Students gathered in protest of the Appropriations Committee's vote to allocate $0 to Cornell Cinema.

Boris Tsang/Staff Photographer

Students gathered in protest of the Appropriations Committee's vote to allocate $0 to Cornell Cinema.

November 3, 2017

Students Protest at S.A. After Committee Votes to Defund Cornell Cinema

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After Student Assembly’s Appropriations Committee voted to allocate $0 to Cornell Cinema, nearly a hundred students crowded into Willard Straight Hall to protest the potential defunding a week before S.A. votes on the recommendation.

Following the Committee’s vote on Monday, students quickly mobilized and coordinated over Facebook, prepared to appeal the budget cut at S.A.’s Thursday meeting.

In a letter outlining the Appropriations Committee’s rationale for defunding the organization, Gabriel Kaufman ’18, appropriations committee chair, said the Cinema was an “insolvent, high-cost, labor intensive enterprise,” that failed to comply with the S.A.’s request to improve efficiency. The University, not the students, should be subsidizing costs of the Cinema, he said in the meeting.

“We support the arts. Just because we don’t believe the Cinema belongs on the activity fee does not mean we don’t think it has a place in this University,” Kaufman said over boos and shouted protests.

The Appropriations Committee denied the Cinema’s proposal to cut its own allocation by 22 percent, from $10.90 to $8.50 per student. The requested allocation would help the organization secure replacement funding and become financially independent from the S.A. by 2019, said Mary Fessenden, Cornell Cinema director.

Fessenden also stated that the Cinema has responded to S.A.’s requests to reduce costs. She said the Cinema reduced the cost of print advertising, shifted toward social media engagement and cut programming to 200 films each year.

A complete funding cut would not give the organization enough time to raise $150,000 in replacement funding and restructure the program to reflect a new funding model, Fessenden said. Other community members also said that an immediate funding cut would have major ramifications for the Cinema.

“Cutting funding overnight will kill the cinema,” Cinema projectionist Steven Torres ’19 told the S.A. “Please work with us, not against us.”

S.A. members were concerned that the Cinema was withdrawing $52,360 directly from the student activity fee account to pay for staff wages.

Despite the Appropriations Committee’s request that the organization end this practice “immediately,” the Cinema is still paying $37,495 to support these wages, Kaufman wrote in his letter.

There is also no way to verify if the Cinema will charge the activity fee account for staff wages this year, Kaufman wrote.

The Cinema’s usage of student activity fee money to support staff wages is a “gross mismanagement” of funds, said Olivia Corn ’19, appropriations committee member.

However, Yuji Yang ’19, president of the Cinema’s advisory board, disputed this. He said — in an annotation of Kaufman’s letter — that the Appropriations Committee did not ask the Cinema to immediately cease charging the activity fee account for staff wages. He said the committee instead requested that the Cinema cease to pay for staff wages the following byline cycle.

“The Cornell Cinema is a poorly run organization,” Corn said at the meeting. “The AC looks at all different funding decisions, and it’s the most poorly run organization I have ever seen. The financial statements are shocking.”

Gabriel Kaufman ’18 argued that the Cinema is an insoluble enterprise that should not be funded by the student activity fee.

Boris Tsang/Staff Photographer

Gabriel Kaufman ’18 argued that the Cinema is an insoluble enterprise that should not be funded by the student activity fee.

Fessenden acknowledged concerns about staff wages, but said the general activity fee guidelines do not prohibit the organization’s use of the activity fee funding to cover professional staff wages. When the Committee requested that the Cinema stop the practice six months ago, the organization abided by the request and included the new restriction in its proposal, she said.

The Cinema has also committed to not pay staff wages with S.A. funds this cycle, and will not request S.A. funding in 2019, Yang wrote in the annotation. However, in an email clarification to the Sun, he said the Cinema is indeed paying staff wages during the current byline cycle — which was approved by the S.A. in Fall 2015 and cannot be changed mid-cycle — and is committed to ceasing usage of the activity fee to cover staff wages in the next byline cycle in 2018-2020.

Andrew Gilmore ’21, appointed member of the appropriations committee, said it is “economically impossible” for the Cinema to stop using activity fee funding to fund staff wages.

The Cinema’s proposal for a 22 percent cut in current funding, he said, would only result in the S.A. needing to subsidize the true cost of staff wages.

“We are simply being financially responsible with your money,” he said. “We can’t blindly accept any organization with a good mission statement but horrible financials.”

Even at an allocation of $5.50 per student, Kaufman wrote, the Cinema is projected to run a yearly deficit of -$77,625. Rather than allocate funds to “an insoluble enterprise,” the Appropriations Committee ultimately determined that no activity fee funds be put toward the Cinema.

However, Yang disputed this claim, stating that the Cinema has not been running a deficit each fiscal year, but instead has been breaking even, and projects a $200 surplus this year.

The S.A. will vote on the budget cut recommendation at their meeting next Thursday.