The Regional Film Centers of America: Four Institutions That Have Shaped Independent Film For Decades

In 1967, movies were changing.

Studio executives watched as The Graduate, made for $3 million, sold more tickets than Dr. Dolittle, made for $17 million. Bonnie and Clyde, made for $2.5 million, creamed Camelot, made for $13 million.

During this pivotal year, Sheldon Renan wrote a small slim paperback which entirely sidestepped the question “what do people want to see?” by instead addressing the question “what do people want to make?” Renan’s book An Introduction to the American Underground Film was about movies made by individual artists working alone or nearly alone. While the big studios were making enormous turkeys, searching for the key to the hearts of their lost audiences, his book was about tiny movies made on no budgets by obscure artists very far from Hollywood.

Renan influenced generations of directors. The heart of his book is a series of portraits. He writes:

“Jack Smith is an anarchist, and his films break all the rules of film art. They go too far, and they do it on purpose. They are too scratchy, too nervous, too vulgar, and at times too beautiful.”

The writing glows with admiration. Who wouldn’t want to become one of the cinematic explorers Renan describes? The films he catalogs range from under a minute to over eight hours. Some use animation, some use found footage and some don’t even use cameras. Yet, all seem to have been made in response to a dare: Bet you can’t do this. Renan writes about them as an insider, but remains matter of fact, explaining that underground films are not seen because no one wants to see them:

“For good or for bad, the underground filmmaker is a man alone. But he is free to decide. This is a prerequisite to the making of art.” 

At one time called “experimental,” then “avant-garde,” Renan predicted this branch of American filmmaking would next be called “expanded cinema.” (Just how much it would expand, he had no idea!) Whatever we want to call it, he says, it has always been with us. We don’t seem to be able to live without it. The diversity and unpredictability of independent, sometimes actively noncommercial filmmaking is essential to the vigor of American cinema.

James Gray, the director of The Lost City of Z, talked about this in a recent interview in Vulture:

“If the audience only gets to see Marvel, then they only want Marvel, and then if they only want Marvel, only Marvel is made. I don’t even have a problem with Marvel. The problem is not the specifics of each movie, the problem is it’s the only movie you can see now in a multiplex, and when it’s the only game in town, you’re looking at the beginning of the death throes of an art form.”

In 1970, Renan made a proposal to the National Endowment of the Arts: Why not support a network of film centers spread across the country? Why not bring a wide range of documentaries, foreign films, art films, underground and avant-garde films to regional audiences? His logic was the same as Gray’s: If we want American cinema to thrive, we have to make sure young artists see films which represent the full range of expression of the art form. Four regional film centers, in Berkeley, Portland, Chicago and Detroit, were funded through this initiative. They still serve audiences, and inspire filmmakers, today.

After his tour of duty at the NEA, Renan became a filmmaker himself, working on a wide range of projects as writer, director, producer (or all three). The Killing of America, a 1982 documentary co-directed with Leonard Schrader, was recently released on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD. His classic guide, An Introduction to the American Underground Film, can be found at archive.org.

 

Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

2120 Oxford Street, Berkeley, CA 94720

The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in 2016

Senior Film Curator: Susan Oxtoby

Mission: “BAMPFA inspires the imagination, ignites critical dialogue, and activates community engagement through art and film, and other forms of creative expression.”

Affiliation: University of California, Berkeley

Year Founded: 1967; moved into Berkeley Art Museum in 1971

Theater Size: 220 seats

Admission: $7 members; $8 discounted categories; $12 general; second feature on the same day $5. Free gallery admission with screening ticket.

Hours: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays 11 a.m – 7 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.

Works With: UC Berkeley, San Francisco International Film Festival, Hollywood Foreign Press Association

Signature Programs: Committed Cinema, featuring artists whose films and videos arise out of political conviction and aesthetic innovation to explore vital and urgent issues of our times; annual Les Blank Lectures. The Film Library and Study Center is one of the major film reference resources in the country.

Signature Series: Afterimage: Filmmakers in Conversation with Film Critics; Alternate Visions (avant-garde films); African Film Festival

Past Retrospectives: Michelangelo Antonioni, Stan Brakhage, Robert Bresson, Luis Buñuel, Jacques Demy, Claire Denis, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, George and Mike Kuchar, Akira Kurosawa, Ida Lupino, Guy Maddin, Chris Marker, Nagisa Oshima, Marcel Pagnol, Satyajit Ray, Roberto Rossellini, Raúl Ruiz, Kidlat Tahimik, Agnès Varda, Dziga Vertov

Through These Doors: Errol Morris, Steve Starkey, James Schamus, Les Blank, Guy Maddin, Emiko Omori, Lucy Massie Phenix, Veronica Selver, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jerome Hiler

Good To Know: “We often hear from established filmmakers that BAMPFA was the first venue to screen their work, so we are known for spotting talent.”

