Camera ready: Canyon Cinema Exec Director Dominic Angerame brings experimental and avant-garde film to the world from a San Francisco base. (Photo courtesy Dominic Angerame)

Canyon Cinema's Dominic Angerame

Erika Young August 4, 2008

Filmmaker Dominic Angerame, the executive director of experimental/avant-garde film distribution company Canyon Cinema, seems that rarest of artists: someone who can level-headedly run a business and keep it profitable, as well as create highly personal, dynamic, art. It’d be hard to find anyone willing to take on the everyday labor of film inspection, office work, and filmmaker politics for as little compensation as he does: When he joined in 1980, "everyone was getting paid about $3 an hour," while in 2006, he had to battle to renegotiate his salary to an amount barely in line with San Francisco’s cost of living. But his commitment to the company, and the experimental art form, is 27 years strong and still going.

Originally from Albany, New York, Angerame lives in North Beach (the subject of two of his upcoming films, "two short comedies about coffee-shop living") and is a visiting faculty member at the San Francisco Art Institute. His film Anaconda Targets (2004), footage of a 2002 military operation recorded aboard a United States gunship helicopter, screened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2006 as part of the Whitney Biennial. He participated in an email exchange with this past winter. How large is Canyon these days?

Dominic Angerame: The company has 1.5 persons on staff. I work approximately 30 to 32 hours a week and my assistant, Loren Sorensen, works 32 hours a week. We have about four volunteers that help us with everyday operational needs, such as receiving films, filing, film inspection, and other necessary tasks. These are students who help from semester to semester. How does it receive its funding?

Angerame: Canyon Cinema’s income is mostly earned income (about 85 percent). Most of the income is derived in terms of film rentals and sales—that includes sales of DVDs and VHS tapes—and licensing continuous loop projections in museums around the world. Canyon Cinema receives no funding from the state or federal government. In the last couple of years we’ve been asking for private donations to help us continue operations on an everyday level. What was Canyon Cinema’s original mission?

Angerame: Canyon Cinema’s original mission was to operate as a nonprofit group that would not only distribute films, it would include educational classes, exhibition and other outreach programs. The IRS did not accept Canyon’s original application for a nonprofit status, as a result of [its] attempting to receive nonprofit status twice. [So] Canyon Cinema decided to rewrite its articles of incorporation and bylaws to state that it was a for-profit shareholder corporation whose mission was to distribute, promote, preserve, and exhibit motion picture films as an art form. Are the original founders still involved in any way? Do you still keep in touch with them?

Angerame: Yes, many of the original founders are alive today. [Bruce Conner, a founder, recently passed away.] These filmmakers include Bruce Baillie, Chick Strand, Robert Nelson, Larry Jordan, and Gunvor Nelson. Their advice is always taken seriously and considered valuable input in the forging of the future of the organization. Some of the founders are either deceased or not involved at all, like Ben Van Meter, Lenny Lipton, Earl Bodien, and others. Are there any standout films, or filmmakers, that you’d like people to know about

Angerame: I think Jules Engel, André Lehmann, Sarah Pucill, and Eve Heller are among the newer members whose work should be seen and deserves to be shown. Also the new work by Michael Snow and the return of Robert Nelson’s films that were withdrawn for many years and are now available. Thorsten Fleisch’s work has also become popular. Does your catalog still contain 3,500+ films and videotapes (as per your website)?

Angerame: The number of films, videos, and DVDs constantly fluctuates because filmmakers withdraw their work from the organization and new filmmakers constantly join. The number currently remains at about 3,200 titles. Please talk a bit about how you work with that many films.

Angerame: It’s a difficult situation to track and maintain this volume of films. However, we have a custom-made computer system developed with [the] great help of David Warren, a computer programmer sympathetic to the mission of Canyon Cinema, [and] David Sherman, my former assistant who worked diligently for Canyon Cinema for more than 10 years. And my own input. It’s a comprehensive program that allows the staff to track and maintain [our] collection of more than 3,000 titles, 325 filmmakers, and 1,200 clients.

