Debt and controversy put an end to the Film Forum

November 21, 1995|By STEPHEN HUNTER | STEPHEN HUNTER,SUN FILM CRITIC

After 26 years of providing unusual and provocative fare for film lovers, the Baltimore Film Forum will close its doors -- and its screen in the Baltimore Museum of Art -- forever.

Sadly, the greatest drama of its last year may have played off screen. Saddled with a $40,000 debt, controversy and ill feelings that have separated board from administration and a former director from the current director, the organization will dissolve as a corporation in late January.

"We just reached a point where it was no longer possible to operate," says Caroline Castro, a board member and the last director of the organization. "I hate to be the one to do it, but that's just the reality of it."

At its height, the Forum brought such film celebrities as directors Louis Malle and Robert Altman to the city, sponsored a vivid international film festival, encouraged local filmmaking and specialized in thematic film series that appealed to the city's diversity.

Possibly, however, it never quite overcame the lack of a real movie home, complete to popcorn and stinky bathrooms, and its location in the august Museum of Art may have made it seem less adventurous than it really was.

Ms. Castro, who assumed control of the organization when 6 1/2 -year director Vicky Westover left last May, said the issue of closing the film group has been under discussion for six weeks. She herself has been working without salary since August.

"We have no assets, and we can't even afford to go into bankruptcy at this time," she said. "We can no longer acquire product to show or to publicize it."

But, others say, it didn't have to happen.

Ms. Castro also cited the increase in competition: For many years, the Film Forum was the only venue for showing art or specialty films. But the competition has increased over the past decades with the presence of such dedicated art film houses in the area as the Charles and the Rotunda and even the occasional entry into the field by commercial chains such as Sony's and General Cinema. Indeed, as a national phenomenon, film societies are losing their economic viability: New York's Film at the Public, a 17-year-old film series run at a famous New York theater, has just shut down operations.

Still, some of the Baltimore Film Forum's problems were unique to its operation.

The situation has become extremely factionalized. According to

Ms. Castro, a free-lance TV producer, the debt, run up during the 6 1/2 -year term of Ms. Westover, was the crushing obstacle.

"Vicky," she says, "gave her heart and blood to the Forum, and her programming was brilliant. It was an organization filled with content, but there were always financial problems. She told the board last year that she was thinking of resigning, but when she did leave, in May, it was abrupt."

But Richard Macksey, a Hopkins professor who is one of the founding members of the Forum, suggested that Ms. Castro was never able to raise the grant money necessary to keep the operation going.

"You can't run these things off of box office alone. We expected that more grants would be written, but somehow they never were. As late as the spring, a major fund-raising drive might have saved it, but that never happened. We should have hired a professional."

"It's kind of like it's my baby, and I gave it up thinking it would be well taken care of," said Ms. Westover, "and it wasn't."

As it stands, the Forum has one event left in December, a screening of a restored cut of "Giant," the George Stevens film with James Dean and Rock Hudson, Dec. 1 at the Forum's customary venue, the auditorium at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Two other events are scheduled for January.

Left unsettled is the issue of whether another Baltimore cultural institution, such as the Baltimore Museum of Art, will take up the mantle of the Forum and continue with its annual film festival in May.

The festival was officially founded in 1969 by the late lawyer Stuart Rome and Hopkins professor Macksey and a few others, dedicated film mavens who regretted the state of film culture in Baltimore after the closing of two early art houses, the 5 East and the 7 West.

"The Forum," remembers Mr. Macksey, "was replacement therapy for the loss of that scene.

"We had our ups and downs over the years, and we never had a reserve, but we always managed to survive."

Mr. Macksey had high praise for Ms. Westover, saying: "She was a true professional. Vicky learned how to get grants. You have to get grants to survive."

But George Udel, another early board member who left the Forum after acrimony with Ms. Westover over a variety of issues, said: "Caroline had no choice. The debt was so high, it just couldn't go on."

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