Arts

Analysis: Former Pittsburgh Filmmakers student/instructor on the end of the institution’s golden age

By January 24, 2019 No Comments

By Mike Watt
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
info@pittsburghcurrent.com

As of August, 2018, my career as a teacher came to an end. Between 2015 and the aforementioned August, I taught Technical Directing at Pittsburgh Filmmakers.

I saw dozens of very talented students come and go, many of whom I’m now proud to call friends and peers. Hiring me, to many eyes, was a gamble. I didn’t have a strong background in academia. Rather, I’d spent the two decades following my graduation from that institution doing what it had trained me to do: making movies. For reasons I still don’t understand, my more-or-less career in filmmaking disqualified me for teaching there for many years, but John Cantine, my mentor of 30 years, took the gamble when he became the Director of the Pittsburgh Filmmakers School. Another thing I’ll always be grateful for.

In July, Pittsburgh Filmmakers and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts—PF/PCA—announced that they were cancelling the upcoming Fall Semester in an effort to regroup within the organization. The writing on the wall was clear: after more than a decade, Pittsburgh Filmmakers would no longer be an accredited educational institution. It came as a shock to many, but, oddly, not much of a surprise. I’d never seen an organization hurtle itself so willingly towards extinction. The collapse was a long time coming. The school is now located at the PCA facilities in Shadyside and will focus on short-length courses and equipment rental services for local filmmakers.

In attempting to piece together a timeline of how we reached the end of Pittsburgh Filmmakers as we know it, I reached out to many of my colleagues and friends at Filmmakers. Not surprisingly, few wished to speak on the record. There were a lot of still a lot of hard feelings going on the when the Melwood Avenue building (which was sold to CMU in December for $3.75 million) was reduced to a skeleton staff, the Lilliput Café “Closed Permanently,” the photos hanging in the gallery vanishing from the walls. Predating the closing, there had long been a feeling that the administrators had little interest in the input from employees, the instructors and Equipment Office workers keeping the machine oiled. In light of the perceived “phoniness” of anonymous sources, I will say this: I understand. That being said, I’m not about to throw friends and former co-workers under the bus for a story. I’ll do my best to stick to a timeline and keep the personal feelings to a minimum.

“What Happened?” is a question I asked a lot those last two months at PFM. Eye-witnesses pointed me toward the public record. It would seem that PFM’s demise resulted from two separate “shake-ups” within the organization.

In 2015, when Charlie Humphrey served as the Executive Director of PFM/PCA, a five-to-ten-year strategic plan was developed with an eye towards the future. At that time, a large shortfall—some sources told me it was as high as a million dollars—blew a hole in the budget for both organizations. By June of that year, 20 people were laid off, including Brady Lewis, the Education Director. Filmmakers employees bore the brunt of the lay-offs, with the rationale that the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts was in the midst of its Summer Session and, therefore, no one could be spared. Filmmakers, the school, often saw lower attendance in the Summer. “That was shock #1,” my friend told me.

A “Stabilization Committee” was formed to move forward. Between June and December, 2015, staff dissatisfaction grew with regard to the future and how the organization was being run. “The Letter” was drafted.

“The Letter” is stuff of legend at PFM. I had heard about “The Letter” my first semester—a vote of no-confidence in Humphrey, drafted and signed by a more than two dozen people (some media reports claimed it was signed by as many as 35 of the school’s 39 employees). The Board of Directors put Humphery on “Indefinite Paid Leave”, which is corporate-speak for “Fired without Being Fired.” That night, Board President Doug Gouge, organized a three-member team of overseers to keep the business moving. This team was comprised of John Cantine, director of education, Laura Domencic, director of Pittsburgh for the Arts, and Jasdeep Khaira, director of artist services. As Gouge told the Post-Gazette at the time, “Those are the three main legs of the operation.”

In January 2016, when I first became aware of the problems brewing beneath the surface, Pete Mendes was hired as the Pittsburgh Filmmaker/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts interim executive director. He began his term in office by firing longtime director of exhibitions, Gary Kaboly. Also gone were Chris Smalley, ran the Equipment Office, and worker Dan Whitmore. Mendes said the layoffs were necessary to put “the right people in place to move the organization forward.” As other staffers were moved from part-time to full-time status, folks couldn’t help but notice that many of those so ‘punished’ were signers of the infamous letter.