All films are hand-inspected upon return from rental, making sure that the 16mm and 35mm prints are not scratched or damaged during the projection. It is difficult dealing with such a large collection. However, during the many years I’ve been managing the company, a system that is very efficient and organized has helped us keep track and maintain the collection. All the prints are stored on-site and organized as a library. In 2006, you’d sent out the word that Canyon Cinema needed donations to help the company through a rough financial spot—and you did receive them, including a $25,000 donation from Lucasfilm. How are things going now? Are film rentals still increasing?

Angerame: We did receive $25,000 from the Lucasfilm Foundation to upgrade the website, computer hardware, general office equipment, etc. Rentals seem to have leveled off, about 20 percent lower than previous years due to the influx of DVD sales and rentals. We’re still struggling to remain viable in the digital age, and the challenges of keeping motion picture projection alive is still a struggle as many people, schools, museums, and exhibition places have thrown away or discarded their film projectors for more costly and ever-changing digital projection equipment. Who are the other companies or distributors in this field? How does Canyon Cinema differ from them?

Angerame: There is the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in New York City, Light Cone in Paris, the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in Toronto, Six Pack Film in Vienna, LUX in London, England, and Re-Voir in Paris. These seem to be the major distribution centers.

Canyon differs from these in many ways. All of the above have major funding from either state or federal agencies to keep them in operation. Six Pack is highly funded from the Austrian government and only distributes Austrian filmmakers. The Film-Makers’ Cooperative is funded by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), the NEA, and many other sources. The Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre is funded by the Canadian government, and LUX by the English government. Re-Voir distributes tapes and DVDs from filmmakers and demands exclusive rights in Europe.

Canyon differs in that we have no government funding and most income is earned, with the exception of private donations (which is a recent development). Canyon charges its filmmakers a yearly fee for distribution. If these fees are not paid, films are returned to the filmmakers. Canyon pays filmmakers 50 percent of the rental fees as royalties upon demand and holds the filmmakers’ funds in separate bank accounts. [We do] not use these funds for everyday operation, as opposed to some of the above-listed distributors.

At Canyon, the filmmakers are in control of their work and their requests are taken seriously. Canyon Cinema is completely democratic: the board is elected by the membership, and the board has the right to establish and change policies. Many of the above organizations have board members [who] are not filmmakers, or who are appointed by who knows who. Canyon board members are active filmmakers who have their films in distribution with the organization. Therefore, the filmmakers have a direct say in how the business should be run. How does Canyon Cinema compete with them?

Angerame: In some ways there is competition since many of the above distributors offer their filmmakers things that Canyon cannot offer, such as making digital masters of their work, fancy printing pamphlets, and promotional materials. However, in trade, there is often a contract with these organizations that include exclusive rights for distribution. Canyon Cinema offers filmmakers the rights for filmmakers to distribute their films with anyone and does not insist on [an] exclusive contract. How does the style of experimental filmmaking here in the Bay Area differ from elsewhere: say, New York, or overseas?

Angerame: I’m not quite sure what that question means. Experimental film, in my opinion, is the revolutionary, poetic expression of moving images and that I feel is universal. I believe all experimental filmmakers have the same goal in mind, and that is to use and expand motion picture films as an art form. I think it’s impossible to tell, without knowing, that a film made in San Francisco is different from one made in Zurich, Austria, France, New York City, or Chicago. I do believe, however, that for the most part Bay Area filmmakers are underrecognized and more attention is given to other regions in the world. I believe that the Bay Area is the capital of experimental filmmaking and has been such since the 1950s and even earlier. The documentary format is a very popular method of filmmaking right now. Do you think a similar thing could happen with experimental film?

Angerame: Quite frankly, I’m sick of documentaries. People making films of subjects that they hardly know anything about, have little connection to… if I see another doc about someone’s grandmother or grandfather, I think I will become sick. There is too much funding going into trite and trivial documentaries and hardly any funding going to the support of experimental filmmaking. I believe that currently more and more people are being exposed to experimental filmmaking, and that the public’s interest in [it] is increasing.

If experimental cinema was to go mainstream, I think the creativity would diminish. The avant-garde is meant to be on the edges, and the vanguard, ageless and timeless. Experimental films have never been ‘popular’ and probably never will be. Are there any ways that the elements or aesthetics of experimental film have found their way out into mainstream media? (in the way that critics kept pointing out how Paul Greengrass’s way of shooting
Bloody Sunday and United 93 influenced the way he shot The Bourne Ultimatum?)

