The Last Picture Show

Untimely Death of the Texas Union Film Program

photograph by Jana Birchum

The obituaries offered no mention of it as a notable death. But as the semester wrapped up, a University of Texas institution passed away. The fatal prognosis was delivered last September when UT administrators announced that euthanasia was the cure for what ailed the Texas Union Film Program. It had been hemorrhaging money, administrators said, and would have to be put out of its misery at the end of the fall semester. That day came last month as the Texas Union Theatre hosted one final, typically eclectic double feature of the Fritz Lang masterpiece M, and the contemporary Irish political drama, Some Mother's Son.

Then, as finals approached, the University Film Society held a public grieving ceremony, cinematically dubbing it the Texas Union Massacre. Nearly 200 students, faculty, and film buffs held a mock funeral procession. Many protested the financial management practices of Texas Union Director Andy Smith. One cardboard sign held by a protestor carried a caricature of Smith with horns and a tail, and the caption: "Union devil kills film." Another sign called for "Films not burgers!" - in reference to what some describe as the food-court-ification of the student union. As they marched somberly down Guadalupe Street, the protesters demanded that the film program be kept alive, or at least be put on life support for another year. But as the semester came to a close, UT hammered the last nail on the program's coffin.

For 20 years, the Texas Union Film Program, headed by Steve Bearden, brought art cinema to Austin film lovers. As a component of the leisure activities provided at the Texas Union, and in coordination with classroom curriculums from time to time, the film program provided movies on campus seven days a week. From the New German Cinema of the Seventies to the best of Hong Kong action flicks, and the recently concluded series featuring a survey of American Avant-Garde cinema, the Union has screened films on which other theatres would never have taken a risk. The film program has provided an out-of-classroom educational experience for students, expanding their college experiences beyond the 40 Acres. "We have a history in the United States of not understanding the rest of the planet," says Chair of the Department of Radio-TV-Film John Downing. "It is imperative for students on this campus to understand the rest of the world. The cheapest way to do this is with an I.D. card and $3.50 in the Texas Union Theatre where they're showing foreign films."

It is true that the Film Program - once a revenue earner - has continuously lost money since 1989, losing over $42,000 in fiscal year 1996-97 alone. But that's not the only measure of its contribution. And while the university says it threw up its hands in the face of an ever-widening money hole, not all UT students believe that the program's illness was due to natural causes. Some wonder if the University has lost focus on its purpose as an intellectual and cultural institution. Why else would a valued cultural program lose funding, while the highest paid staff member - now former Coach John Mackovic - is a man who spent the semester stumbling through a losing season?

"It's a little surreal and depressing to stand here with all of this construction going on, and money floating around this university, and then see that this one little comparatively tiny cultural aspect is being singled out as expendable," observed Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater, of Slacker fame, at a rally held to protest the film program's closure.

The University Film Society, formed days after the announcement of the closure of the program, submitted a "Proposal to Retain and Explore Redevelopment of the Texas Union Film Program" to Dr. James Vick, vice-president of student affairs. The two main objectives of the 20-page report were to keep the program open and funded through the end of the 1998 fiscal year, as originally budgeted, and to form a planning committee with the University to initiate a redevelopment plan that would find alternative ways to keep the program budgeted and running in 1999 and beyond.

"We have put hundreds of hours into this," said Juliet Dervin, a first-year MFA student and member of UFS. "We are hoping for at the minimum a dialogue, at the maximum an acceptance of our demands." What the UFS got was a series of meetings with administrators, including Vick, that resulted in no pledges from the University to take into consideration any of their proposals or to keep the program funded until 1998.

With the winter break over, the outlook for any truly constructive dialogues is now grim. "They have basically been passing the buck between each other," said Jeff Lockwood, UFS member and History sophomore, of the response from both Vick and Union Director Andy Smith. Smith would not offer any comments on the UFS's proposal, and passed all inquiries on the Film Program to Regius Guillory, assistant director of the Union. Guillory passed all queries on the UFS's proposal to Dr. Vick. "I realize that they put a lot of work into this, and I am sympathetic with their goal in trying to preserve the Film Program," said Vick. "I have listened to their arguments and considered their alternatives, but if being responsive means doing what they want me to, I can't do that."

