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The Cinematheque turns 25

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It never would have worked in most cities, but it's chugged through a quarter-century here.

"I was talking to people in Cincinnati a couple years ago who said they didn't think it would have taken off in Cincy," says John Ewing, director of the Cleveland Institute of Art's Cinematheque, the indie film house he founded in 1986.

Ewing has always insisted that Cleveland is a very good film town. "We build on a groundwork of hardcore arts supporters," he says. But after 6,300 shows over a span that's seen countless threats to old-fashioned movie houses, one wonders what kind of business model is required to continuously fill the auditorium's 616 "sturdy" (read: brutal) seats.

Ewing has a strategy of sorts.

"I don't really want to give the audience what it wants," he says. "The audience doesn't know what it wants. We are the experts."

Sure enough, the movies that unspool on the Cinematheque screen represent the cutting edge of the international film world — not to be confused with the most popular films on the landscape.

But the Cinematheque has seen its share of popular shows over the years too, from anime blockbusters like Akira and Princess Mononoke to a sellout screening of Jim Brown: All American in 2002 that was attended by director Spike Lee.

Its seen its share of controversy too — especially over a screening of a documentary about the North American Man/Boy Love Association. "Although the film was not explicit at all, it was my liberal clientele that turned against me," Ewing says. "They thought I'd gone too far."

This weekend, the Cinematheque will celebrate its silver anniversary with an extended lineup of screenings and activities (for more, see At the Art House on page 35). Friday will feature a surprise movie. "Nobody knows what it is except me," says Ewing. But there are hints: It's classic Hollywood, hasn't been shown in Cleveland for at least 35 years, and has never been released on DVD or video (legally) in the U.S. The festivities will conclude on Monday with a pre-film dessert and champagne reception, for which tickets are still available at cia.edu/cinematheque.

And what does Ewing have in store for the next 25 years?

"We are trying to get a younger audience hooked," he says. Last month he launched a discount program for 25-and-under patrons. "This isn't a student discount. There are perpetual students — I'm tired of those," Ewing says, referring to fiftysomethings who take one class in order to get the student rate.

"And I suppose eventually, we are going to have to buy a digital projector," he muses. With actual film prints going by the wayside, digital independent films must be shown at the art museum instead of the Cinematheque.

"If we just had a new auditorium," Ewing says. And there is hope for that: The Institute of Art is considering a new auditorium — maybe one with cushier seats, which would please Ewing and the Cleveland tushes he targets. "I've been told our seats are our greatest liability."

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