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Gone With The Wind

Harvard's Endangered Film Societies

By Sarah A. Stahl

Although Harvard students may fantasize about weekends packed with adventure, mystery or violence, chances are that few, if any, have enough time to make their dreams come true each weekend. But for the last decade, House film societies have attempted to make money by letting people live out their fantasies vicariously. The comics, western toughs, sophisticated gamblers and icily composed lovers who inhabit the silver screen enliven audiences sated with papers, computers, and endless reading lists.

But the film business at Harvard is not thriving. Two film societies, Gund Hall and Currier House, have stopped showing movies during the last year. Others have cut back their schedules or show most of their films exclusively to House members. The film societies which have made substantial profits this year--Leverett, Quincy, Mather and, more marginally, Adams--have survived only by showing commercial films which draw a substantial audience and subsidize their less popular but often more artistic films.

While the film societies have many problems, the limitations placed on their choice of movies severely handicaps them. During the last decade, Harvard administrators have promised local theaters that film societies will not show any movie released within the last two years, any movie which has played at a local theater during the last 90 days or which is scheduled to play in the next 90 days, or any film on the theaters' "house lists."

The rules grew out of the fear of Cambridge theaters that they would lose a substantial share of their paying customers to Harvard's dollar viewings. Forbidding film societies to show recent releases reserves first-run movies for local theaters, while the 90-day rule prevents customers from attending an earlier film society showing or waiting for the film to appear in a House. Lists of protected films are more exclusive: theaters can reserve about 15 of their own favorites.

If a film society wants to show a prohibited film, its president must contact the managers of Cambridge theaters to ask permission. Sometimes that permission is easily granted, but other times (as when Harold Izkowitz '78, Mather Film Society president, asked the Brattle if he could show a Bogart film) the plea is rejected.

Izkowitz and Tom Keane '78 of the Quincy House Film Society both think the rules are in restraint of trade, and therefore illegal. But changes in the rules will not come quickly. Izkowitz said he complained about the restrictions at a meeting of the Film Studies Council, a loose union of Harvard film societies, and everyone looked at him as if he were crazy. "They said they thought it wasn't an appropriate time to discuss it, and we should just get to business and divide up the rooms in the Science Center. If that's not the time, when is? What am I supposed to do, leave the projectionist's booth in Sci Center C one weekend, knock on the door at B and say to whoever's there, 'Gee, aren't these rules awful?'"

Most of the other presidents feel the rules are unnecessary because their film societies are not in direct competition with the Cambridge theaters. Martha Richardson of the Harvard Audio-Visual department also remarked that when people want a professional showing, they go to a professional theater and not a dining hall.

But once a society does choose a film, other complications arise. Bargaining with film distributors to get a price which will leave room for profit requires a good deal of knowledge and a little bit of trickery. Hitchcock films generally cost about $50, while $100 will rent an old favorite. But prices vary with the season, and Halloween has a way of making Frankenstein much more expensive. A recent movie costs still more: companies demand a percentage of the profits, sometimes as much as 80 or 95 per cent on films as popular as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When placed on top of a $200-$300 flat rate, earning any kind of profit becomes a rather dubious prospect.

But film rental companies are lax about enforcing their rules and Harvard film societies have cut corners on several occasions. Most of the discrepancies come in reporting attendance to the film companies. Aaron Brown '78, the president of the Leverett House Film Society, has tried to collect audience figures from other film societies, but he said the figures are inaccurate depending on "whether or not they're giving the film companies a cut." He added quickly, "Of course, some people just can't count."

Societies sometimes tell distributors they plan to show a film only once to avoid repeated rental charges. Izkowitz said film societies should pay the flat rate each time they show a film, but few do. "Technically, we're supposed to, but that's for rich people, and they know we're not rich," Izkowitz said. He added, "It's funny to say we're from Harvard and we can't afford to pay them."

But distributors have never accused any Harvard film society of cheating. "They know what's going one, and they kind of look the other way," Izkowitz said. "It's not the little places they're after," Keane said, nothing that the companies "tell us they don't want to hear about it."

After choosing a film, the societies must look for a place to show it, and the options usually boil down to the Science Center, Emerson Hall or the House dining hall. Since they can hold the largest audiences, the Science Center lecture halls are the most desirable, but only two rooms are available each weekend. The main duty of the Film Studies Council is to conduct a lottery at the beginning of each semester to divide the use of the two rooms among the different societies. If a society fails to get a room when it wants it, it can try to sign up during the semester, if another society relinquishes its spot. Otherwise, the society must stick to the confines of its dining hall.

