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My Opinion on Cornell Cinema

12/03/2009

In light of the upcoming reevaluation of Cornell Cinema’s SAF allocation in the coming two days, I would like to post my rationale on this decision (before we again hear Cinema’s rationale). Before I do, I would like to note that I very much appreciate all of the emails I have received concerning Cornell Cinema. I encourage all of you to write to either myself or your specific representative if you have further questions regarding the subject.

Also, although I have noted in this in my response, I would again like to reiterate that personally, I was (again, prior to the upcoming meeting) NOT in favor of a budget cut because I believe that Cornell Cinema is either not a useful asset to the Student Community, or a valuable component to the culture of the Cornell Campus. On the contrary, I feel that Cornell Cinema is a very useful aspect of Cornell’s campus that has much to offer many students. My decisions regarding the funding of Cornell Cinema were purely based on budgetary considerations (which shall be discussed below). I would also like to state that this post represents my opinions and beliefs prior to the upcoming meeting with Cinema, and I will attend this with an open mind and am looking forward to taking into consideration any information Cornell Cinema brings to light.

This is a letter that I wrote to a student, who took the time to write to me a very detailed email regarding some of his opinions about Cornell Cinema:

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Thank you for taking the time to express your opinions to me about Cornell Cinema. As a member of the Student Assembly it is my pleasure to deal directly with members of both the Cornell and Ithaca Community, and I admire those passionate enough about issues to address their representatives.

I, like yourself, recognize the value of Cornell Cinema to both Cornell and the greater Ithaca community, and completely agree that it is a far reaching and beneficial program that is available to all students on campus. I believe it is an asset for students to experience an aspect of the arts that is otherwise closed off to them. Please understand that it was not mine nor any other SA members goal to completely destroy Cornell Cinema as an institution, but only to create a budget that is fair to both Cinema and the school according to the laws of the By-Line funding process. The SA is still debating the issue, and I promise you that whatever decision we do come to, will be a rational one that has taken into consideration all of the variables, including the adamant support of Cornell Cinema’s numerous fans like yourself.

To address some of your points:

I agree with you that if revenue exceeds average variable costs, it is fiscally responsible to hold showings throughout the week. However, not even taking into account the cost of labor, according the information Cinema provided us it costs about $180.47/screening in variable costs (I would again like to reiterate neither direct nor indirect labor costs, totaled at $158,602 for the year, were included in this calculation), and with 111 screenings last year that had less than 20 people in attendance, I find it hard for them to believe variable costs were covered every night. That is not to say that every film with attendance under 20 people should be cut, for some of these are cultural films with high value to a low number of viewers. However, it is my own personal opinion that films like “Andy Warhol: Blow Job”, which was attended by 5 people (11/11/08), could be cut to save money.  I also agree that Cinema should not be penalized for not having a table at club

Personally I never thought that the Cinema should not have cash reserves, nor did I think that they should spend all of their reserves to make up this year’s budget. However, I do believe that reserves are to be used in instances like this, and it would be feasible for Cornell Cinema to use at least a portion of their reserves this year if needed.

To your next point about Cinema being fiscally responsible in handing its budget, this is where I personally disagree with you. Between the 2006-07 year and the 2008-09 years, expenses in film rental, Special Guests/Events, Advertising, Flicksheets, Full Time Staff, and Operating Costs have all gone up; however, revenue from tickets and fundraising have gone up, while concession income went up only $135. In fact, the only areas where Cornell Cinema has had an increase in revenue is funding: over those three years they received MORE money from the New York State Council on the Arts, the College of Arts and Science Arts Subsidy, Academic Departments, the GPSA SAF, and the SA SAF. As a result, it is not surprising that the 2006-07 fiscal year brought in profits of $38,367, while the 2009-10 year has a projected loss of $16,222. You mention the “cuts” from the 2007-08 years that Cornell Cinema made in areas such as Guest Filmmakers and Muscians (cut of $18,118), but this does not cover the INCREASE given to this fund from the 2006-07 year, which totaled $19,939.

