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Consider the Alternative: A Coast-to-Coast Tour of Non-Commercial Exhibitors

By Stephanie Mardesich

The Film Forum in New York City reopened in this newly constructed theater on Houston Street in September 1990.

While it's been refreshing over the past year to see a relative proliferation of documentaries in commercial theaters, the operative word is still "relative." And it's still rare to see short documentaries (50 minutes or less) in theatrical venues, probably due to the multitude of film festivals.

Just how do makers of documentaries—particularly short documentaries—get their work shown beyond festivals or television? Taking a kind of telephone and Internet tour around the US in search of alternative venues revealed some important possibilities.

My "trip" began with the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle (, where movies are perking along with the coffee and films are screened 364 days a year in several ongoing programs. According to programmer Jaime Keeling, "We show a lot of docs because they happen to be the most interesting independent cinema happening. We haven't shown as many shorts as they're harder to find and don't get distributed, but I do seek them out and they screen in the Little Theatre program." Keeling finds films through the Web and catalogues from festivals like Sundance, Berlin and Hot Springs. She also considers recommendations and looks at screeners sent to her by filmmakers and occasionally distributors.

"We're really artist-centered, very much here to fertilize the city and hopefully be a good ground for filmmakers to grow out of," says Keeling. "That's our main goal, along with educating the audience." Programs might be grouped together by related subject, or build around a theme. The day after Thanksgiving, for example, will be scheduled for films that comment on consumer culture.

The center will also program filmmaker retrospectives like the work of Jeff Crulec (, presented earlier this year. Crulec is kind of an underground legend from Washington, DC, who makes quirky docs about bizarre Americana such as Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Fifteen of his films, all shorts, were shown, including his latest, Hitler's Hat. Audience levels are high throughout the year and all indications are it's from the programming, not the caffeine.

Heading eastward to Chicago and the Gene Siskel Film Center ( at the Art Institute of Chicago, associate film programmer Marty Rubin finds that although the center does show docs, they're "hard to place in terms of commercial presentation in a way that attracts the public." Programming usually consists of weekly runs and premiers in a showcase or themed context. "We have the upcoming annual Black Harvest Festival that usually includes important docs like Biggy & Tupac (Nick Broomfield) last year, or Two Towns of Jasper (Marco Williams and Whiteney Dow)," Rubin notes. "We also showed Strange Fruit (Joel Katz), an evolution of the song recorded by Billie Holiday, and Keeping It Real (Frank Crosby Jr.), a film of black men talking directly to camera about their relationship to women.

"With some exceptions it's not easy to sell documentary," says Rubin, "and much harder to sell program of shorts than features. We try to group them together and pair them meaningfully." Rubin and his colleagues usually contact filmmakers, although they do look at unsolicited screeners and "try to respond in a timely fashion."

Also in the Windy City, Chicago Filmmakers ( has the Reeling Chicago weekly screening series. "Most of the work we're interested in showing are features because of the subject matter—political, social issue-oriented or edgy grassroots," says program director Patrick Friel. "We don't tend to show a lot of shorts unless they're locally made. Documentaries we'd show in one of two contexts—either in our weekly screening series or the Lesbian & Gay Festival." Attendance at Chicago Filmmakers' informal downtown space at Columbia College averages 30-40.

At the Lincoln, Nebraska-based Media Arts Center (, executive director Danny Ladely believes that short docs are "just as important as features. A short film, documentary or narrative, is its own art form, not just a derivative, and ought to have equal due as features." Curiously in the age of MTV, he finds it's sometimes hard to get audiences to sit still for short films; he has better luck getting people to watch if he puts together compilation programs of several shorts with a feature.

"I try to watch as many shorts as I can," says Ladely. "I go to fests and maintain good contact with a few distributors like Big Short Films, Women Make Movies, Bull Frog or First Run." The Media Arts Center has some reasonable funds to work with bringing in filmmakers year round. With two screens running seven days a week, including matinees on Saturday and Sunday, the center runs a very active program; an advisory committee helps Ladely with programming selection.

Moving eastward to New York, Film Forum (, founded in 1970, garners "more press for documentaries and larger audiences than any other cinema or nonprofit," according to director Karen Cooper, who's been with the organization since 1972. "My feeling is, documentaries are every bit as important, if not more so, as fiction filmmaking. There is a phenomenon of more and more documentaries getting out theatrically and commercially, and Film Forum has pioneered and championed docs for three decades." As one who came of age in the '60s, Cooper is interested in social and political issues that grew out of that period, an interest that reflects in programming choices, but doesn't preclude other topics. With three screens running 365 days a year, a $3.5 million budget, 56 employees, 5,000 members, and a 2002 box office total of 300,000 tickets sold, Film Forum is a much sought after venue, and an equally discriminating one. She and/or representatives attend festivals in Berlin, Amsterdam, Cannes and Toronto, and review films that are submitted.

