November 6, 2001

Doc Spotlight

Though the Doc Spotlight normally focuses on specific films of interest playing at Doc, or perhaps on a nice long text about one Doc series, this Spotlight and another one a bit later in the quarter are going to be different. Not because this week's films are sub-par — not at all. The Doc Spotlight is particularly interested in Fellini's City of Women showing tonight, the Tombstone shoot-out of Law and Order on Thursday at 7.00 p.m., and John Sayles' The Secret of Roan Inish Thursday at 9.00 p.m.

Right, so the Doc Spotlight would normally talk about them. And man do we have lots to say about these films. But today we're going to open things up a bit, and talk some about the mystery that is Doc. Why are we 'Doc Films?' How do we create a schedule? Where do the films come from?

Doc Films started out in 1932 as the Documentary Films Group, which is still our official name. At the time, the students showed only documentaries, but by a decade later fictional feature films dominated the Doc line-up. It's around this time that a film borrowed from King Vidor by Doc Films went missing after we showed it. Vidor was quite worried, as was Doc's leadership. After a brief exchange of worried letters, the truth came out that Vidor's butler had placed the returned film in some place silly (not realizing its significance). Anyway, the name "Doc Films" has stuck through time, despite the occasional effort to change it to something more descriptive ("Nick Sanger's Touchy/Feely House of Movies" and "The Maren C. Hozempa Memorial Film Co-Operative" have been front-runners). In this time, Doc has outlasted several other film organizations on the U of C campus.

As you have no doubt noticed by looking at the glossy Doc calendar produced before the beginning of each quarter and available in the Ida Noyes lobby and throughout campus, Hyde Park, and Chicago, the weekdays and weekends are programmed along different lines.

Doc programs cohesive film series on the weekdays (Sunday night through Thursday night) on a variety of topics. These generally run for 10 programs, though occasionally two five-program series will run. The weekends are programmed primarily to generate a profit to pay for weekday film rentals and the various costs involved with running a movie theatre (except for staffing: there are no paid positions at Doc), though we strive to generally maintain a higher level of quality than might be seen at a local multi-plex. Obviously, Doc is not a for-profit organization. Yuh Wen Ling, chair of Doc with "Dangerous" Dan McCormack, asked, "How could we be making a profit charging just $4.00? Try to find a movie theater that charges that! Or even twice that!"

"We also manage lower ticket costs because the wonderful staff at Ida Noyes takes care of theatre maintenance, leaving just the maintenance of the projectors and other technical equipment to Doc," Ling said. "And of course, Doc just couldn't live without the indispensable ORCSA staff."

Film rentals and shipping are the big expense for Doc. Films are not at all like videos, and the extreme cost of producing ("striking") prints has to be paid somehow. In addition to the cost of renting a print, the rights to show the film must be obtained for any showing other than for a private home viewing of any film under copyright. Most movie theatres are sought out by a handful of big distributors to play their films, but Doc programs based on the films, and then tries to locate the prints and the rights. This is not so easy, as rights and prints can go in the most unpredictable directions. Doc works with major studios, minor distributors, film archives, and even individuals. Alex Pile and Kenny Ketner, Doc's programming chieftains, report that Doc keeps over 300 regular contacts in this department alone. These include distributors on every continent except Antarctica (duh).

The central ideas of film series can be almost anything, including national cinema movements (like the series described helow), narrative subject material, style, or the contribution of an individual. This quarter, our series range from films on the subject of HIV/AIDS to the recent hits of East Asian cinema to the work of writer/director John Sayles to the films produced by Universal Studios under its founder, Carl Laemmle, to early avant guarde cinema.

"Programming six or seven series per quarter helps Doc achieve a range of types of films to serve our various audiences," said Alex Pile. "Don't forget Doc is open to everyone who wants to come from anywhere."

To demonstrate the origins of a Doc series, let's chart a past series step by step. A while ago, a Doc programmer thought that an Australian national film series would be interesting, and first visited the library. There he found a helpful book or two, but also had to order another (better) one, and he contacted the Australian Film Institute for advice and help in locating the films. From there, the programmers read through descriptions of dozens of films to produce a list of representative, Australian-made films. With this list, over several months, prints were located in Australia, the U.S., New Zealand, and Great Britain, with the help of several original production companies and even the personal involvement of one film's director. About a year-and-a-half after its creation, the series was ready to go, and Doc was happy with it.

Doc Films also has a history of collaboration with a number of organizations from campus, Chicago, and around the world, to bring films to Hyde Park. This quarter, the department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations is helping out with the New East Asian Cinema series. Ongoing collaborations include those with The George Eastman House Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, who loaned us their print of Waterloo Bridge this quarter, and with the Munch Filmmuseum, with whom we did the German Expressionism series last year and with whom we are working to bring a series of early German cinema to Doc next quarter, with the help of the Goethe Institute and CMS, both of whom also helped with the German Expressionism. The British Film Institute and the Museum of Modern Art in New York are oft-used assets, and Doc has worked with UCLA's archive as well.

When all of our theoretical and practical programming is done (as you might guess, this varies in time for each series, but always includes a lot of work), Doc's own wonderful Kate Graber assembles and edits the Doc calendar. The image for the background is chosen from stills for the quarter's films, and a nice color is selected. The calendar is printed by our friends at Congress Printing, and distributed by hardy Doc volunteers in cars, on bicycles, on carts, and by hand. And there you have it.

In the next behind the scenes of Doc, the Doc Spotlight will take you upstairs to the projection booth, and take you through how these films are projected, from silent films to the newest, state-of-the-art Hollywood blockbusters.