The Building of an Alternate Cinema

An excerpt from unpublished biography of Lionel Rogosin

In 1960 I founded the Bleecker St. Cinema, in order to present Come Back Africa and to continue as a first run cinema to become a showcase for Independent American Films. Later in 1966 I started Impact Films as a distributor of 16mm. Films for the non-theatrical circuit. These acts eventually became a plan to create an alternate cinema.

The impulse for this idea began many years earlier before I started making films when I saw Flaherty's film Man of Aran at the age of ten or eleven. I was powerfully struck by that experience, it reached the core of my emotions. It was totally new, nothing like I had ever seen before. Flaherty was one of the first of the independents and a very American phenomenon. To me he seemed to be like Walt Whitman. At the time I didn't dream of becoming a film maker, it seemed beyond the possibilities of my capabilities, but Man of Aran made the romantic Hollywood feature films of the time seem insipid and insignificant.

Years rolled on ... in 1939 WW2 began and in 1941 I entered the Navy where I had a continuous diet of American cinema. They were often entertaining. When the war ended I received another culture shock. The Italians emerging from the trauma of the war had invented a new kind of cinema, Neo Realism. The primary originators were Rossellini, DeSica and Zavattini. Neo Realism had some similarity to Flaherty's work and other early innovators. For me there were now no other films besides the Italian and other European film artists; Bunuel, Bergman and Bresson. I still hadn't begun to make films until 1955 when I started filming On the Bowery, then I discovered the insurmountable obstacles of exhibition and distribution and I soon had the desire to create a new kind of cinema in America, but I didn't yet foresee creating an exhibition and distribution apparatus.

I was forced into it step by step by circumstances; the first was the Bleecker St., which I operated from 1960 until 1974. Soon after the opening of Bleecker St. I began the odyssey of Good Times, Wonderful Times. Being an anti-war film completed soon before the beginning of the war in Vietnam it seemed impossible to get commercial distribution for it and I finally succumbed to the unavoidable conclusion that I would have to distribute it myself on the non-theatrical circuit something I didn't believe was feasible. I dreaded doing it but I had no alternative therefore I started Impact Films. There were moments when I felt that we would have to spend years to get GTWT around the country but only on a small scale and that it would cripple my efforts on future filmmaking. After years of work I eventually realized that we had achieved a large number of bookings, small in magnitude but over seven to ten years amounted to an audience of several hundred thousand. A significant figure in the ranks of the anti-war movement. It made me realize that an important un-commercial film could be successful on an alternate media circuit. The consensus that film production and distribution was prohibitively expensive was disproved, but the problem was that it was laborious, exhausting and probably ahead of its time. We eventually failed but others will come along and succeed; we achieved a lot. It sometimes takes a few failures before success is attained. I believe it may finally be more feasible on cable TV, which is visually less satisfactory.

By that time the Bleecker St. was becoming notorious as the showcase of innovative films. It wasn't a great financial success. It was too small and not in an ideal location but it served an important function not only for me. A few years later a film producer said the Bleecker St. was "an act of love." I believe it was. Many filmmakers received their education there; it was a kind of university. Years later Tom Luddy of the Pacifica Foundation was to say to me, "you not only made films but you made film makers."

Impact Films was a different story. It was a grim struggle but after several years we were close to breaking even. Together Bleecker St and Impact came close to succeeding but I was eventually forced to withdraw. I believe that the basic problem was that I did it alone and that it needed some kind of group support, particularly from filmmakers. It probably should have been set up as a non-profit organization. Even so after several years, we had about 100 films and were grossing about $100,000/yr. this only earned us a negligible margin. We barely got by but I was willing to gamble on its future. The 16mm distribution was costly and the returns were low. The films had to be inspected and shipped and the rentals were only about $100 and prints had to be paid for. I continued to hope for some national sales on educational TV. One or two a year would of put us over the top; however there seemed to be some barrier against the independents although we had some excellent films. I tried everything but there seemed to be some kind of psychological or cultural barrier against us. The intellectual bureaucrats seemed to resent us. I once said to Emile deAntionio, "We seem to be on a black list," he replied "Oh no, its a grey list." I agreed, but it gave me a chill.

