Filmworks: Three Years and Counting

This month three years ago, more than 150 people crowded into the Bonner Auditorium of the Fresno Art Museum to see a little-known Swedish comedy called Together. Dozens of friends and supporters, without any hope of buying a ticket to the sold-out screening, also came by for the pre-show reception to wish us well. Two well-seasoned 16mm projectors on loan from City College lasted the night. But a month later the motor of one had already died, and the film screened had subtitles that strained the eyes and patience of nearly everyone in the auditorium. Fresno Filmworks, this fledgling source for alternative film in Fresno, had taken wobbly flight.

Filmworks moved to the historic Tower Theatre in June 2002. The choice was perfect – more seating in a beautiful venue, fondly remembered as the city’s art-house cinema of the 80s; restaurants close by to bring our patrons early and keep them late in this bustling social hub of Fresno; and a 35mm projector to open up our programming beyond the shrinking 16mm market.

In bringing the best in independent and foreign-language films to the Valley, we’ve had our successes and disappointments. We’ve had huge audiences for Monsoon Wedding, Nowhere in Africa, and To Be and To Have, and tiny, though appreciative, audiences for riskier films like Capturing the Friedmans and Blind Shaft. We’ve brought unique little films that the local commercial theaters would never take a chance on, like Rivers and Tides and Vodka Lemon, and had to cancel bookings for bigger ones that Regal opened before our scheduled dates. Filmworks even went dark for two months during our second year when the Tower Theatre’s projector broke down during the screening of City of God. But by the end of last year, Filmworks was definitely back in the limelight when the editors of Fresno Magazine included it in their “50 of Our Favorite Things” about the Valley!

For all those ups and downs, the loyalty of our patrons and the generosity of our sponsors have been incredible. As cliched as it may sound, Filmworks would not exist without you. Each year you have answered our appeal for financial support during our sponsorship drive, which for 2005 is just weeks away. The newsletter you are reading goes out to more than 800 households; our e-news reminders reach 300 more. Most importantly, our average nightly attendance has grown from 350 in 2002 to 475 last year.

I’m often asked by patrons how much it costs to put on one of our shows. I usually give a somewhat vague answer, partly because I don’t keep all of the figures in my head, but mostly because our total monthly expenses vary. Of course, most costs change little from month to month: theater rental, insurance, the printing and mailing of Clips, and sundry other smaller expenses. But it’s the cost of the film that’s hard to generalize about-not because the advance can range from a low of $250 to a high of $1,000, but because distributors also take a percentage of the box office, 35, 40 or 50% of the gross, plus shipping, which can be pricey if the bookings are tight and the next venue is in the Midwest or on the East coast. So, for those months with low attendance, we may wind up paying a distributor less than $1,000. Other months, when we have a tremendous turnout, we can owe more than $2,000. On average, though, film rentals last year cost us just over $1,300. Using that figure, then, the cost of putting on one of our shows in 2005 will run about $4,000.

The next few months will be busy and exciting times for Filmworks. We ended our third year with a special presentation of Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education, presented in collaboration with Reel Pride, for four screenings over two days. These screenings, drawing more than 1,100 patrons, were significant not just because another international hit lit up a screen in the Fresno area, but because the film’s distributor, Sony Classics, chose Filmworks over the Regal chain to bring it first to the area! The same lead goes to Filmworks in March when we bring Michael Radford’s adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. How has Filmworks seemingly reversed the pecking order? Thanks to the loyalty of our patrons, drawn by our programming choices and the festive spirit they enjoy at the Tower Theatre, the grosses for our one-day screenings can compete and sometimes surpass those for week-long runs of art films at the multiplexes.

Another milestone for Filmworks comes in April-our first festival, three days of screenings from the best in new World Cinema. The festival will open with the most honored German film of last year, Head-On, directed by Fatih Akin; followed by two films that have appeared on many top ten lists for 2004 – Tarnation, the audacious personal documentary from first-time director Jonathan Caouette, named by the National Society of Film Critics as Best Non-Fiction Film of last year; and the African film Moolaade, from veteran director Ousmane Sembene, named by the same group as the Best Foreign Language Film of the year. And we will close with the long-running audience favorite from Germany and Hungary, Gloomy Sunday. Expect also a talk by Donald Munro, film critic from the Fresno Bee, about art cinema today.