Michael Fuhrman from the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center at Mercyhurst College, Erie, PA, my first stop on the On Screen/In Person tour, called in response to what must have seemed like an anxious email I’d sent asking for a sound and picture check before the screening. After assuring me the projectionist would meet me to do the check, he said their theater was the only performing arts center between Buffalo and Cleveland and that close to 10,000 people a year come to the films. From that conversation, I got the idea that Michael and his staff had been providing people in Erie with access to independent films for a good long time, and that they had cultivated the audience, and that people probably had faith in what he screened and came to see whatever he presented.
These are turbulent, frightening days in American independent cinema, with independent distributors and cinemas folding, and access to screens and audiences is not what it once once – and hearing Michael so confidently describe his audience reminded me of a press conference I was part of at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1992, when I was there with THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD, a narrative feature I directed.
Filmmaker Nancy Kelly addresses the audience at Mercyhurst College.
About six of the American independent filmmakers attending the festival took part in the press conference, including the actors Keanu Reeves and Bruce Davison. The Soviet Union had collapsed a year before and Russian artists of all kinds were struggling with the difference between being an artist in a socialist and a capitalist economy. The filmmakers, for example, had experienced a precipitous loss of access to screens, which they complained were now showing more commercial, cheaply-made action, adventure and porn movies. At the press conference, we were asked, “How did American Independent filmmakers get control of screens in the US?” I honestly had no idea – in fact, I wanted to crawl under the table. Sandra Schulberg, co-founder of the Independent Feature Project, co-producer of Northern Lights (1979), a pioneering American independent film, took the microphone and described the people in cities all over America who, in the 1960s and 1970s, started film societies by renting cinemas on weekend mornings to show independent and foreign films. She said over time, the people who started those film societies grew them into evolved into film festivals, independent cinemas and independent distributors. I listened and learned, because I’m part of a group independent filmmakers who came along just a few years later and trod paths blazed by Sandra and those she was describing.
And, the two Erie screenings proved Michael has indeed built a solid audience that brings a lot of curiosity to a film screening.
All photos by Randall Stankey, Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center Projectionist, 2011
Post written by Nancy Kelly, On Screen/In Person touring filmmaker