Open Cities Goes DVD: Local Film Buffs Attempt to Rejuvenate the Movie Experience Print
Movies - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 29 August 2006 22:41

JunebugTed Priester, the new president of Open Cities Cinema - formerly the Open Cities Film Society - knows he has a fight on his hands.

He admits that Open Cities, as it nears its 30th anniversary, is widely considered "rather a grandfatherly organization."

He's aware of the difficulty in marketing a weekly film series - one featuring titles readily available to home viewers - to a modern audience, saying, "Anymore, in our society, people work themselves into a frazzle. They want to go home at night and maybe watch a little TV and then lights out."

And he understands that when the organization opens its new season on September 22 - beginning with the Oscar-winning Danish film Babette's Feast - cinephiles may balk at the group's decision to screen DVDs as opposed to 16- or 35-millimeter prints, ceding that "there's a certain richness of sound that can't be replicated" with DVD.

Priester knows all of this.

Tristam ShandyBut he also knows something that everyone in Priester's self-professed "film generation," and everyone who simply loves film, knows- that there's nothing quite like the joy of sharing a terrific movie experience with others.

"If you go to a film with a group of people," he says, "and watch the film, and then get together afterwards for a few beers, the topic of conversation is ready-made. You can talk about that film - and the context of other films - for hours. There's just no end of conversation about films and various directors, actors, thematic content. ... All these things generate and spin off into other directions for conversation."

With Open Cities Cinema, Priester says, "We're hoping to create an environment where people can enjoy the experience of the film."

In the organization's heyday, says the new president, "We averaged well over 100 people a night." Yet that number significantly declined over the years, and during the organization's 2005-6 season at the Figge Art Museum, after a move from Davenport's Nighswander Theatre, "it was as low as 15 or 20."

North by Northwest Priester admits there was a score of reasons for last year's precipitous attendance drop, including the newness of the venue ("It was kind of hard to get to the theatre for people who didn't know how to find us") and the awkwardness of the group's weekly screening time ("Sunday afternoon during football season ... Forget it, you know?").

But he also recognizes that Open Cities itself bore a measure of responsibility, "partly because our film selection had been limited." With 16- and 35-millimeter prints becoming increasingly difficult to come by - at least at affordable rental prices - Priester says, "We would sit down as a group and select films, and then come to find out that they were no longer available in distribution."

What was needed was a thorough re-tooling of the organization, which began with both its title change - Open Cities Secretary (and frequent writer for the River Cities' Reader) Karen McFarland, regarding the previous "Film Society" moniker, says, "People saw it the wrong way, as being something exclusive" - and a new group of active participants.

"We have some new board members," says Priester. "Scott Tunnicliff just joined - he's the president of the Bettendorf Chamber of Commerce. John Kiley, who's head of United Way. Bill Roba - he's a professor of history with Scott Community College. Paul Fessler, one of the people that run United Neighbors. It's a real neat cross-section."

After what Priester calls "a six-hour session behind closed doors" at which the Open Cities board of directors "went through a self-analysis of what we were going to do," several decisions were made, among them the switch to the Davenport Public Library Fairmount Street locale, and the plan to become more of a presence in the community. "The fact is that we also view ourselves as being a resource," says Priester, who reveals that Open Cities is planning to work in tandem with film courses in local colleges. "We hold ourselves out as being an organization that could maybe organize and put on special programs. ... We can sort of lend our expertise with regard to films."

But the biggest change was in the organization's inevitable switch to the screening of DVDs.

Barton Fink"We realized we needed to sort of make a leap into the future here," Priester says. "It seems to us that the recourse to DVD is really a way of widening the variety of films and obtaining more unusual films, those that otherwise would have been out of distribution." DVD, he admits, "may not reach the standards of some movie buffs. However, we're not looking for the type of person who might look down their nose at how these films are shown. Rather, we're just trying to expand our audience for people who just enjoy the movie experience. We think that people will enjoy the experience of the big screen notwithstanding it's a DVD."

But one thing that won't change is Open Cities' dedication to quality cinema, which Priester believes, especially after the closing of the Brew & View and Rocket theatres in Rock Island, is in great demand. "We're a large metropolitan community with a dearth of venues for seeing alternative films or non-cineplex-type films. It's a niche that does need to be filled."

And that niche will be more readily filled through the switch to DVD; prohibitive costs and lack of availability in 16- and 35-millimeter formats would keep many unheralded films on the group's 2006-7 roster - including 2005 works Tristram Shandy, Wah-Wah, the Indian epic Water, and Oscar nominee Junebug - from being shown. "There are going to be a lot of things [screened] that most people never got to see because they never heard about them," says McFarland. "DVD was the way to do that."

"Open Cities Cinema," says Priester, "would like to encourage, enhance, develop, and expand an audience for the Quad Cities, to enhance the culture of the Quad Cities to include films - alternative films, interesting films - and kind of coalesce a film culture, so to speak."

First, though, the group has to build awareness, which Open Cities is doing through more aggressive advertising than before - "We're actually going to have billboards," says McFarland - and by actively seeking out younger audiences in colleges and universities. "We're trying to get hold of teachers and students and get them to come," McFarland says. "It seems as though the youngest generation doesn't have the same sense of awe at seeing something on the big screen as most of us did."

"We're still trying to find our audience," Priester says. "I mean, we know they're out there. The question is whether we can compete with the easy chair in front of the big-screen TV. We're hoping that at least once a week, on a Friday night, people would want to get out to see a film in a venue that would be, I think, accommodating, and a pleasant environment with like-minded people.

"We're going to give it a try. Try to spark the resurgence."


Open Cities Cinema will screen its films on Fridays at 7 p.m., at Davenport's Fairmount Street Public Library, beginning Friday, September 22. Suggested donations are $5 for adults, $3 for students, and $45 for season tickets. For more information and a schedule of upcoming films, visit (

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