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Do It Yourself Filmwatchers

December 30, 2010 | By | Add a Comment

“Best of Chicago DIY Film” series. Originally appeared on the site 11/09/2010

An interview with the Siskel Center’s directors of programming

Matthew Blake

Chicago Art Magazine approached the Gene Siskel Center to find out how they picked the 400 unique films the movie house shows each year—films the Center describes as “world-class independent, international, and classic cinema.” As it turns out, the entire decision-making process falls onto two staff members. Meet Barbara Scharres, Director of Programming at the Siskel Center and Marty Rubin, Associate Director of Programming.

Scharres has been at the Siskel for 35 years – joining just a few years after the School of the Art Institute of Chicago founded the center in 1972 (it was renamed after former Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel in 2000). Along the way she has written on film for the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, and American Cinematographer.

Rubin has worked at the Siskel Center for ten years, and, with a PhD in film studies, also teaches film history classes at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

In this edited q-and-a, Scharres and Rubin lay out the case that their job isn’t just watching movies all day. In doing so, they reveal recent changes in film.

Chicago Art Mag: So you do you just watch movies all day?

Barbara Scharres

Scharres: People often misunderstand what this kind of job entails. In fact, all our daytime is spent in very heavy-duty administrative work. We do a great volume of correspondence with people in many different countries – filmmakers, distributors of films. We have to do a huge amount of research and a lot of that encompasses not only reading and research on the Web but utilizing a network of contacts that we’ve built over the years.

We juggle different agendas from what we’re showing next month to what we’re showing next year for major events like the European Union film festival. We have to do business negotiations, which can be tricky because we often don’t have the budget to give the money that the distributors ask for.

Also, it’s not about finding the films we like. It’s about what the mission of the film center is in determining an appropriate mix of the different kinds of cinema in our programming. That has two aspects. It includes the diversity of the mix, which is about serving the community with different kinds of art and entertainment. But it’s also about bringing in enough of an audience that we sustain ourselves financially. That’s a big part of the equation…the film center has a mandate to be self-supporting.

Chicago Art Mag: So do you guys actually screen all the films Siskel shows or is that impossible given your administrative work?

Scharring: We have to see films on our own time so everyday Marty and I take volumes of films of home.

Rubin: Every once in a great while we might show something sight unseen, because it’s a special case. But we not only screen every film that we show but many more films that we don’t show. We try to screen every film that’s submitted to us and our basic system is one vote yes is the majority. If either of us likes the film, then it gets shown. Sometimes Barbara will see the light on the film and I won’t.

So we’re basically here every day during office hours and then we screen at least one film a night and then over the weekend we screen three or four.

Chicago Art Mag: Besides watching all the films submitted to the Siskel Center, how do you filter what films are worth a look? For example, you have an Iranian film festival. How do you start to look for the best Iranian films to show?

Marty Rubin

Scharring: Well, in the case of Iranian films, I’ve made eight trips to Iran in the last 10 years, going to a film festival in Tehran, where we spend every day and evening screening a new body of Iranian work.

For the European Union film festival, Marty and I divide up the countries so we each have our set of nations we are working on. Part of the research is done when I’m at the Cannes film festival. At Cannes, I go around to the market stands for companies and agencies that represent every country that’s one of mine. A lot of nations have some kind of agency that publishes and annual guide of production so I’m able to pick one these up and get a feel for things.

How has the internet changed your job?

Rubin: I don’t really watch films online. The films we tend to get are not legally online yet. The internet is a very valuable tool for tracking down information a getting a sense for what are creating buzz. So it’s a convenience…it’s not really different for us than it has been for anybody else.

Scharring: To be able to download press kits and stills is a big benefit and then e-mail has changed everything as far as international business goes. It’s just so much easier. I remember the days of faxes….You would spend hours typing up and sending letters and waiting days for a response. They would be all these countries that were saving electricity by turning off their faxes at night. It was kind of unclear if some of these companies understood the concept behind fax machines.

Are there more good films now than there ever has been?

Rubin: I don’t think there are more good films. I think what possibly changes is where those good films are coming from. There are a lot more documentaries…there have just been a tremendous amount of documentaries released in the last few years.

What we have problem with [at our jobs] is old films with an original 35 mm print. The old prints wear it and they don’t make new prints and this is a problem. A lot of venues have just thrown in the towel and start showing DVD’s and Blue Rays. [This is] something we don’t want to do.

Scharring: The proportion of good films probably hasn’t changed. I tend to think that maybe 10 percent of everything ever made is really good. What’s different is the advent of digital production. There’s more production going on in more places and also we have the ability to reach people in more nations where films are being made and that wasn’t possible in the past. [Twenty years ago] We weren’t showing as much work from Asian and from Africa and from all the many Eastern European nations. Of course, they weren’t as many Eastern European nations 20 years ago.

The world of cinema has gotten bigger and it’s become more known to the rest of the world or at least to the people whose job is to know what’s out there. I mean 20 years ago it would be pretty much unheard of to screen a film from Thailand or many other Asian nations that are now very prominent in filmmaking. So a lot that has changed with digital production has enabled filmmakers to start creating work where it wasn’t possible before, and in countries where there is a repressive system of censorship. In China and Iran there is an official system of production and then there is an underground system of production. The world is expanding in these kinds of ways.

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