-campus venue with different funding than a UW venue, it benefits from professional programming by Cinematheque's Mike King and Wisconsin Union's Tom Yoshikami. These programmers face some challenging constraints: single screenings and subservience to traditional movie theaters.

"Distributors are reluctant to do a one-off screening because they're waiting for a full run at Sundance, which doesn't always happen," explains King.

Spotlight programming is done in a series and therefore isn't flexible enough to catch some new films that fall through the cracks. Most new films play only once at series like this one and Cinematheque's Premiere Showcase, which is also programmed by King. This even applies to films featuring Hollywood A-listers. Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg's new drama starring Twilight's Robert Pattinson, will have a single Madison screening: Saturday, Jan. 19, at Cinematheque.

"It pains me sometimes when a film doesn't get a Sundance run but our calendar is already set, so we can't jump in and get it," says King. "I was shocked that we got Take This Waltz [starring Hollywood heavy hitters Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen] because Sundance didn't end up running it."

Technically speaking, Take This Waltz played in Madison, but there are several reasons you probably didn't see it. It was only shown once, and it played the evening of President Obama's first visit to Madison this fall. And that's just one of many misfortunes one-off screenings can have. (I missed Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse at Cinematheque due to a blizzard.) Not having weeklong runs can also diminish local press coverage and word-of-mouth promotion.

Changes on campus

Though downtown film culture is struggling, two significant changes have led to a film-culture renaissance at the UW: professional film programming and three venues equipped to handle 35 mm film - Vilas Hall, Union South and the Chazen Museum of Art.

Cinematheque now has a full-time director of programming, Jim Healy, who brings years of experience programming at venues like the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House in Rochester. And Tom Yoshikami, a former Cinematheque program assistant who now advises the WUD Film Program, has shepherded students into a new era with Union South's Marquee theater, which opened in 2011.

Their dedicated efforts have produced impressive results. Audiences get a festival-like mix of foreign-language, independent, documentary, experimental and archival films most of the year, much of it for free. Cinematheque used to average 30 programs each semester, but this fall it has 55, including 31 foreign-language films and six local premieres at the three 35 mm venues. Last academic year, there were only 24 days that didn't have a screening at the Marquee. Healy claims that "there are only a few cities that do what we do on a bigger scale, where you have both current art-house choices and serious cinematheques surveying film history."

The Wisconsin Idea?

Campus venues can preserve the aesthetic experience of the big screen and the social experience of alternative cinema for downtown moviegoers. Despite the transition to digital cinema, there's nothing quite like seeing a restored print of a classic film. Plus, watching films from around the world with others leads to spontaneous discussions and a connection with your community. But this assumes that everyone feels welcome on campus.

There are conflicting ideals and policies at campus venues, and some don't seem compatible with the Wisconsin Idea, the notion that the borders of the university are the borders of the state.

"The university was built on the idea of public service, and [Cinematheque] is a public service," explains communication arts professor Lea Jacobs, who has lobbied for university support for Cinematheque since 1998. "This is the Wisconsin Idea. We take what we know, and we share it with the community. This university is very welcoming compared to anywhere else I've taught."

Jacobs identifies the core Cinematheque audience as graduate students, faculty and diehard cinephiles. At first glance, it seems that the biggest obstacle to seeing Cinematheque films might be finding the screening room, especially 4070 Vilas Hall. But Cinematheque's struggle to reach non-UW viewers may have more to do with challenging programming and the size of its venues.

Complicating matters, the university sends mixed messages about who's welcome at its film screenings. Some policies that make perfect sense within the university can rub outsiders the wrong way.

For example, Ken Chraca from the UW Arts Institute told The Capital Times that "things need to be academically led, or research-tied, first. A [film] festival is wonderful, but it's not really our core mission." This makes sense within the logic of university mission statements, but it can make the film festival - and other campus arts programming - sound uninviting. Plus, some of the best film programming, like local premieres, has little to do with specific university research projects.

Similarly, one Wisconsin Union policy states that programs are "open to Wisconsin Union members and UW-Madison students, faculty, staff and guests," which makes perfect sense since it's a membership organization. As a high school kid and budding cinephile in the 1980s, I was none of the above, so I didn't go to Union films. My mistake was to take that policy literally. As it turns out, enforcement has historically been lax. But not everyone knows this or wants to take a risk. Come festival time, off-campus cinephiles will have to decide whether they're welcome at the Marquee, the event's largest campus - and "downtown" - venue.

UW visitors can get free one-day memberships to attend individual events, and some co-sponsored screenings are exempt from membership restrictions. I advise people to go see what they want to see, because it's easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission if enforcement trends change. But how many people want to ask for either of these things just to go to a film?

Cultivating cinephiles

Students, of course, remain a crucial part of campus film culture. With Yoshikami's guidance, those on the WUD Film Committee make the final decisions about programming, projection, publicity, co-sponsorships and special events. They quickly learn what kind of impact their participation can have.

Rayna Christman, the committee's director, learned about WUD Film at a freshman student-organization fair. By sophomore year, she'd been to the Sundance Film Festival, and last year she coordinated the Lakeside Cinema series. She got hooked on programming after a screening by experimental filmmaker Roger Beebe that ended with eight simultaneous projections on three screens. "It changed my life," she says, beaming. "It was the coolest thing, and my first experience with 16 mm film." She was also excited about having local klezmer band Yid Vicious perform live accompaniment for the 1915 German silent film The Golem this semester.

It's less clear whether other students, even film majors, share Christman's commitment to campus film culture.

"I promote films in my film classes, and even when we show films related to our class, I don't see many classmates at the screenings," she says. "Not everyone appreciates film culture anymore because they think, 'Oh, it's on Netflix.' I don't care if it's on Netflix. What some film students don't realize is that you can help create the film culture here; you can determine what films play here or what filmmakers visit."

Her WUD colleagues are quick to point out that certain films draw students in droves, with some students arriving an hour early to get a seat. And the committee is committed to a participatory film culture. Old-fashioned fliers are supplemented by student-edited, mashup-style previews on the WUD Film YouTube channel, and trailers include student-produced "WUD Film Good Film" comic shorts.

I point out the successes and shortcomings of nontheatrical venues to emphasize the vital role they play in Madison's film culture, for the most part against the odds. Another way to read the tea leaves is to conclude that Madison needs subsidized nontheatrical venues to bring in films like Holy Motors because it's not as good of a film town as it thinks it is. That can only be proven wrong if downtown venues can show great films and audiences go see them. If audiences don't attend these films, venues won't screen them; we've learned that lesson from the Orpheum and the Majestic.

Downtown audiences must decide whether they value the social aspect of cinema, and if they do, they need to experience it more than just one week a year at the Wisconsin Film Festival. And by festival time, campus programmers will need to embrace their role downtown and determine whether they're willing and able to eliminate the obstacles keeping some film lovers from the UW campus. If they don't, the Marquee will replace the Orpheum as the festival's largest downtown venue, but it will have no chance of being a successful downtown hub.

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