Angerame: Yes, Francis Ford Coppola has [said] that he has been influenced by the films of George Kuchar. Pat O’Neill did many special effects for The Empire Strikes Back, Jordan Belson did special effects for The Right Stuff, and George Lucas was highly influenced by the Canadian experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett. Experimental cinema, or [the] avant-garde, has always made its mark. After all, Orson Welles was highly influenced by Jean Cocteau and the influence of Maya Deren’s films can be seen almost everywhere. The film distribution company California Newsreel has a MySpace page, and you have your own official entry on Wikipedia. Michael Guillen welcomed you to the ‘blogosphere’ after he interviewed you for his site, "The Evening Class". How does it feel for you and Canyon Cinema to be part of all the new media that’s springing up?

Angerame: Canyon Cinema embraces the new technologies. It helps us to be able to communicate and maintain a dialogue about the present and future state of the cinematic arts. The new and the old have to learn how to live together in harmony. Do you throw away your movie projector, MovieScope, and rewinds because you have Final Cut Pro? I have both, and use both. New media offers many new opportunities such as access.

Now we all have access to technologies for the creation of moving images. This, I believe, is a good thing. There is, however, a difference in aesthetics, like the differences between watercolors and paint. Motion picture filmmakers, that is, those shooting on celluloid; and still photographers who still use film to shoot, know and understand that aesthetic differences between the so-called old and new technologies. Most of us have learned how to utilize the best in both worlds. Just because you can drive a hybrid car doesn’t mean you throw away your bicycle. How do you decide which technologies to use to promote Canyon Cinema?

Angerame: We’ll use any technology to promote Canyon Cinema. The future of much of cinema distribution will obviously be downloading. Many filmmakers’ works do not reproduce well in digital technologies, and Canyon Cinema respects this and honors the filmmakers’ wishes. If a filmmaker does not want their work digitized, we will not digitize it. Actually, the bulk of Canyon’s filmmakers do not have their work digitized either for aesthetic or economic reasons. So, many classic and obscure filmmakers — the only way you can view their work is on the format that they have released it, mostly on celluloid.

s will be obsolete very soon. The estimate is within two years. I believe that it is understood that in the industry, the only way to guarantee the future of your moving images is on motion picture film. What have been the benefits of bringing Canyon Cinema online? Disadvantages?

Angerame: Bringing Canyon Cinema [online] has had enormous benefits. It has enabled us to promote the work to a much wider audience than we could ever imagine. The hits to our website are beyond belief. We’re still working on our web presence, and hope to [expand] our website to include streaming videos and news, and have it be interactive within the next year. *Where are you from? How did you get into filmmaking?

Angerame: I’m from Albany, New York… worked in making home movies in high school in the early Sixties and then became serious about it while attending college in Buffalo in the late Sixties. I then moved to Chicago from 1970 to 1979 and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, completing my first 16-millimeter film, and had some influential teachers such as Gunter Deutsch, Stan Brakhage, Robert Fulton, and Tom Palazzolo. How long have you lived in San Francisco?

Angerame: I moved here in 1979 to go to grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute, and started teaching part-time at places [like] the Academy of Art, New College, the San Francisco Art Institute, and University of California, Berkeley Extension. I teach film history and production. What part of the city do you live in?

Angerame: I live in North Beach and have lived here since 1979. I found it very attractive visually and supportive of me artistically. Are you working on any new films?

Angerame: I have about six new projects in the works. Two of them deal with my continued fascination on the urban environment and are part of my ‘City Symphony’ series. They deal with buildings being torn down and the industrial area that used to exist around the Third Street area before and after the ballpark was built. I am also working on a new erotic piece from found footage of the 1930s and two short comedies about coffee shop living here in North Beach. I’m also working on footage that I shot in Korea at the DMZ in 2005 and in Cuba just last year. How do your films fit into the Canyon aesthetic?

Angerame: The Canyon aesthetic is basically films that do not fit the classic form or narrative, documentary, etc. My style and approach is definitely something different than mainstream moviemaking. For the most part, I shoot in high-contrast black-and-white 16-millimeter film. [I] do superimpositions in the camera, utilize in-camera editing techniques, and montage the imagery to give a sense of timelessness. My work is even very different than many in the Canyon collection. So as an oddball, I fit right in to the Canyon Cinema aesthetic. How has your approach to filmmaking changed over the years?