On the nights when choice rooms are gone, film societies generally plan less ambitious programs, as they all have had trouble drawing audiences to their smaller, and less convenient, dining halls. The location can make or break the night; of the River Houses, Dunster and Mather have had the most trouble getting people because of their sentinel positions at the campus edge. Showing movies at the Quad has become taboo. Brown summed up the problem there quickly: "People at the River stay at the River on weekends, and people at the Quad go out to the River on weekends."

Additional costs accumulate if the film societies use the Science Center, since they must use Science Center equipment and a Harvard projectionist. Together, the two can run a society for $70 for the weekend. A couple of the film societies have complained that they have members who could show the film better than the projectionists they must hire. While most of them are well-trained, Dunster House used one who broke a film, left time between reels, and cut the sound for several minues; Mather House used a projectionist who left for a six-pack in the middle of a reel. But at least one society president feels grateful he doesn't have to run the projectors. "Those things are dangerous," Rick Hunt '78 of Adams House said. "They sputter and throw sparks."

When all the costs are added up, each film society spends between $50 and $400 in film rental, advertising costs and projection to show a film. And then it can only wait for an audience.

But in the last year, that audience has not come. Popular movies which drew 1100 people last year have attracted only 600 this year; presidents complain that they cannot judge accurately how large an audience each film will draw. Film society officials cite the Harvard Square Theatre's new repertory format as one cause of declining attendance.

But they also all agree that fierce, suicidal competition between the societies has created most of the problem. Keane complains that too many other clubs show films to make money, and they take away business from the film societies. "I can think of so many groups who showed films this year--the fencing team, HRBSA, the Democratic club, the Republican club--and I'm sure there are more," Keane said. "We're in the business of presenting films; they are not," Izkowitz said.

All the presidents feel that the commercialization of the film societies is the most serious symptom of the increased competition. Tim Tankosic '78, president of the Winthrop House Film Society, said he has shown some films for financial reasons he would rather not be associated with. "It's an unhappy mix of trying to make money and trying to show good films," Tankosic added.

Brown said societies risk losing money on an artistic film when everyone else shows more recent commercial films. He added that the groups can not afford to risk one weekend's earnings. Izkowitz said he has not shown "one film which could be considered bad," since he has "to watch them too." But he added, "People aren't willing to experiment, to broaden their horizons. They come to see Clockwork Orange or Dr. Strangelove, but they won't come to see an earlier Kubrick."

The trying times have forced some casualties in the last year. Existing societies keep searching for new ways to attract customers and balance the budget. They often break the rule which prohibits film societies from advertising in The Crimson or The Independent; presidents consider the maximum size limit of 8 1/2 x 11 inches for posters a joke. Dunster has cut its admission price to 50 cents and offers free popcorn. Adams went the other direction and raised its price to $1.25. Hunt feels that the price change has not affected the number he draws to movies. "People go to see the movies they want to see," he said. "It won't matter if the price goes to $1.50, and I think that gradually all the other film societies will raise their prices too." Brown uses semi-professional analysis to figure out what kind of audience each movie will draw, checking attendance figures for the last time it ran in the Cambridge area and judging the competition on the weekend he plans to run it. Still, things have backfired, and he's taken some big losses. As he wryly puts it: "You've got to be quick on your feet to show a movie." And Tankosic added: "We've miscalculated so many times."

Some film societies, such as Winthrop, Currier and Eliot, have turned to their House committees to pick up debts. For others, that option does not exist. At Mather, the House committee only worried about the film society when they found it was making money, Izkowitz said. Then they didn't donate more--they required it to turn over its profits at the end of the year. "They use us to raise money, but they give us nothing in return. Is it worth $400 for the right to call ourselves the Mather House Film Society? I'd rather open up the film society to the rest of the University and think up some catchy name," Izkowitz said.

Disillusionment with the societies has dealt them a final blow. Mather House took its biggest loss of the season when it ordered Traffic but could not gather enough people to run the movie the weekend it came. Izkowitz returned the film untouched, but had to pay the $150 rental fee anyway. Usually, most of the film societies operate with a core of only five to ten workers, and several more who will move tables if asked. While it is forbiden to pay members, most of the societies use free screenings and parties to entice prospective helpers. "Unless you have an insane desire to save a dollar each weekend, why would you join a film society?" Izkowitz asked.

Although most of the presidents are juniors, several of them intend to drop the managerial duties into another lap next year. They are discouraged by the lack of interest from students and the administration, which has increasingly ignored the societies in recent years.

Two years ago, Quincy House showed its first X-rated film, The Devil and Miss Jones. Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, thought their choice inappropriate and called the woman in charge of the society to tell her so. As a joke, the Quincy society decided a year later to reenact their feat and show The Cheerleaders, an R-rated, soft-core porno. Epps questioned Keane about the choice, but didn't interfere. This year they continued their tradition and scheduled Supervixens for four showings last weekend.

No one bothered to say a word.

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