Rental History

Malcolm Turvey on a book about Canyon Cinema

Left: The cover of Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor. Right: Stan Brakhage, Chartres Series, 1994, still from a color film in 16 mm, 9 minutes.

CANYON CINEMA: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor is Scott MacDonald's third history of a major US exhibitor and distributor of avant-garde film. Unlike the institutions that are the subject of his first two—Amos and Marcia Vogel’s Cinema 16 in New York (1947–1963) and Frank Stauffacher’s Art in Cinema in San Francisco (1946–1954), both of which promoted films for a profit, often returning less than 50 percent of revenues to filmmakers—Canyon was modeled on the New York Film-Makers Cooperative and its policy of “passive” distribution. While it published a catalogue of films for rent, “all filmmakers were considered equal, and no film or filmmaker was to receive more attention from the distributor than any other.” Revenues were split 75–25 in the filmmaker’s favor (although this has varied over the years), and unlike some co-ops, Canyon has earned a reputation for always paying monies owed to filmmakers.

MacDonald's introduction outlines the history of the organization from its origins in 1960 as an informal, community-oriented exhibition venue for nontheatrical films in Canyon, California, to its expansion into distribution in 1966 with anticommercial, cooperative ideals, to its eventual division in the late 1970s into an increasingly professional and successful distributor and a nonprofit exhibitor, the San Francisco Cinematheque, both of which are still going strong. Like MacDonald's previous institutional histories, the bulk of the book consists of documents. These are culled almost entirely from Cinemanews, a bulletin launched by Canyon in 1962 to circulate information about screenings, festivals, distribution and exhibition possibilities, and filmmakers’ projects. They are chronologically ordered in five sections covering the major periods in Canyon’s history, each of which contains a short introduction and (excepting the first) an interview with a notable figure of that period.

One wonders whether the almost exclusive use of Cinemanews as source was wise. First, because Cinemanews stopped publication in the early 1980s, the last twenty-five years of Canyon’s existence is covered in much less detail, even though its annual income grew from $28,841 in 1980–81 to over $179,000 in 2002–2003. Second, only a few documents directly address issues of relevance to Canyon as an institution, including an interview with Chick Strand and Chick Callenbach about its origins and Jon Jost’s 1972 proposal for dealing with some of the problems caused by its passive distribution policy. Facts that might have surfaced in other kinds of archival material—such as the bylaws, the names of filmmakers represented by the co-op, the names of board members, top-renting films, major renters, and so on—are thus largely absent. Indeed, in many ways the documents provide more of a history of Cinemanews than of Canyon itself, and those from the early years of the publication will interest only the most ardent student of avant-garde film, pertaining as they do to local, practical concerns. Things get more interesting in the late 1960s, when Cinemanews began to publish reviews, interviews with filmmakers, reports about filmmaking abroad, debates, and artistic statements, as well as letters vociferously protesting the increasing “intellectualization” of the publication. But it might have been better to omit, for example, reports by Bruce Baillie and Will Hindle about their filmmaking activities in order to make room for documents of more relevance to the organization and running of Canyon itself.

That said, this book, like MacDonald’s earlier ones as well as the work of other scholars about other institutions, such as Haidee Wasson's on MoMA’s circulating film library, fills a major gap in our knowledge of the history of avant-garde film. This history is determined not just by films that are made but by the extent to which those films are seen—and that, in turn, depends in major ways on distributors such as Canyon.