Dennis Nyback and "Bad Bugs Bunny"

Michael Guillen June 6, 2007

SF Indiefest: Gets Animated, piggybacking on the 4th Annual Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, co-presents with Oddball Film + Video cinema archivist Dennis Nyback’s program “Bad Bugs Bunny”. It offers an opportunity to assess racist and sexist stereotypes prevalent in Warner Bros. cartoons from the 1930s-40s. Nyback recently spoke to regarding the upcoming screening.

SF360: Dennis, for my money you’re a shining exemplar of an independent exhibitor, as distinguished from an independent filmmaker.

Nyback: Yeah, but I’m also considered a found footage filmmaker and some things I do are more complicated than others, than mere compilations.

SF360: How did you begin collecting films? Where do you find them?

Nyback: Specifically, I worked my way through college being a projectionist in an art theater in Seattle and from there I got into the Projectionists’ Union in Seattle and then I bought a little movie theater that was a revival theater. I wanted to show revival films the way they were presented originally so if I showed a film from 1937, I wanted to also show a newsreel from 1937 and a cartoon from 1937 and maybe a short subject because that was the motion picture experience. And I was young and didn’t know any better. It was too expensive to actually rent all these things because it wasn’t what people were coming to pay for. I was giving them a lot of stuff for free. Then a friend of mine told me that I could actually buy 16mm films cheaper than I could rent them from collectors. And then I could keep them and I could show them more than once. So I started buying short subjects with that purpose. I found I could do complete programming of short films. Also, I love history and I thought it was great that I got to look at the past in this way. So now I have thousands of films.

SF360: Do you have a collection as large as Stephen Parr’s at Oddball Film+Video?

Nyback: No. Mine is much more personal, meaning I have pretty much amassed my films one-at-a-time with the exception of a couple of lots of films that I bought. Mainly I am buying very specific things. Steve’s collection is pretty much amassed in huge groups, which is the main difference, not just the fact that he’s got a lot more.

SF360: When you buy films like this and compile these programs, once you own them you have the rights to do whatever you want with them?

Nyback: No, not in the least. Craig Baldwin made a film Sonic Outlaws about this group that got into trouble with U2. This group, which was called Negativland, put out a record called “U2” [and used] the Gary Powers U2 plane [as the cover]. They got sued by the rock group U2 and that pretty much destroyed them. Their motto was: “Copyright infraction is your great entertainment value.” There are public domain films that I have but, to answer your question, you don’t get the rights just because you own the film.

SF360: So with the ‘Bad Bugs Bunny’ program, which returns to San Francisco as part of this year’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, and with which I know you’ve had some problems with Warner, you’ve been able to skirt litigation?

Nyback: Specifically, in New York in 1997 I was stopped from showing ‘Bad Bugs Bunny’ at the Cinema Village. That was because before I was showing ‘Bad Bugs Bunny’ at my own theaters and I could just tell them, ‘Sue me.’ I’d say, ‘Actually, I think it would be good if this issue was brought to the greater public.’ Time-Warner, who I was dealing with, didn’t want any publicity on the issue. They just wanted to stop me from showing the films without publicity. At Cinema Village I told them to sue me and then the owner of the theater told them that I wouldn’t show the program. The owner of the theater said, ‘Dennis, maybe you don’t care, but we have tangible assets here.’ What I did there was I showed a completely different program of offensive animation to the crowd that showed up and told them that I’d done the show as a comment on corporate censorship and that they were getting a pretty cheap lesson in corporate censorship in that they didn’t get to see the program that the press saw; that program was effectively stopped by the corporation. I showed them what I considered a very good program and hoped that they got their money’s worth.

SF360: What is your interest in focusing on the ‘dark side’ of animation?

Nyback: I really like people to see the films I have. That’s what separates me from the average collector. Most people who collect films are more hoarders than exhibitors. I guess I have better luck being provocative. It’s not that I particularly want to be provocative. It’s just a lot easier to get people to see ‘Bad Bugs Bunny’ than, say, my program ‘War Is for You.’

SF360: So you find that audiences are receptive to the work? It’s not a hard sell?

Nyback: They’ve been very receptive to ‘Bad Bugs Bunny.’ ‘Bad Bugs Bunny’ is easily the most popular program I have ever created and I have created maybe 400 different film shows.

SF360: How many of those have you brought to San Francisco?

Nyback: I’ve shown maybe eight programs at Oddball Cinema. I’ve probably shown that many at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Some films of mine have shown at the Roxie in the past.

SF360: Will you be attending the Roxie screening? Will there be a Q&A?

Nyback: Heck, yeah! You might see me get arrested.

SF360: Well, not only is it courageous for you to skirt litigation and exhibit these rarely seen cartoons, but you clearly recognize the importance of not allowing these works to be [taken] from the public record. They have historic value.

“Bad Bugs Bunny” screens at Holehead on June 8, 5:15 p.m., and June 10, 5:15 p.m. at the Roxie Film Center, 3117 16th St., at Valencia, San Francisco.

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