"Five percent of what I see I show, most of them I turn down through a rigorous selection," comments Cooper. "When we open a film it resonates nationwide. Theaters pick on what we play and our selections show up on dozens of screens, from New York to Texas to Seattle."

Also in New York, the New Filmmakers ( weekly screenings program has served to expose the medium and showcase up-and-coming talent. Now in its sixth year (and recently launched in Los Angeles) the popular Wednesday evening event was the inspiration of Barney Oldfield, chairman of the board at Anthology Film Archives, while a graduate student at New York University.

Anthology provides the venue with sponsorship from his company, Angelika Films. "There are no forms or fees and it's open to anyone," states Oldfield. "We're very supportive of documentaries, and try get them in the mix." This past spring included work from the Black Documentary Collective and Third World Newsreel. One film on the fall agenda is Hollywood Headshots by Myles Mahar, who became so intrigued by the ubiquitous photos of aspiring actors that he actually pursued several individuals and captured their personal stories in a 30-minute doc.

As many as 30 films and videos are submitted each week, and about 150 screened per year, with Oldfield and a committee viewing material and making selections. "It's up to the filmmakers to promote their films, though we send press releases, get listings and have information on our website. We also have a strong industry following." The 200-seat house at $5 a ticket (proceeds go to Anthology) usually sells out.

New Filmmakers aims to program what others aren't screening. "We've shown some very bizarre films, featured a Fetish Night, Chirpy the Bird series, David Maquiling's Too Much Sleep, some strange, unique stuff," says Oldfield. "One thing you can say about our films is you can't find them anywhere else."

 Heading south to Atlanta, ask Brian Inman of the Image Film & Video Center ( about nonfiction programming and he enthusiastically responds, "Docs, we love ‘em. We show them all the time!" The IFVC has been going strong for 27 years, and it also produces the Atlanta Film Festival. Founded by "a lot of filmmakers who happen to make documentaries," the center aims to showcase the kind of work that's not going to play in commercial theatres. "We can take the risk because we're nonprofit, and we reach people in a way you can't on TV," Inman says.

Ongoing screenings and monthly programs often include filmmaker panels. "Most doc filmmakers want to connect with audiences," says Inman, "so we often fly them and provide a night in a hotel, rather than a rental fee." The center's agenda also includes two screenings of indie films every month at the Martin Luther King National Historic Site. Another alternate screen is the Ebenezeer Baptist Church (where Dr. King preached), which tends to show docs with a social and political theme, e.g. Confederacy Theatre by Ryan Deusing. With a strong membership base, attendance is strong. Inman notes that until recently Atlanta was an under-screened market, but that's starting to change with the presence of a Landmark Theater and the LeFont art house theater. "There's a huge group of fans of docs in town and a strong film market. It's a very diverse city, and I think there is an audience out there for short docs and we'll support it always."

Our tour continues to Miami and the Bass Museum (, where Wanda Texon, curator of education, is very interested in "seeing material and what's been shown that could travel and correspond to or inspire exhibitions." For a recent exhibition of Japanese artist Kayoi Kusama, for example, Texon sought fiction and documentary films with a Japanese/Asian or aesthetic connection. She got significant help from the New York-based Japan Society and Women Make Movies, and she programmed a documentary festival that included such films as Dream Girls and The Good Wife of Tokyo. The museum has limited space and projection capability but can show 16mm as well as video. Texon states that she really has to seek out material, but will take a look at screeners, which should be sent with the exhibition concept in mind.

On to the Crescent City, where the New Orleans Film Festival ( holds screenings of locally made documentaries like Shalom Y'All , which explores the Jewish experience in the American South. The concern is less about being a short or feature than the merits of the movie.

The New Orleans Museum of Art ( has a 220-seat auditorium and provides films and lectures sporadically because, like the Bass Museum, NOMA likes to correspond film or video to current exhibitions. Education director Allison Reid asserts that "we'd like to expand and include events to appeal to the younger membership, have an advocates reception and show a film. That could be a documentary as long as it's somehow about art."

The Houston-based South West Alternate Media Project (SWAMP; is primarily renowned for presenting the local PBS series The Territory, a showcase for short media work. SWAMP doesn't have its own venue for screenings, but often presents films in collaboration with Rice University Media Center or Houston Museum of Fine Arts and brings in filmmakers to participate. Says Mary Lampe, SWAMP's executive director, "We're always looking for really strong short documentary work and will look at screeners sent directly to us."

