January 25, 2013

For Doc members, reel challenges await

Third-year Haley Markbreiter had a difficult situation on her hands. She had been told earlier that the prints of two films scheduled for showing at Doc Films were being pulled at the last minute by their respective owners. Markbreiter was left with the task of either getting those prints from an alternate source or ones for entirely different movies within two weeks. It didn’t help that she would have to go through distant studios and protective collectors to get it done. None of these roles was a part of the job description for Doc’s programming chair, yet each is essential for the theater’s ongoing operation.

“This sounds like a fancy job but a lot of the time I just feel like a fancy administrator,” said Markbreiter of her role at Doc. Though demoralized for a moment, a few minutes at the night’s programming meeting eventually shifted Markbreiter out of the logistical mindset and into the creative one of appreciating and organizing film.

Markbreiter is in her first year as Doc’s programming chair. She joined as a volunteer helper in her first year, picking up the late-night shift on Fridays that no one else would fill. Since then she has worked her way through the programming staff all the way to her current position.

Markbreiter oversees a group of about six main programmers who are responsible for selecting and scheduling the films that Doc will show throughout the year.

“You can [organize] a series by actor, director, genre, a historical time period, a period of film history,” Markbreiter said of the conception of a series. “Another way is to come up with a funny title, and see what great or underappreciated movies you can slip in.”

The programming chair will help the programmers take their series from concept to completion, often starting out with a single movie and extrapolating that out into a comprehensive ten-film sequence.

“The programming chair helps the programmer conceptualize the series,” said Max Frank, fourth-year and former programming hair. “It’s the job of the chair to ask: ‘Why do you want to show this, in what context do you want to show it, in what kind of series could this fit in?’”

Frank began his tenure as programming chair in his second year at UChicago and handed the title to Markbreiter this year. Even in that short time, the landscape of the film industry has changed dramatically enough to refocus the role and concerns of the programming chair.

“This has happened a lot faster than I thought it would, but it’s all digital now in every other theater,” said Frank, referring to the new form of digital projection that is quickly supplanting the more traditional medium of pure film projection. Doc is one of the few theaters left in the country that is committed to 35 millimeter film as its primary method of showing movies, and this has begun to lead to more difficulties on the logistical end of programming.

“It’s increasingly difficult,” Frank said on acquiring film prints from studios and archives, “We’re having more cancellations and more difficulty putting stuff together than we have ever had before because we can’t access some films on film.”

These are the very issues that led to the cancellations that Markbreiter was contending with in the recent weeks.

“What we want is as many prints as possible, we want prints to be as available as possible, and we want prints to be as cheap as possible,” said Markbreiter. “Now that prints are rarer, conditions are turning to exactly the opposite of what we want.”

For Frank, the importance of Doc has only been clarified by the changes in the film industry: “We’re going to have generations of kids that will never see a film on film.” Yet Frank remains optimistic and enthusiastic about Doc in the face of this challenge, “and that’s what’s very special about Doc for this university. Any night of the week, you can go out and see a cool movie and you’re going to learn a lot about it, and that is a great way to experience it.”