Program Cuts Leave Film Students with Questions


Photo by Rick Yu, Photo editor

The Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman Cinema Studies Center for Media Education and Production occupies the space above the Apollo Theatre. The state-of-the-art facility has been understaffed since its construction four years ago.

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

The Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman Cinema Studies Center for Media Education and Production stands severely understaffed, support for senior capstones has been pulled and tensions between the Cinema Studies program and the College administration forecast a potentially bleak future for a program that attracts more student interest than it has the resources to maintain. Faced with growing concerns about the program’s ability to meet its students’ needs in the wake of losing the key position of Facilities and Production Coordinator, the department’s professors cut the senior capstone experience.

The decision was met with confusion among majors, exposing the latest — but certainly not the first — issue raised by the program’s understaffing. Over the past 15 years, Cinema Studies professors have waited to no avail for the addition of another tenure-track position, even after increased demands for staff following the Apollo Theatre’s $6 million renovation in 2012. For both professors and students, the possibilities of regular independent film programming and an expanded academic program lay out of reach despite repeated efforts to secure both.

Joey Shapiro, College junior and Cinema Studies major, was unaware of the changes until Aug. 30, when key professors convened a meeting of majors like him. At the meeting, Shapiro said, professors told students that instead of senior capstones, students could register for private readings with professors in the program. However, each professor can only balance two private readings per semester, meaning that few majors will feasibly be able to complete the project that their academic career has been geared toward.

While all signs seemingly pointed to budget issues, which had been brought up vaguely in the meeting, many majors are still confused over the cause of these changes.

“Well, I think it was mostly the staff aspect,” Shapiro said. “There’s just not a lot of people, and it’s very demanding on a professor to have senior projects every year … But the meeting left us with more questions than answers.”

Those questions concerned what kind of shift had taken place within the Cinema Studies Program itself. Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Tim Elgren, who is in charge of funding for academic departments, put to rest any notions of budget cuts. Data shows that the program’s budget has increased by 52 percent since 2011, which largely occurred in the past year. This rise, he said, can be attributed to his past efforts to save money in the face of a College-wide funding drought.

“Being new, there’s a whole bunch of ways in which I can get the kinds of funds to do the things I want to do and initiatives that I want to create in an environment where all our funds are spent,” Elgren said. “So right out of the gate, I started doing this by reallocating things in our budget, and all the money that I saved I had to give back because of the budget issues.”

The only changes Elgren was aware of in the Cinema Studies program, he said, concerned the removal of certain positions held by Oberlin graduates.

“What we don’t want to do is move into a realm where people lose jobs, so two of the positions that were cut were what we call ‘Presidential Fellows,’” Elgren said. The purpose of these fellowship positions, he explained, was to give graduating students an opportunity to work among professionals in their field and prepare for the working world. According to Elgren, this intended role was misunderstood by some professors, resulting in these fellows functioning as staff members. “Some departments took those fellows … as additions to staff. They’ve never been additions to staff.”

While there are certainly fellows in the College’s administrative branches, they don’t seem to have ever been a part of the Cinema Studies program. And though Elgren says he understands the program’s potential reliance on the cut positions, he was adamant that the change should not result in the kinds of issues brought up in the recent meeting. He also said that he wasn’t aware such a meeting had taken place, and that the issues raised therein had not been brought to him.

An official statement released by Grace An, director and associate professor of Cinema Studies, addressed the nature of the lost position.

“We’ve had to make adjustments, what with the loss (hopefully temporary) of the Facilities and Production Coordinator position, last occupied by Sophie Harari,” An wrote.

There is obvious dissonance between Elgren’s description of the “Presidential Fellow” position and the one held by Sophie Harari, OC ’15, though it seems that he and An are talking about the same role. It’s a misunderstanding that has, according to Geoff Pingree, professor of Cinema Studies and English, permeated the past few years of the program’s relationship with the administration. He described Harari as an essential member of the Cinema Studies faculty, someone whose ability to manage production equipment and student workshops allowed the professors enough breathing room to give students in the program a fuller experience.

In her statement, An also mentioned that recent pressures from the administration had put added strain on Cinema Studies professors.

