President Martha Pollack declined to intervene in an S.A. vote on Nov. 30, 2017, in Uris Hall, above, to eliminate student funding of Cornell Cinema.

Michael Wenye Li / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

President Martha Pollack declined to intervene in an S.A. vote on Nov. 30, 2017, in Uris Hall, above, to eliminate student funding of Cornell Cinema.

January 25, 2018

Can Cornell Cinema Survive?

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Cornell Cinema’s director sent a letter to President Martha Pollack over Winter Break urging her to review Student Assembly’s decision to eliminate the student fee that provides the cinema with its largest source of revenue.

Pollack reviewed Student Assembly’s November vote to eliminate undergraduate funding of the cinema and decided to let the student representative body’s decision stand.

Mary Fessenden, the cinema director, confirmed to The Sun on Wednesday that she requested the review and that Pollack “determined that it would not be appropriate for her to intervene.”

“We have accepted this determination and are now pursuing other avenues in hopes of securing ‘bridge funding’ for the upcoming year that will enable us to continue operating while we restructure the program,” Fessenden said.

Cornell Cinema faces an uncertain future following the Student Assembly debate that captured the attention of students for weeks in November and culminated in a Nov. 30 vote to completely remove the student fee for the next fiscal year.

This fiscal year, the student fee will provide $150,943 to the cinema, 30 percent of its budget, according to figures from the University Provost’s office.

Fessenden declined to share the letter she sent Pollack with The Sun, and in an email to Cornell Cinema staff, specifically urged board members not to share the letter with The Sun.

“For those of you who may still have a copy of the letter that was sent to the President, I ask that you not share it with others or with Daily Sun reporters, etc.,” Fessenden wrote, saying the letter was “intended as confidential correspondence and should remain as such.”

Mary Fessenden, director of Cornell Cinema, urges Student Assembly members on Nov. 2, 2017, to continue student funding the cinema.

Boris Tsang / Staff Photographer

Mary Fessenden, director of Cornell Cinema, urges Student Assembly members on Nov. 2, 2017, to continue student funding the cinema.

Student Assembly’s vote — 19 to 5, with three abstaining — reduced student byline funding of the cinema from $10.90 per student to zero and was so contentious that it led one student representative to resign.

“I devoted every possible moment of time and energy I had to S.A. and at the end of it, I voted for what I thought was the right thing to do,” Alec Martinez ’18, who voted to eliminate student funding for the Cornell Cinema and resigned shortly after, said in an interview on Wednesday.

He said his position on the funding “did not correlate” with the students who elected him, which led him to resign.

Hoping to survive after this semester, the cinema intends to rely more heavily on donations from alumni and supporters “to get us through this transitional and difficult time,” Fessenden said.

Provost Michael Kotlikoff, who in November said Cornell does not “have anything in our next year’s budget” to replace the student funding, did commit between $36,000 and $40,000 to the cinema for the next byline cycle. But Fessenden told The Sun that while she believes the offer still stands, “we do not have 100% confirmation of it or any amount above it at this time.”

“It is much too early to know what a restructured Cornell Cinema will look like other than to say it will involve a reduction in programming,” Fessenden said.

Visitors settle at Cornell Cinema before the screening of “Night of the Living Dead” on Halloween 2017.

Anne Charles / Staff Photographer

Visitors settle at Cornell Cinema before the screening of “Night of the Living Dead” on Halloween 2017.

Deciding against challenging S.A.’s vote, Pollack finalized the assembly’s funding decisions. Now, the cinema is forced to replace nearly a third of its revenue with other sources.

The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, meanwhile, voted to increase its students’ funding of the cinema to $11 per student, a 46-cent jump. Graduate students’ activity fee makes up about 16 percent of the cinema’s budget this fiscal year.

Gabe Kaufman ’18, S.A. vice president of finance and chair of the Appropriations Committee, said the cinema should cut down on staff wages rather than non-staff expenditures.

“It’s really the staff wages that are the most problematic,” Kaufman said.

Cornell’s Office of the Provost released statistics last year that identified professional staff wages account for roughly 70 percent of the cinema’s expenditures, with other expenditures like programming and student wages taking up 30 percent.

Yuji Yang ’19, Cornell Cinema’s student advisory board president, speaking to Student Assembly on Nov. 2, 2017.

Boris Tsang / Staff Photographer

Yuji Yang ’19, Cornell Cinema’s student advisory board president, speaking to Student Assembly on Nov. 2, 2017.

Yuji Yang ’19, Cornell Cinema’s student advisory board president, said that if the cinema cannot obtain replacement funding, it will have to show fewer movies.

“It will certainly be a significantly smaller program” if the cinema does not receive more funding, Yang said.

Kaufman said that for him to negotiate with the administration, the cinema must restructure.

“If the cinema restructures and wants help to get new funding, new income, after it restructures, I don’t think a single person in the assembly, myself included, would object to helping the organizers, because no one hates the organization,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman’s indication that he will only negotiate with Cornell for additional funding if the cinema restructures appears to put him at odds with fellow S.A. member Varun Devatha ’19, executive vice president of the assembly.

Devatha said in November, before he voted in favor of defunding the cinema, pledged his support for the cinema, which was founded nearly 50 years ago.

“Student Assembly would essentially be providing support by reaching out to alumni for garnering that funding in the short term,” Devatha said in November. “We are essentially looking at generating $150,000.”

In addition to seeking new funding and restructuring itself, the cinema appears to be more cautious of the impact of the tides of public opinion on its organization than it was last year, according to the email Fessenden sent to cinema staff and board members.

“I think it’s important during this difficult time that we ‘stay on message’ as they say, and don’t do/say anything that might jeopardize our chances of securing replacement funding in the near or longer term,” Fessenden wrote in the email.

“At this point, we need to stay focused on the future and not get (re-)embroiled in what happened last semester,” she said. “(I say this last part mainly as a reminder to myself!)”

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs ’19 contributed reporting to this article.