Angerame: My first film attempted to tell a story straight and forward. However, I made a mistake and shot imagery over a roll of film that I had already filmed [on], creating a superimposition that I had not expected. This ‘mis’ take led to a great discovery: that I had to no longer attempt to tell a story.

I realized that all the films I was making were the story of the filmmaker: the way I composed, the material that I chose and the way I treated the visual material. I gave up the narrative, documentary approach almost immediately. Each and every film became a progression of the previous film, one building upon the previous.

In Vienna last year they had two programs showing almost my entire filmography and it was fascinating for me to watch and experience how my work evolved with each and every subsequent film. Has working at Canyon affected the way you make films?

Angerame: I’m sure it has. Not by watching the films there, because we (the staff) have very little time to do such—either the phones are ringing or there is some interruption constantly. I think the dialogue that I’ve had with many filmmakers over the years has given me [the] insights and encouragement to continue, and change the way in which I work. How long do you think you’ll stay with Canyon Cinema?

Angerame: I’ve been the director there for 27 years. Frankly, I didn’t imagine I would be there for more than a year. Here it is many years later, and I think that question still has to remain unanswered.

I’ve always found that trying to run Canyon was a challenge since the way it is structured gives the filmmakers a great deal of freedom. It’s not run as an autocracy, but is a complete democracy. Virtually anyone can come in and learn how the place operates.

Running Canyon is still a challenge, and many people think that they can operate it better, cheaper, and more beneficial than I can. I guess when [I’m] ready, I’ll be smart enough to leave. What are Canyon Cinema’s plans for the future?

Angerame: There are many. One is to form an umbrella nonprofit foundation that will oversea the preservation, care and maintenance of the film prints in the collection. The foundation will also hold classes about experimental film history and exhibitions, and be the fiscal agent for Canyon Cinema. We plan to expand the Web presence by incorporating streaming video [and] expanded bios on our filmmakers, allowing filmmakers to change film descriptions and add reviews, having a monthly news update to promote the filmmakers’ work, and improving communications. Some have raised the thought that younger and/or multiple filmmakers should take over Canyon Cinema’s leadership, in order to bring ‘new blood’ to the company, and to return to the original spirit in which Canyon Cinema was founded. What are your thoughts on that?

Angerame: Well, that’s a mixed question. I think that came from a comment from Robert Nelson, one of Canyon’s founders. The energy that started Canyon Cinema in the early Sixties, in my opinion, has evaporated. We live in a more complex, computerized world. Canyon Cinema is very much a mechanical organization, that is, we deal with actual film prints. They are physically heavy and are perishable, and demand constant care and maintenance. These days we are all used to going to YouTube and pressing a button to watch a film.

At Canyon you have to know how to thread a 16-millimeter projector, Super-8-millimeter projector and regular 8-millimeter projector, as well as how to hook up digital equipment. One must know how to handle celluloid film, which most film students or younger people don’t know how to do. One must know how to use a tape splicer and even a cement splicer. These things are no longer taught in schools or even in preservation programs. Most film students have not even seen a piece of celluloid, or hardly know what it is.

It’s good to have new blood, of course, and that is necessary. However, many are not being educated in the schools that they attend about film handling and on-the-job training is difficult to manage because of the volume of activity and the complexities that go on in the work place. The world has changed greatly since 1961, and we need to find the balance. There are few people out there that are willing to work at Canyon at the small salaries that we pay: dealing with the hard labor of lifting heavy film cans, the everyday pressures that are put upon us on an everyday level. This comes from the demands of the filmmakers and our renters. Most people who have worked at Canyon have had to depend on other jobs such as teaching, editing, and filming other people’s projects to survive. There are few people out there willing and impassioned enough to take this sort of work on. How would you explain the appeal of experimental film to those whose first choice might be something else, such as a Matthew McConaughey movie, or mini-golf?

Angerame: Many people become enlightened seeing a reflection of an image in a mud puddle. Some become enlightened watching Walt Disney’s Fantasia, or The Wizard of Oz. Beauty and the art of experimental cinema is in the eye of the beholder.

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