“We’re also stretching our faculty and resources to meet the demand of answering both to ‘the needs of the entire College’ (as deans and important faculty committees put it) and our majors,” she wrote.

Pingree spoke in more detail about these needs, elaborating that each academic department is expected to offer 100-level courses for students who might not want to major in that discipline.

“We’ve felt pressure to do that for a long time, and that stretches us very thin,” Pingree said.

A picture comes together of a program lacking in the faculty it needs to accommodate the ambition of its design. But this isn’t the result, necessarily, of any recent changes — these issues have been present, and mostly unaddressed by the Oberlin community, for the program’s entire lifespan.

In 2001, Pingree was hired into the first full-time Cinema Studies tenure-track position. Now, 15 years later, there is exactly one other position like his, currently held by Rian Brown- Orso, associate professor of Cinema Studies/New Media. This lack of kinesis, Pingree says, can be assigned to the transient nature of faculty committees — if one committee is nearly convinced to add a new tenure-track position to the program, its members could be replaced the following year, losing any momentum gained.

“We’ve thought for years now, ‘This is the year we’ll get it,’” Pingree said, and while acknowledging the tight economy, he added that the program has an unfulfilled need. “We’re perplexed and frustrated that we haven’t gotten the position, that’s fair to say.”

The need for an expanded program is greatly exacerbated by the new Cinema Studies facilities above the Apollo Theatre. In the four years since it was opened, there has been little, if any, progress toward using that facility as initially intended by the Cinema Studies program and the administration alike.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Pingree said of the Apollo’s renovation project. “You have a campaign, you raise the money, you buy the theater, you renovate it, you get donors, effectively build a beautiful, state-of-the-art rocket ship, and then you have no astronauts. I don’t get it.”

The position of Facilities and Production Coordinator seems to have served the purpose of helping to manage those spaces and equipment. But even if that position were to be restored, as it has partially been with a College-provided fund to pay students to perform some of the lost duties, the program would still lack the basic faculty it needs to live up to the renovated Apollo’s promise.

“The College and community would benefit greatly to have someone who was here who programmed cinema,” Pingree said. “There are two screens down there. … You know, that was a decision … We wanted two.”

When the Apollo was still under construction, Pingree was part of a discussion about building a second theater space. Students and Oberlin community members may have bought a ticket at the box office only to be told that their film is to be shown in the screening room, denoted as such by a placard next to the door — in fact, that smaller theater was built for the purpose of showing independent fare. But those looking forward to regular screenings of independent movies are still waiting — the funding for a programmer never came. Pingree himself was the chair of a “very brief ” committee for programming, but the endeavor was eventually stifled due to an external perceived lack of financial viability.

In fact, college-funded independent film programs are cultural touchstones of many schools with vibrant film communities around the world. Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre, Wesleyan’s daily movie program and Doc Films at the University of Chicago, where Pingree attended graduate school, are all examples of successful, nationally-recognized initiatives.

“So, what’s the main thing that’s holding us back?” Pingree asked of the program in general. “More faculty. That’s what we don’t have.”

For the time being, it isn’t the end of the world for Cinema Studies majors. Those who aren’t involved in film production will find their experience unaffected by the recent changes, and those who are can work to find time with professors. The greater issue at hand is what is not there, and the shrinking size of the department does not bode well for the possibility of new tenure-track faculty or an independent film programmer. To compensate for the Cinema Studies program’s depleted resources, the Oberlin Film Co-Op has combined with the Independent Film Series to produce their own string of screenings, the first of which will play tonight at 8 p.m. in Tappan Square.

“I’m struck by the initiative and responsibility students are taking to realize their own sense of what the program could be,” An wrote in her statement.

In a financially tight campus environment, the Cinema Studies program is just one arm of the college harmed by new restrictions. Yet the school’s tradition of cinematic engagement, as exemplified by the Apollo Theatre, aches to return unfettered.

Pingree, sitting in a studio at the Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman Center for Media Education and Production, shook his head. “Be happy for what we have and wish we had more,” he said. And reflecting on the words of Shapiro and other members of Oberlin’s film community, the sentiment couldn’t ring more true.