At that time there was very little cable TV and the three networks had an airtight monopoly. The Networks had a clear-cut policy not to purchase films or commission independents; therefore this vast outlet was closed off to us and to the public. For some reason although NET made and broadcast some interesting films I could never break through their barrier nor could many other of the independents, de Antonio, Shirley Clarke, Jonas Mekas and others.

I continued the Bleeker St. until 1974, -- 14 years. I finally gave it up then because I started to lose money. Several other cinemas began to run repertory, which was basis of our operation. The Elgin on 23rd St began to compete with our program in a big way since they were a much larger cinema and had the advantage of a very large advertising budget. Even worse they obtained exclusive rights to show some of our favorite and successful standbys, which we had shown for years, such as Black Orpheus and the Queen of Hearts. After that the distributors refused to rent us the films. I realized belatedly that this behavior was probably illegal and in restraint of trade.

By that time I began to sense that my filmmaking was being neglected because of all this enterprise. I realized that I was probably the only filmmaker in the world who was a producer, exhibitor, and distributor under one roof and that my creative work was suffering. Actually Bleecker St. and Impact were close to success, but I had a split allegiance. Filmmakers are usually not good businessmen because we are too emotional and obsessive about our work. In any case I began to withdraw from these commercial enterprises and by 1978 I also gave up Impact Films, with the hope that I could increase my film production.

Initially after starting Bleecker St. and Impact I planned to create a network of cinemas which would circulate the films that had successful runs at the Bleecker St. and would offer them to other art houses in L.A., Chicago, San Francisco, and a few university theatres. This way if we could succeed in obtaining 20 bookings, that would generate enough income to support this alternate media. Unfortunately, for some reason it never proved large enough and in a few years the national number of art houses diminished considerably. Instead of moving ahead we went backward. I'm not clear about why this happened. It was partially an economic phenomenon. Real estate rentals went up faster than box office grosses, and many cinemas were turned into supermarkets. A similar phenomenon occurred in Europe. For example in France it happened to the producer Katherine Winter. Suddenly she realized that her budget had risen to $2,000,000, which was too great for France, and her films had to be designed for the US market, which distorted their quality. Katherine Winter told me that although her film recouped $2,000,000 it didn't produce a profit. When she complained to her distributor who had received 35% of gross income, he nodded his head sadly and said, "I'm glad I don't produce films." The producer is often the last to receive any income, after exhibitors, distributors, agents, and technicians. On a worldwide basis the art of cinema collapsed compared to what it was in the 50s and 60s. With the exception of a few rare high quality films we now have only the brainless blockbusters, the world media has become more and more un American, it is now truly cultural imperialism.

Under the circumstances I had one possibility and that was to go into 35mm commercial distribution. That could have been very profitable but exceedingly risky, dangerous and ruthless. Commercial distribution is not only risky but demands a large amount of capital. I didn't want to get into that jungle because I felt it would eat up all my time and energy on films I wasn't interested in and my own work would suffer even more. I was right but I didn't find a solution.

Was it worth it? I'm sorry I couldn't continue but the Bleecker St. made an important contribution in the 14 years that I ran it.

In 1995 I was sitting in a restaurant on Sunset Blvd when my waitress asked me if I was Lionel Rogosin. Slightly mystified I naturally said yes, and I was told that the young woman at a nearby table used to work at the Bleecker St. She waved to me; I recognized her and waved back. When she and her party left they came over to my table and gave me a marvelous compliment. One of her companions volubly said to me, the Bleecker St. Cinema was the greatest cinema in the world." I was a bit staggered by such exaggeration.

Around that same time Jean Luc Goddard was offered a prize by the N.Y. critics; somewhat tongue in cheek he refused it and said, "give it to the Bleecker St.?