Next, to your point about the university picking up the tab. Again, I agree with you in that I do not believe the University should be funding Cornell Cinema by itself, but currently Cornell Cinema is the only By-Line Funded Organization that currently receives funding for Student Employees (other than the SA clerk), and if you noticed the cuts were made in regard to how much Cinema spends on student labor. I hope you realize the implications of this cut; if all student organizations were allowed to ask for the SAF to pay for student labor, its sum would balloon. Groups like EMS would be able to come in saying that by giving them more money they could offer a better good to the school, which is in essence what Cinema is asking for. It is my own personal opinion that the job of the SA is to make sure that organizations are given enough money from the SAF so that under the budgetary constraints of By-Line Funding they are able to adequately exist, but there is their own job to reach a point of optimal production. By enacting this cut which cuts in the end 6% of Cornell Cinema’s total income, I believe we are providing them more than sufficient funds than are required to exist, and I feel it is Cinema’s job to restructure itself accordingly so that it can reach this level of optimization on its own without having to be constantly funded more money (as we have clearly seen over the last three years).
If you have any other questions or would like to schedule a meeting to talk with me in person, feel free to send an email. I will try my best to answer them, or more likely will forward you to either VP Public Relations Vincent Andrews or VP Finance Chris Basil, who undoubtedly will have the most definitive answers to your questions.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

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I would finally to state that all opinions in this post are those of mine and are not directly related to any other member of the SA, nor are they representative of the SA as a whole. If anyone has any questions, I strongly urge you to contact me, as I am happy to respond to any and all constituents.

-Roneal Desai

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tyler Dennis permalink
    12/03/2009 4:08 pm

    Here’s the original email I sent to Roneal that produced the response posted above. I apologize for the length, but I wanted to be comprehensive:

    To the Members of the Student Assembly-

    What follows is a response to several of the main points made by the SA in its rationale for cutting Cornell Cinema’s byline funding. While this issue concerns me greatly, I am no dramatist, and I realize that the proposed cuts would not terminate Cornell Cinema’s operation. Further, I acknowledge that these are tough economic times, and that difficult choices must be made in all fiscal matters. However, I feel that the debate over Cornell Cinema’s funding has fallen prey to several significant distortions that I would like to address. In doing so, I hope to encourage a more honest and productive debate.

    First, members of the SA have repeatedly expressed their concern that Cornell Cinema needs to restructure itself in a more fiscally responsible and efficient manner in order to merit continued byline funding. Of course, anyone would agree that wasteful organizations do not deserve the valuable funding offered by the Student Activity Fee, and I see no problem with requiring maximum efficiency and frugality from all byline-funded groups.

    However, the SA’s contention that Cornell Cinema operates in a fiscally irresponsible or inefficient manner is plainly unfounded. While this complaint has been one of the most frequently mentioned in the rationale for cutting Cornell Cinema’s funding, none of the specific points cited by the SA hold up to a thoughtful analysis. For example, the suggestion that the Cinema would be more financially efficient if it were to screen films fewer nights per week, such as from Wednesday through Saturday, is simply incorrect. As explained by Cornell Cinema director Mary Fessenden and noted in the Daily Sun, “revenue from the Cinema’s Sunday to Tuesday showings exceeds labor and rental costs,” making the seven night per week operation, “a fiscally responsible business decision.”

    The SA has also cited as an example of financial inefficiency Cornell Cinema’s cash reserves, which are projected at about $65,000 at the end of this year. Given that the SA’s proposed $2.40 byline cut would amount to about $31,000 in lost funding annually, it has been suggested that Cornell Cinema use their reserves to cover the loss in funding, thus enabling them to continue operating without jeopardizing their mission. This suggestion, however, runs contrary to the aim of running a fiscally responsible organization. Take a moment to imagine the dubious financial position that Cornell Cinema would be in if it were to exhaust its current reserves; given their purpose as a safeguard against unforeseeable financial woes (such as replacing expensive and outdated projection equipment which could devestate their entire reserves within a single financial year), to exhaust them would put Cornell Cinema in true danger of being unable to continue operation should other unforeseen costs arise. Imagine the irrationality of suggesting that Cornell University use up its endowment over the next several years to cover operating costs (and note that Cornell’s endowment represents a drastically larger percentage of its operating budget than Cornell Cinema’s cash reserves). The notion that holding significant cash reserves is fiscally irresponsible is simply false.

    It should be noted that the Cinema has made great efforts towards cutting costs in recent years, contrary to claims made by the SA. The Cinema has reduced the number of films it screens, the number of days it offers programming, the number of guest filmmakers and musicians it invites to campus, and the number of calendars it puts out each year, all in an effort to save money. Several paid positions have been eliminated or consolidated, and all ushers now work on a volunteer basis. While the SA seems convinced that Cornell Cinema is being wastefully run, even a brief inspection of its operation confirms that the Cinema has been operating on a barebones budget for years, and it has adapted as such. This fact represents part of the danger of the SA’s proposed funding cut; Cornell Cinema is already surviving on a minimal amount of funding. An additional loss of $31,000 per year will truly cripple the organization. Of course it will not close the curtains of the Cinema, but make no mistake- it will be devastating.