 

Northwest Film Center

934 SW Salmon, Portland, OR 97205

Equipment rentals at the Northwest Film Center. Photograph by Jason Quigley

Director: Bill Foster

Affiliation: Portland Art Museum

Mission: “Founded to encourage the study, appreciation, and utilization of the moving image arts”

Founded: 1971

Theater Size: 375 seats at 1219 SW Park, in Portland Art Museum

Admission: $9, $8 members

Hours: Check schedule online

Works With: Portland State University, Marylhurst University, Pacific Northwest College of Art

Signature Programs: A certificate program offering classes in video and film production, including sound recording and editing, screenwriting, post-production, animation, and stop motion animation; access to equipment, screening opportunities, and fellowships

Annual Festivals: Northwest Filmmakers Festival, Portland International Film Festival, Portland Jewish Film Festival, Reel Music Festival

Through These Doors: Gus Van Sant, Bill Plympton, Will Vinton, Joan Gratz, Jim Blashfield, Harry Dawson, Mark Gustafson, Chel White, Rose Bond, Joanna Priestley, Gus Van Sant, Matt McCormick

Good To Know: Portlandia producer David Cress studied documentary filmmaking here, with lead faculty member Bushra Azzouz.

 

Gene Siskel Film Center

164 N. State St., Chicago, IL 60601

A busy screening at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center

Executive Director: Jean de St. Aubin

Director of Programming: Barbara Scharres

Affiliation: School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Mission: “GSFC exhibits a range of carefully curated film art in technically excellent facilities, and educates the audience, setting film in an historical and cultural context through courses, lectures, panel discussions, and publications, and through research and collections.”

Founded: 1972

Theater Sizes: 197 seats; 61 seats

Admission: $11, $7 students, $5 School of the Art Institute students

Hours: Check schedule online

Works With: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University, Columbia College

Signature Programs: Movie Club (post-screening discussions); Neighborhood Night with $6 admission; Hollywood On State (Oscar Party + Chicago Filmmaker Awards); Panorama Latinx.

Annual Festivals: Black Harvest Film Festival; Stranger Than Fiction (documentary); Asian American Showcase; Chicago Palestine Film Festival; Chicago European Union Film Festival; Festival of Films from Iran

Through These Doors: Steve James, Bob Hercules, John Woo

Good To Know: “The Gene Siskel Film Center offers theater rental during non-programming hours at very reasonable rates. Our facility is perfect for Kickstarter or Indiegogo screenings, press or publicity screenings, or even just to test the exhibition quality of your film! Special independent filmmaker rates are available for non-admission screenings during non-programming hours.”

 

Detroit Film Theatre

5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI 48202

The Detroit Film Theatre is a preserved 1927 movie palace. Courtesy of Detroit Free Press

Director: Elliot Wilhelm

Affiliation: Detroit Institute Of Arts

Mission: “Dedicated to cultivating awareness, appreciation, understanding and knowledge of the cinematic medium and its history”

Founded: 1974

Theater Size: 1,150 seats, in a perfectly preserved 1927 movie palace

Admission: $9.50, $7.50 members

Hours: Check schedule online

Works With: Wayne State University’s Department of Film and Communication Arts; College for Creative Studies; Digital Arts, Film and Television; Oakland University; University of Michigan

Signature Programs: Annual field trip to the Toronto International Film Festival; DFT Animation Club

Annual Festivals: FREEP Festival, sponsored by Detroit Free Press; Michigan Student Film and Video Festival

Through These Doors: Jerry Bruckheimer, Paul Feig, Jake Kasdan, Sam Raimi, Ted Raimi, Heidi Ewing, Sue Marx, Doug Chiang, Jim Burnstein, Bruce Joel Rubin, Kurt Luedtke, Elmore Leonard, Elvis Mitchell, Armond White, Mike Clark, Frank Bruni

Good To Know: The Samoan bodyguard named Elliot Wilhelm in Be Cool (2005), played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is Elmore Leonard’s sly tribute to the director of Detroit Film Theatre. MM

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