Across the Lone Star State, Barton Weiss, artistic director of the Video Association of Dallas ( considers "short docs in general harder to program" though a "good thing in programming is when you show a feature and have a short first that's in sync." Weiss is responsible for a multitude of programs that includes the Texas Show, Frame of Mind for public television and a monthly series of Jewish films that runs at Angelika Film Center.

 Another program is a quarterly exhibition of docs that are mostly features, but shorts are considered. During July the program featured shorts of Boston-based Gary Roma, who's known for demonstrating that you can make "an interesting documentary about anything, including doorstops, cats in libraries or dental floss—off-beat subjects that no one thinks can be done, but he does it," says Weiss. In choosing films, Weiss talks to curators, looks at publications, goes to festivals and finds "because I program so many things, I'm always looking. There's never a shortage of films that people send me."

Winding our way back to the West Coast, the San Francisco Cinematheque ( tends to show more experimental films than documentary work. A curatorial committee is responsible for programming and will view submissions sent directly to the Cinematheque. Shorts figure prominently in the schedule, with screenings on-going throughout the year in several venues around the city. "We want to look at work that's been made locally, and in emerging nations and communities, that specifically challenges mass media presentation of globalization, of how western audiences are taught to understand issues in regions far from home," states Steven Jenkins, executive director. "We also want to look at ‘essay' films and how people using that form, and [traditional] techniques in a more experimental manner and a less narrative way."

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ( also takes a strong aesthetic posture in programming films. In its monthly film series "7th Art: New Dimensions in Cinema," films have been specifically selected to coordinate with the "Reprocessing Information" exhibition. The objective at SFMOMA, as with the aforementioned museums, is to achieve a synergy between film series and exhibitions. Unfortunately, the curators do not normally consider unsolicited submissions.

Down the coast to Los Angeles, American Cinematheque ( occasionally screens short documentaries as part of its "Alternative Screen" series and other on-going programs. "Films are chosen based on whether they've been seen in LA, or what's not been seen a lot, and if filmmaker uses documentary style in a little more of a creative fashion," programmer Margot Gerber explains. The Cinematheque also tracks festivals and requests films that seem appropriate to its themed programs. While there are no rental fees or honoraria for filmmaker participation, "what we do provide is a great deal of publicity for films and filmmakers, who get exposure in LA to our 30,000 members," says Gerber. "There's also advertising, in-kind support, potential for reviews and the opportunity to invite agents or distributors. Everybody who has screened at Alternative Screen has come away with more knowledge and more confidence." 

 While the Cinematheque seems to coalesce with Hollywood, Cheng-Sim Lim, programmer for the UCLA Film & Television Archive ( finds the "industry notoriously blind toward the riches in their own backyard. The film culture is so dominated by Hollywood, there's this notion that shorts aren't equal to features," Lim observes.

Showing a mix of archival and new work, Lim is planning a documentary series of politically oriented films, both short and feature. She pays particular attention to various emerging and established filmmakers, and though she keeps track of festivals, she tries to go beyond that arena. "Sometimes we have something in mind for several years before a program will click," she says. While UCLA does pay rental fees, like "every other nonprofit in this country, we have to raise every penny that we spend and it's very difficult." Projection is state-of-the-art reel to reel capability, with a union projectionist and highly trained staff that's  "probably better than the average commercial house because we respect the medium. I'm for the communal theatrical experience."

The latest addition to the viewing scene is at Cinescape, where New Filmmakers LA ( programs the West Coast Wednesday night screenings that include shorts and features, with an emphasis on docs. It's like seeing a movie in a night club, complete with martinis and dinner. While there's no cover for watching the films, drinks start at $8 and a la carte menu upwards from $15 for entrees, so the tab can add up fast. As with the New York counterparts, the emphasis is on emerging filmmakers, and the offerings can be very avant garde, if not strange.

It would be an omission not to include Documental (, the documentary and experimental film and video series presented by Midnight Special Bookstore in Santa Monica that's been going since around 1985. Admission is free in the storefront screening room where Gerry Fialka does the programming with complete support and approbation of owner Margie Ghiz. "Documental is extremely important for voices that don't get to be heard," Ghiz says. "People have to be exposed to topics and issues so that they can make up their own minds and documentary films present a lot of different perspectives." There are no fees for the filmmakers, but this is a terrific opportunity for exposure. Documental will review all screeners.

As the tour concludes, you are encouraged you to look further into the multitude of opportunities and screens awaiting your film. Check out the National Association of Media Arts Council (, a tremendous resource for this article and a possible passport for your film's journey.


Stephanie Mardesich is a public relations consultant, a freelance writer in the area of arts/entertainment and frequent contributor to ID.