    The second point I would like to address is the SA’s contention that Cornell Cinema is not adequately student run, as well as what I consider a related concern- that SAF funding should not go to an organization that doesn’t appeal solely to undergraduates, and involves non-undergraduates in its operation. First, I openly recognize that Cornell Cinema is indeed not entirely student run. Furthermore, nearly 1/3 of all attendees last year were non-undergraduates. These are facts, and no one is trying to claim that Cornell Cinema exclusively appeals to or is run solely by undergraduates.

    However, these facts alone do not necessitate that Cornell Cinema suffers from inadequate undergraduate involvement, as has been suggested by the SA. In fact, a reasoned look will show that Cornell Cinema is perhaps operated by undergraduates to the greatest degree made possible by the nature of such an organization. As described by Mary Fessenden in her Daily Sun article, Cornell Cinema simply could not function without a full time professional staff. The complexity and labor-intensiveness of running a theater with the national reputation of Cornell Cinema precludes the possibility that it could be adequately run by undergraduates. The Cinema has been structured this way since 1970, with undergraduates serving in an advisory capacity and as employees. The SA’s suggestion that Cornell Cinema switch to a fully undergraduate staff is simply not tenable. In fact, undergraduates currently dominate the staff of Cornell Cinema; at least 36 of the Cinema’s 40-odd employees are undergraduates, a fact seemingly overlooked by the SA. The four full time employees represent the minimum level of non-undergraduate involvement necessary to maintain the Cinema’s current operation.

    The SA has also cited as evidence of lacking student involvement Cornell Cinema’s inability to post a table at the Club Fair (a result of the Cinema’s sponsorship by the College of Arts and Sciences). While I acknowledge that a table at the club fair would likely have only a positive impact on student involvement, it is misleading to suggest that Cornell Cinema’s current levels of involvement are lacking. In fact, I challenge the SA to name many clubs that can match the Cinema for current undergraduate participation (with a recorded undergraduate attendance last year of 20,000). Citing the lack of a club table as evidence of inadequate student involvement seems unreasoned, especially given that the Cinema is officially prevented from posting a table at the fair. In fact, the 20 member Student Advisory Board that guides the direction of Cornell Cinema is a wholly effective means of involving undergraduates. The advising capacity of the board combined with the direct operational influence of the 36 undergraduate employees suggests that undergraduates actually possess a great degree of control in the overall direction and operation of Cornell Cinema. The SA’s specious recommendation that students take an increased role in running Cornell Cinema’s day-to-day operation both underestimates undergraduates’ current level of involvement and demonstrates a shallow understanding of the Cinema’s operation.

    It should be noted that in the Cinema’s 40 years of operation, there has been no significant complaint by undergraduates about the operation or overall direction of Cornell Cinema, even up to the present moment (excluding, of course, those voiced by the SA). In fact, the Cinema has hardly been anything but celebrated from its inception, by undergraduates as well as the greater community. Cornell Cinema has garnered an international reputation of excellence that permits it to screen material unavailable to other theaters. Let the SA take this overwhelmingly positive response as a measure of current satisfaction with the Cinema’s direction, especially by undergraduates.

    Given that none of the specific concerns cited by the SA in its crusade against Cornell Cinema stands up to reasoned analysis, it seems evident that the Assembly is perhaps motivated by a more general intention to save money across the board, which might explain their apparent scramble to provide a reasoned account for cutting the Cinema’s funding. However, I urge the SA to not place a disproportionate chunk of their current budgetary strain on the shoulders of Cornell Cinema. Unless the entire SAF is lowered by 22% this year to match the Cinema’s recommended cut, and this seems very unlikely, the burden you place on the Cinema is highly inequitable.

    Further, I would like to respond to the suggestion that the byline cut to Cornell Cinema is intended to send a message to the university administration that they should be picking up the tab. The reasoning stands that because Cornell Cinema is not a purely undergraduate organization, its funding should not be the burden of the SA. To start, I would point out that Cornell Cinema gets funding from a wide array of sources, both inside and out of Cornell. Considering that 65% of attendees are undergraduates, as well as the vast majority of the current staff, it seems that the current level of funding Cornell Cinema receives from the SAF (about 28% of its total income) is disproportionately small. What’s more, using a cherished organization of such long-standing as a medium through which to communicate with the university is a highly inappropriate misuse of SA power. Putting aside all possible legitimacy of the claim that Cornell should be funding Cornell Cinema, suggesting this to the university through a drastic funding cut to the Cinema is reprehensible and suggests the detached and self involved nature of the SA’s budgetary proceedings.

