Filmmakers fear shenanigans as the RPL ponders staffing changes

City | by Paul Dechene

When word came out that Regina Public Library planned to shop out film bookings for its downtown theatre to an external agent, it didn’t set off my alarm bells. The parade of privatizations has grown so long its worn me down.

But then, as some around the Prairie Dog office are fond to remind me, I wasn’t in Regina during the library fights of the early 2000s. I wasn’t covering city hall when the library board of the day tried to shut down library branches and mothball the Dunlop Art Gallery (2004,) and shutter the film theatre (1998). I wasn’t there for the protests and angry editorials.

And even though massive grassroots mobilization was ultimately successful in halting the decimation of the city’s library system, the subject of libraries still hits a raw nerve for many in this city to this day.

And thus, I never learned to treat any announced change to the film theatre operations with suspicion.

And certainly, some of the initial concerns I heard about the library’s shift to using a third-party agent for booking films was that this would surrender control over the kinds of movies shown, squeeze out local and independent filmmakers and thus betray the RPL Film Theatre’s raison d’être.

According to Jeff Barber, director of the Regina Public Library, concerns that this change is part of a secret plan to water down RPL Film Theatre programming and ultimately scrap the institution are unfounded. He says the shift to a booking agent will only impact the administrative side. Creative control over the theatre will remain with the library and its employees.

“Yes, there’ll be an external booking agent. But, no, they’re not responsible for our programming, we are. The mandate of the film theatre hasn’t changed,” says Barber.

Barber is less clear when questioned about why the library chose to make this change.

“The library is always charged with looking at and examining what it does and examining are there ways to do that differently or do that better? Are there ways to do that in a way that saves money? And that’s not even always an issue in terms of saving money. Sometimes it’s can we do more with the money we’ve got? Or, can we have a broader program with the money we’ve got?”

Fine. But will the booking agent be a cheaper way to do business?

“It’s going to allow us to do more in terms of the film theatre program,” replies Barber. “What it’s going to do is allow us to do more.”

Barber says he can’t discuss the exact business case for the decision because it involves staffing negotiations that have not been completed. He is also unclear about what exactly the “more” is that the library is trying to accomplish or how an external booking agent will help them achieve that “more.”

“I guess by ‘more,’ I’m not saying we’re going to start programming every night of the week. Not that at all. But in terms of the offering we’re trying to work toward having more screenings each week. We’re going to work toward having more engagement of more of the community in the film theatre. We have a great loyal following of film buffs and that is great.

“This is not a doom and gloom item at all. It’s great for the film theatre and it’s great for the community,” he concludes.

Dale Mitchell and Alejandra Cabrera are unconvinced by Barber’s explanations. They’re the president and vice-president of CUPE 1594, the union representing library workers, and they fear the move to an external booking agent likely means the library theatre will lose two positions: the film theatre supervisor and a clerk who handles the shipping and receiving of the films.

They point out that the current film theatre supervisor, Belinda New, has 22 years experience in the position and they don’t see how an external booking agent — especially one from out of province — could have the local film industry contacts that New has.

“Belinda has all the local contacts. If someone from the [University of Regina] has something they want screened here, they have a better chance of getting it screened than by going to an external booking agent,” says Mitchell.

“This is going to hurt the local film scene. They’re not going to have access to a talented programmer who’s in touch with what’s going on in Saskatchewan.”

Barber, however, would not say what if any staffing changes will be made as a result of the library’s decision. He would say that the decision to do the theatre’s work differently isn’t a reflection on its staff or supervisor.

But he did concede that there are “internal human resources implications” that he wouldn’t discuss.

Mark Wihak, a filmmaker and professor in the University of Regina’s film department, worries that a change in how the theatre books films will not only hurt local and Canadian programming but could also impact the theatre’s reputation. New, he says, has been a great supporter of cinema culture in our city and to see her position within the library compromised is concerning.

“There are lots of filmmakers across Canada who will tell you they know about the RPL Film Theatre because Belinda has reached out to them,” says Wihak. “For a programmer who has one screen to work with and four nights of screenings to work with per week, she’s done an amazing job of keeping Regina connected to contemporary cinema and to films a commercial movie theatre will never show.”

Wihak also disputes that the library board can justify their shift to an external booking agent through a “do more with less” perspective.

“The film theatre doesn’t make a profit. Just like every other area of the library doesn’t make a profit,” he says. “But at least, the library does recover some of its cost from running the film theatre. But it’s like the Dunlop. It doesn’t make money, it costs the library money. Every area of the library costs the library money to operate.”

In the end, what exactly is happening at the RPL Film Theatre is still uncertain. And that’s a problem. When you consider that the library question is still a raw nerve for those Reginans who survived the great library fight of the early 2000s, it’s no surprise that operational changes to beloved institutions like the Film Theatre would set off red flags for those who value the service it provides.

And when those changes are made for vague, do-more-with-less-style reasons, that can only contribute to the air of mistrust and hurt feelings that still haunts the library community. ❧