The attitude at Filmmakers was poisonous. I was there once or twice a week and even I noticed. To make matters worse, PFM restructured its enrollment policy, raising its tuition by 40% without notifying the students. The explanation I received was, “We didn’t want to alarm returning students.” I can only imagine how ‘alarming’ it was when those returning students saw their new tuition requirement.

By December 2016, Mendes was out, replaced by Germaine Williams. Williams, seeking a way out of the financial hole PFM was in, saw little alternative but to sell the Melwood Avenue Building.

A bit about this building. When I was a student in the ’90s, the Melwood building was still being remodeled. PFM was founded in the early 1970s as an artists’ co-op and equipment lending library. You needed a camera for a shoot for a few days? You went to Filmmakers, got a Bolex or a Frezzi. When I started, the school sat in a crumbling building on Oakland Avenue, a few blocks from the ‘O’. I once dropped a film core through a hole in the floor and I swear I never heard it land. When we moved to the Melwood building, it felt like a no-budget filmmaker landing a studio gig. For one thing, it had heat.

A few years after I graduated, it had a finished Green Screen sound stage, a beautiful art gallery, two functional and relatively comfortable theaters, dark rooms, a library, dozens of comfortable classrooms. It was a welcoming building as well as being functional. By the time I arrived as an instructor, the roof leaked and I never saw anyone in the library unless we were shooting an in-class project there.

Of course, by the time I arrived as an instructor, PFM had lost its partnership with Point Park University—which allowed me to pursue my degree at a time when PFM was unaccredited—and enrollment from CMU and LaRoche was dwindling. Our relationship with The University of Pittsburgh was fairly solid, but Pitt students were only allowed to take non-theory classes at PFM, which meant my epic CULT FILM 101 proposal was doomed from the start. By the time I rolled in, the writing was already on the wall, writ large by the Fickle Finger of Fate, but I had my blinders on. I refused to notice the PFM was in a spiral.

Some people blamed the 2006-2007 merger of Filmmakers with the Pittsburgh Center of the Arts. It had been a solid plan—PCA catered to children and older adults while PFM focused on the college students and working photographers. It was seen as the best of both worlds. “Also,” my former co-worker said, “you may recall in 2007 the entire financial system of the world blew up. This big recession happened. The stock market crashes, which meant all the endowments went down. With the way the world worked the Arts took a big back seat as everything was put back together.” Humphrey and the Board put off repairing the Melwood’s roof, they put off refurbishing the elevator at PCA. “All this stuff you could do for a few years. It all came due in 2015. Would that not have happened without the PCA? It would have happened on a smaller scale.” On the other hand, “Any solution to any problem had to work for both organizations, and they were completely different organizations. We didn’t have a lot of time to evolve because the entire organization was broken. If you asked people at the PCA, they’d say their programs were fine and it was PFM that pulled the crap.”

The brutal truth is that Pittsburgh Filmmakers lagged behind the times for years. Those of us who graduated prior to the Millennium used to joke that Filmmakers “teaches you how to make movies under the worst possible conditions.” We learned on ancient 16mm cameras—ones legitimately used in the field for “News at 11” broadcasts. More than one of us had a magazine spring open and waste dozens of feet of film due to a broken spring or latch. That was the reality. Camera tethered to battery belt, slaved to a tripod, with a second system recording sound. You needed at least a team of three people just to get anything useful, if you were shooting narrative.