    I beg the SA members to open their ears and recognize the community outcry that their decision has inspired. What other recent budgetary decision made by the SA has inspired such a debate and backlash? Please, take a look at the Facebook group SAVE CORNELL CINEMA!, which presently counts over 2,200 members. Consider the online petition to restore byline funding which now has over 1,400 signatories. Listen to the conversations going on around campus and take heed of the many emails you’re surely receiving from your concerned constituents. All else aside, is it not your duty as a representative of the undergraduate body to act in its demonstrated interest? Please put aside whatever budgetary aims are currently distracting you from the reality of this situation, and acknowledge that in cutting Cornell Cinema’s funding, you are betraying your constituents.

    Please, restore Cornell Cinema’s byline funding.

    Thank you for your time.

  2. Ian C. permalink
    12/04/2009 1:01 am

    Dear Representative Desai,

    Thank you for taking the time to share your position on the Cornell Cinema funding issue. I appreciate your openness and concern for the students’ benefit and wellbeing. That said, I hope you will reconsider your vote given the overwhelming student support for the cinema and the clear indications of its ongoing success and responsibility.

    It might be useful to clarify a few points for you.

    As Mary Fessenden has repeatedly explained, the SAF funding does not go to employee wages, be they those of students or otherwise. True, there are not any formal division between revenue streams or anything formal like that, but that’s simply not how accounting works. Cornell Cinema is NOT “the only By-Line Funded Organization that currently receives funding for Student Employees,” the SA is. The Cinema is simply an organization which receives byline funding AND hires student employees, and it does so precisely because it has other sources of funding which cover those wages. The Cinema is not and has never requested funding for student employees, and it seems both strange and hypocritical for the only organization that does to accuse it of doing so.

    As you yourself mention, “over those three years they [Cornell Cinema] received MORE money from the New York State Council on the Arts, the College of Arts and Science Arts Subsidy, Academic Departments, the GPSA SAF, and the SA SAF.” Artistic grants like the New York State Council on Arts are not in the business of shoring up struggling programs. I think that if you take a moment to consider the NYSCA funding application and requirements (http://www.nysca.org/public/grants/funding_criteria.htm), you’ll see that far from a matter of concern, this increase in funding serves as a perfect demonstration of Cornell Cinema’s success, as well as its financial and organizational responsibility. To put it quite frankly, I doubt many other SAF funded organizations meet NYSCA’s requirements for managerial competence, financial prudence, and public service, so if they seem to feel the Cinema is so successful, why are you so convinced that it has yet to “reach this level of optimization?” Can you name one concrete step that Cornell Cinema should take to better fulfill its mission?

    (On that note, I hardly see what is surprising or disconcerting about increased funding from departments and groups like the NYSCA being accompanied by more unusual or artisticly significant programming. [In 2007-2008 for instance the Cinema recieved several sizable, one-time grants to facilitate a number of special events, including the enormously successful Todd Haynes visit and retrospective. This money was specifically allocated for the event on top of normal programming, not to cover general operating costs, so of course it didn’t affect other aspects of the budget.] The Cinema receives many of its grants and cosponsorships precisely so that it can offer shows like Andy Warhol’s “Blow Job,” so even if a film may look like wasted money from a purely box office standpoint, they bring in a great deal of grant money that would be otherwise unavailable. You don’t generally get funding to show “Transformers,” no matter how well-attended the screenings are.)

    If the SA wishes a greater say in the sort of programming offered at the Cinema, it might consider increasing, not decreasing, its percentage of the overall operating budget. As it stands, by slashing its contribution and pushing for vague and ill-defined “optimization” measures, the SA is only divesting itself from and undermining one of the most diverse and reliable sources of student activities on campus. If the SA is convinced “optimization” is necessary and possible, they should provide some evidence of this or, at the very least, give the Cinema an opportunity to prepare and reevaluate itself and to determine what if any “optimization” is possible, before making such arbitrary and preemptive cuts.

    I hope this helped, and I look forward to an open and reasoned discussion this afternoon.

    Thanks,
    Ian C.
    Arts and Sciences, Class of 2010

    PS. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I am a member of the Cornell Cinema staff, and on that note I would also like to note that the extent to which students run the cinema has been greatly understated. Although the full time staff do head the organization and thus make final, official decisions, student advisory board members and employees both run much of the day to day operations and are heavily involved in higher level operations and planning. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions concerning the way the Cinema runs or the value of its programming, as I’d be happy to clear any misunderstandings that you or any other member of the SA might have about the organization.

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