Since 1972, Upstate has demonstrated a commitment to film as a medium of social communication and aesthetic experience. Its programming, in Rhinebeck since the beginning and in Woodstock since Feb 2010, is an eclectic mix which, in the course of any particular year, focuses on themes, issues, regions. Frequently, Upstate brings films (e.g., Souleymane Cisse’s Brightness or Raul Ruiz’ Life Is a Dream) which are rarely screened in this country, much less in a semi-rural area.
Without the benefit of an endowment, and with a modest budget, Upstate’s pursued audience development in a number of ways: By interpreting “development” not as a euphemism for marketing, but as intellectual development; and by “contextualizing” film, placing film in a larger, richer context, connected to the rest of society and culture.
A rambling HISTORY…
Upstate Films has provided an alternative to mainstream film exhibition since its inception in May 1972. By the end of its first year, Upstate’s programming already reflected the diversity of film culture – independent, international, documentary, animation, experimental, artistically enduring U.S. and foreign language classics, and silents. Originally a three person, Thursday through Sunday operation, Upstate now has a staff of seven. The frequency of screenings has increased to seven days a week, year round, with 700+ shows per year.
Historically, Upstate’s growth during the ’70s and ’80s paralleled that of the alternative filmmaking community. In the 1970s and later in the ’80s, Upstate became the place to see films such as HARLAN COUNTY USA; ATTICA; THE BATTLE OF CHILE; LUCIA; THREE LIVES; I.F. STONE’S WEEKLY; THE GOOD FIGHT; WHEN THE MOUNTAINS TREMBLE; THE LIFE & TIMES OF HARVEY MILK; EL NORTE; WHO KILLED VINCENT CHIN; THE THIN BLUE LINE. As the venue for the hard-to-find, the overlooked and the controversial, Upstate serves a geographically dispersed and demographically diverse constituency. Located in Rhinebeck, New York (a small town of approximately 9000 on the east bank of the Hudson River, 65 miles south of Albany, NY and 105 miles north of NYC), Upstate has consistently emphasized the development of an audience searching for an alternative to mainstream cinema.
When the new wave of independent features took off in the late ’70s/early ’80s – e.g., NORTHERN LIGHTS, GIRLFRIENDS, RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN; THE HAUNTING OF M; CHAN IS MISSING – Upstate was the showcase. During the mid to late ’80s a multiplex building boom added thousands of “screens” competing for the audience. The home video explosion also provided potential filmgoers reasons to stay at home. And yet, somehow, Upstate Films weathered these storms.
The ’90s ushered in new challenges. Upstate Films, which nurtured the specialty film audience since 1972, is no longer the only game in “town, i.e., the region” for those looking for sophisticated film. Once upon a time there was a loyal but tiny segment of the film-going audience whose tastes dovetailed with Upstate’s. By providing a place to catch “specialty films” in all their diversity, Upstate helped educate a new audience and increase its numbers. As the mainstream audience’s tastes become more sophisticated and as the bulk of the population grays, distributors and marketing mavens continue to discover that there’s a significant audience for films without car chases & pyrotechnic displays — Upstate’s audience then has more choices as to what films to go see at nearby multiplex theaters.
Upstate gets itself caught in the middle of the culture wars when it screens Antonia Bird’s PRIEST. The Dutchess County Legislature uses this as a pretext to slash funding to the Dutchess Co. Arts Council since Upstate is one of its funded members and thereby receives a bit of county money. Hundreds, yet Hundreds, of supporters of first amendment rights rally to support Upstate Films and the Dutchess Co. Arts Council. Ultimately funding is restored to the Arts budget, and some of the legislators probably wish they had taken the time to think before following the marching orders of their chairman. This was one of the finer moments of both Upstate and its community of supporters. Meanwhile…
Distributors push their films to “crossover” to the mainstream multiplex audience. As more films “crossover” to the mainstream or are pushed to crossover, single screen theaters such as Upstate which publish a calendar schedule are dropped or overlooked by many of the distributors.
FINALLY, In July ’99, Upstate Films, with the help of generous donors, individuals as well as organizations, builds and opens a second theater. Both are on calendar until January 2001 when Upstate begins holding over films which means that it can no longer be a strict calendar theater. In the biz, they call us a “soft calendar” theater.
And yet, because of the growing revenues generated by the “ancillaries” – tv, home video, foreign markets – more films are being produced, and concurrently the big studios have chosen to do battle for “market share” leadership. They’re measuring success by total market share and not by revenue as a percentage of costs– this means growth in the number of films in release. More films than ever it seems are being produced to feed the many screens, the video and television markets, and the rapidly expanding international markets.
Surrounded by multiplexes and video stores and satellite dishes, Upstate Films, past its quarter century mark, perseveres through adroit programming as well as a base of financial support from a mix of sources. Earned revenue from admissions, membership, concession, and advertising in our publication, The Flyer, provides approximately 85% of our budget. Fundraising, grants, and corporate support provide the other 15%. We’ve been fortunate to receive NYSCA general operating support since 1973, and NEA funding intermittently. Upstate Films has been a funded member of the Dutchess County Arts Council for the past twenty years. Upstate’s membership rolls hover around one thousand who also make contributions to keep the theater going.
In the ’90s as the culture war heated up, one of our fans took the “Attention You Are A Target” at left while attending Bread & Puppet’s Summer Performance up in Vermont, she noticed Upstate Films was one of the groups targeted by an anti-arts lobbying group and sent us the photo.
During its history, Upstate has often worked with groups in the area to present film and discussion programs; e.g., for years we’ve helped the Mid-Hudson chapter of N.O.W. produce a forum using film (e.g., A Question of Silence by Marleen Gorris); we’ve worked with the Eleanor Roosevelt Center’s Countywide Forum on Racism showing Do The Right Thing & blood in the face; we’ve cosponsored films with the Women’s Studio Workshop; we’ve worked in conjunction with AIDS-Related Community Services on screenings including Buddies, Longtime Companion, Common Threads and hosted a premiere screening of Philadelphia with screenwriter Ron Nyswaner and Director Jonathan Demme.
Since 1973 Upstate has had a guest speaker series. Film & video makers and professionals – including directors, editors, directors of photography, sound personnel, production designers, and writers – come to discuss their work with our audience. (See supplemental list) This lecture/discussion program provides an important opportunity for the audience to meet the people who make films, to learn about the creative process, and to reflect on the role of cinema in society.
The video exhibition space at Upstate has also served as a gallery for still photography, e.g., an exhibition of photos taken by Indian street children, as part of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay street school project. These photos were exhibited during a week of films by and/or about India, and were curated by a coordinator of the street school, Wendy Ewald McDonough. Other photography exhibitions included a Southwest Images series, in conjunction with a Tex-Mex Film and Food event; and a Life and Times of Lottie Goslar series, part of a reception for the internationally celebrated clown-mime after a screening of Lottie, Dolly, & Maria by Rosa von Praunheim.
In 1987 Upstate initiated an Arts In Education program which uses nonfiction film as an integral part of a critical thinking approach to history and literature at the high school level. Working in conjunction with teachers from local public schools, we have created an American studies curriculum which incorporates film and video. Filmmakers who have participated in the program include Renée Tajima, Karen Thorsen, Richard Kilberg, Robbie Leppzer, John Sayles, Leo Seltzer, Iverson White, the late Emile deAntonio, Sam Sills, Anne Bohlen, etc. Students also learn about documentary storytelling through a hands-on experience of planning, shooting and editing their own video documentaries.