In the early 2000s, when the digital video boom landed hard on the consumer market, with people like Stephen Soderberg and George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez singing the praises of high-definition video, Filmmakers’ stock in cameras was underwhelming. The attitude towards video was something between snobbery and hostility. “If you’ve taught the same class for twenty years and all you’ve had to do is change the dates on your Syllabus, learning a whole new system can be frightening, and annoying,” one source said. “Those people who say ‘Christopher Nolan still shoots on film…’ I think it’s true of film die-hards in general, when you’ve mastered an art form or tool, especially if that is something difficult to master, you’re going to look at any new system from how it falls short. If you look at video as something that replaces film, you’re only going to see the drawbacks. If you haven’t mastered that old tool, the new people are going to see video as how it’s different from film and all the new ways they can control it. If you know that system you romanticize the work-arounds. ‘It’s good that you can’t see it, you have to visualize it. Shooting on film enforces discipline. You only shoot what you need to.” Fine, tell that to a documentarian following a subject around. The thing was always video doesn’t look as good as film, okay. People can shoot all they want and turn in terrible rushes, fine. The system you’re supporting instead of moving forward requires you to shoot hundreds of dollars worth of film before you know if you’ve even gotten anything.”

As one fellow instructor told me, “I finally said, ‘Wait, I have to save up $5K to shoot a film, so I make a film every ten years. Now I can make a film today.’ When I had that attitude, I was still part of the in-crowd, so I’d get a laugh when I’d say ‘Let’s teach video because it’s more fair to students. Let’s not make them get an answer print of their freaking film made because it costs hundreds of dollars.’ It was an institutional ‘we are not going to change because we do it right.’ The whole point of becoming a filmmaker was to be part of this tiny elite. And now that everyone else can do it, what fun is that?”

In the end, for whatever faults Williams had as a director, “He spent a year exploring all of his options to figure out how to keep the organization intact, and while he was doing that he was spending the last of the reserves we had,” my friend says. “When we finally got to the point when we couldn’t keep things running, the only thing that could be done was to sell the building.”

By July of 2018, Williams was gone. He resigned following public blowback regarding the sale of the building and the collapse of PFM. John Cantine’s position was eliminated as well which, combined with the earlier layoffs, ended the PFM that I knew. The old guard was gone.

The Board named Dan Demicill interim executive director. Demicill, “a 73-year-old retail executive from Delray Beach, Fla.,” was general manager of Tru-Bamboo, a Florida-based kitchen supply company that declared bankruptcy in 2013. From April 2001 through 2004, Mr. Demicell was president and chief executive officer of Lady/Kids Foot Locker USA. From 1989 to 1998, he was a senior vice president with Dillard’s department store. During the mid-1980s, Mr. Demicell worked in Pittsburgh’s Gimbels department store where he was a senior vice president and general merchandise manager. Note that you don’t see “Filmmaker”, “Artist”, or “Pittsburgh” anywhere in that resume.

I only saw Mr. Demicill once, while assisting filmmaker Amy Lynn Best (who, in full disclosure is also my wife) during the “Girls Remake Horror” summer film camp. He was instructing workers on which furniture would be best to sell. Still, my sources say this might not be a bad thing. “You need someone from outside, without the Pittsburgh point of view, the need to bend the knee to the [monied establishment]. The best thing that could happen to it would for it to just die. Then the void could be filled by something that doesn’t have the baggage.”

With regards to the sale of the building, a September 14 press release sent out by Yasmeen Ariff-Sayed, President, PF/PCA Board of Directors, reads thusly: “While we are confident the sale of Melwood is in our best financial and operational interests, today is certainly bittersweet. The property is a cherished place where, for decades, scores of individuals pursued their passions and launched their careers and a close-knit community of creators was formed. However, we are looking ahead with optimism, guided by the understanding that the essence of Filmmakers is not defined by physical space, but by an unwavering commitment to serving artists and embracing the importance of a community that nurtures the indefatigable spirit of independent creative expression.”

I’ve processed the grief. And I can’t help but agree with a friend’s sentiment: “Where the organization finds itself could actually be a good thing. Whether they merge with the PCA or walk away and move into a storefront. You don’t have to feed the college beast. The concept of a semester means nothing. You can go to community organizations and work with them. You can make things convenient for your students,” he said. “If you look at the exclusionist white male make-up of the field, people who think they know what movies but don’t—there is a void that could be filled by an organization that works with the community that creates media literacy in its truest sense–knowing bullshit when you see it – and affecting real change. There’s a real opportunity there. I don’t know if PFM/PCA could fill that void. They could. They should. They should have been doing that for a decade.”

From here on out, interested parties are invited to keep an eye on the official website at filmmakers.pfpca.org/

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