Cinema St. Louis | Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

Cinema St. Louis | Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

The replacement of the executive director, board president, and operations director of a major arts organization in less than a year's time is a story in and of itself, but when the new executive director is the former executive director, and he is taking over from his former colleague with whom he left things when he left to pursue other interests, and that colleague is staying on to resume his former duties before the previous upheaval, the story suddenly has the potential for major scandal, finger pointing, and intrigue.

Unfortunately for a writer covering the local film scene, but fortunately for a local film aficionado hoping for great festival programming, when this bizarre series of events actually unfolded at Cinema St. Louis, there were no hurt feelings, backroom power grabs, or untoward drama.

In January, Cliff Froehlich returned as executive director of Cinema St. Louis, the major arts organization responsible for expanding the region's motion picture horizons by bring the city the St. Louis International Film Festival, Cinema Spoke, and the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase among other events. Froehlich had previously held the position from early 2001 to late 2002. He departed to edit the Arts and Entertainment section of the Post-Dispatch after the festival's 11th edition, leaving the organization in the hands of then-programmer Chris Clark. Clark not only assumed Froehlich's duties, he continued to head the programming of two festivals. For the next three years, Clark struggled as expectations grew and internal problems culminated in what he calls, "The hardest years of my life."

The original intent was not for Clark to assume all the duties of both positions, but to bring a development person to secure funding, leaving Clark available to select and book films. Multiple attempts to find the right person to fill the development role failed, leaving Clark filling both major functions. In late summer 2005, Scriptwriter and Board President Brian Hohlfeld stepped down to work full-time for Disney, and local lawyer and filmmaker Jay Kanzler stepped up and assumed his duties. The reformation was completed when longtime Operations Director Andrea Sporcic stepped down in October to take a position with the reorganized Missouri Film Office, leaving Clark alone to run what had been a three-man organization.

Clark pressed on; the organization was able to "cut costs, scrape nickels and dimes, and make it through the year," according to Kanzler. He describes the previous year as "turmoil," stemming from "personality conflicts on the board and turnover through out the organization." Looking at rising red ink as the new year arrived, both Kanzler and Clark realized change was necessary. Clark was loath to relinquish his programming responsibilities, but he knew he could not continue pulling double duty. Kanzler floated the idea of Froehlich returning. As fortune would have it, Froehlich was unhappy with the direction the paper was taking and became amenable to the idea of a return. Clark seized the opportunity to again focus on the films themselves, with the added comfort of working for and with a familiar face.

And thus began what Clark fondly terms "getting the band back together." Kanzler more pragmatically adds, "It's about letting people do what they do well. And in the end, it all works out." In the short time Froehlich has been back on board, the team has been able to raise revenue enough to bring administrative assistant Mark Bielik on full-time, further easing the logistical burden on Clark, allowing him even more time for to find cinematic nuggets. Froehlich also engineered a move to beautiful new offices in the refurbished Centene Arts Center, fulfilling one of Kanzler's goals to connect with the burgeoning Grand Center art scene.

Froehlich has been the key to the rebirth. Clark candidly admits, "If it had been anyone else, I would have been upset." Kanzler points to Froehlich's connections and credibility from years as a journalist to righting the financial ship, and to "his wonderfully creative way of packaging films, programs, and personalities into a presentation that will be of interest to individuals, groups, and organizations." Froehlich's knack for event programming increases the profile, prestige, and relevance of the festival which, in turn, opens greater revenue streams.

Discontent, unrest, and metamorphosis seems to have yielded a stronger rededicated organization ready to push into the future. All parties look forward to "working as a team," to not only recapture past magic, but to propel a once thriving arts concern to new and greater heights.

Of course, it could all go horribly wrong and Cinema St. Louis could fall prey to egos and incisiveness, as so many arts programs have, but hopefully they will be able to keep the drama and machinations on the screens. | Bobby Kirk

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