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California Filmmakers’ Cooperative Sees Grim Future

Canyon Cinema, a half-century-old cooperative in San Francisco that champions the work of experimental filmmakers, is in critical condition, according to its executive director.


The cooperative, which has more than 3,500 films that it rents, sells and distributes, including titles by the avant-garde filmmakers Jonas Mekas, Bruce Conner and Stan Brakhage, needs $30,000 to hold on.


“We have a surplus in the bank, but it’s only enough to allow us to pay for expenses for one month,” said Dominic Angerame (pronounced ahn-JUR-ah-mee), the executive director. “It’s like being one paycheck away from not being able to pay your rent.”


Many filmmakers, academics and critics attest to the historical and aesthetic importance of Canyon Cinema’s collection. In films shot in 16- and 35-millimeter and other formats, some of them going back to the 1930s, you can catch the glimmers of avant-garde influence that seeped into the mainstream, whether in television ads, MTV videos or the work of George Lucas. (The experimental filmmaker Pat O’Neill contributed to the optical effects for “The Empire Strikes Back.”)


“It would be tragic if it went under, because it would make a good portion of this work inaccessible,” said Steve Anker, the dean of the School of Film/Video at the California Institute of the Arts.


“They represent one of the bastions of the real 16-millimeter film experience,” he added.


Canyon got its unofficial start in 1961, when a group of filmmakers that included Bruce Baillie and Chick Strand began showing largely experimental films in several sites in Canyon, Calif., near Berkeley. In the late ’60s it became a for-profit distribution cooperative that rented out films, produced a newsletter and held screenings. Then, as now, fees and profits were split between Canyon and the filmmakers. It and the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in New York are the two major sources for experimental-film distribution in this country.


“It’s terribly important to me that there are organizations like Canyon Cinema and Film-Makers’ Cooperative,” said Jyette Jensen, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art and an expert on American avant-garde film. “It’s where filmmakers go for the history, that’s where they go for inspiration. Many contemporary artists integrate film footage into their installations.”


But Canyon’s profits from renting, selling and distributing films — mostly to colleges, as well as to cultural centers and film festivals — have eroded because of a lackluster economy and, even more, because of the digital revolution. Mr. Angerame estimates that 70 percent of the experimental films in his collection have not been digitized, and that doing so (thus making them more widely accessible), would be prohibitively expensive. Canyon has lost about $2,000 a month over the last four years and has been sustained only by the $100,000 it received from selling its paper archives to Stanford University in 2009. Its annual film rental income has dropped from $133,000 in 2004 to about $90,000 now.


Mr. Angerame said the best hope for Canyon Cinema was to fold it into a new nonprofit, to be called Canyon Foundation, that would also be dedicated to film preservation and education. The nonprofit status would allow Canyon to qualify for local, state and federal arts money, Mr. Angerame said.


M. M. Serra, executive director of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, agreed. Her group became a nonprofit organization in 1993. “Your angel is not going to fall from the sky if you are for-profit,” she said.


The Film-Makers’ Cooperative found its angel in the form of the real estate developer Charles S. Cohen, a film buff. Back in 2009, when the cooperative faced eviction, he gave it larger quarters for its 5,000-film collection, charging a symbolic annual rent of $1.


As Canyon Cinema explores becoming a nonprofit group, it has also resorted to more traditional cost-cutting techniques: it has moved to cheaper office space in San Francisco and cut staff hours, and it has sent letters appealing for funds to its 325 filmmaker members and to 1,500 renters. The letter-raising campaign has raised about $500 so far, Mr. Angerame said.


“It’s crisis to crisis,” he said. “Hopefully we’re not too far under the radar out here for someone to notice.”


New York Times

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