UT administrators cite the rising expense of equipment maintenance and state-mandated wage raises as the reasons for the recent streamlining of the Texas Union wherein the film program was put on the budgetary chopping block. Critics of the decision see the timing of the announcement - near the end of the semester - as a means to decrease student input into Union affairs and keep focus away from the failures by the Texas Union Board of Directors to make the Union financially viable.

photograph by Brian Easley

Those concerned with keeping intelligent cinema accessible to the UT community believe that the film program was sacrificed to the same bottom line that favors privatization of Texas Union food services over home-grown food shops and cultural activities. The replacement of university-run concessions with fast food franchises has already given the Union the appearance of a generic suburban mall plopped onto the UT campus, detractors complain. And some students believe that their fees contribute to making a home for these businesses rather than educational programs like the film program. "I don't want to subsidize corporations," said Dervin.

Administrators, however, are quick to point out that, on the contrary, the national franchises have been a cash cow for the Union. "I suppose it does look like a mall. But fees are not subsidizing the food services," Vick explained. "Food services are a revenue source for the Union. It went from a budget sink to a budget source."

Another commonly cited problem being blamed for the Film Program's demise is weak marketing. "I know students who have been here for two years who don't even know it even exists," said UFS member Lockwood. Among the steps that UFS believes might have helped are a marquee facing Guadalupe, advertising initiatives through local media, and easier-to-read film schedules. "They have completely failed Marketing 101," declared Tammy Arnstein, a MFA student and UFS organizer.

"Its very easy to criticize the marketing program," responded Vick, "But how much money are you willing or able to spend?"

According to Vick, the reasons for killing the program were simple: a significant decline in attendance, and a subsequent loss in admissions revenue that caused the program to run at a deficit. The reason why students fail to understand this, he said, is because they do not know what is happening to their money. "The problem," said Vick, "is that the money is not in the budget."

"That's the standard response," replied Dervin, that students don't understand how the budget works. But, she added, what is clear is that other budget areas were doing worse than expected and the film program was sacrificed to make up for it.

And if the Film Program has lost $389,500 over the last nine years - an average of $43,000 a year - advocates say that, in the scheme of things, that's a small price to pay. After all, the Texas Union Handbook clearly states that the mission of the Union at the University is to provide "cultural, educational, social, and recreational programs" to the students. Instead, some students believe, that mission has become lost as the Union becomes less a gathering spot for cultural activities, and more a fast food mecca where students go to get their fixes of Wendy's, Taco Bell, and Chick-Fil-A. The last meeting between the UFS and the Texas Union Council ended with directors suggesting that, contrary to the Texas Union Handbook, the Union does not have to provide cultural programs for the University; directors say that they only need to provide "space and access" to such programs.

So the future of any film showings, administrators say, will lie with individual university organizations and departments, which will have to open their own purses to fund cinematic endeavors, but will be allowed to use the space and equipment for film screenings that they sponsor.

This solution does not sit well with student organizations with typically measly budgets. They could not even hope to raise enough money to break even on a screening since, according to the UT Handbook for Registered Student Organizations, such organizations cannot charge admission or solicit donations for film screenings or video slide shows. Departments are also out of luck under this same scenario, since they are barred from expending money on auxiliary services such as Texas Union programs.

As the death knell chimed for the film program at semester's end, suspicions mounted that the university simply does not care to keep films at UT. Otherwise, the program would have been continued through the entire school year, and UFS members believe that would have been enough time not only for their proposals to be seriously studied but also for other interested parties to participate in finding a solution. Ironically, the one suggestion Vick did agree on with the UFS was a now-defunct proposal to offer season film passes along with the passes to sporting events that are offered for sale at the beginning of each semester. That would have been one way to get students interested. "That might be successful and would not be very difficult," Vick said.

But in the end, that was the only issue on which the two sides agreed. It all boiled down to whether film should be subsidized by UT students. Those in power said no. With the loss of the program, it will be the students who may come out the biggest losers. "It's something that even if you didn't always take advantage of, you knew that almost any time, you could step in and enjoy something besides explosions and violence," said Mark Goldenbaum, a UT English major. "I'll definitely miss it."

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