Fade to Black: Just as the cameras began to roll on a major city film project, the plug is pulled

Three years ago Walter Gunn devised a plan to promote St. Louis' filmmaking community. It involved the production of 100 short films about the city and was made entirely by paid local talent. He called it St. Louis Cinematheque.

Gunn struck a deal with St. Louis Cinemas owner Harman Moseley that called for Moseley to use his Chase Park Plaza, Galleria and Moolah theaters to screen the four-minute films before every main-screen showing. To fund the project, Gunn lined up $200,000 in support from a local family foundation and threw in an equal amount of his own money.

The goal was not only to open local eyes to the pool of homegrown cinematic talent, but to digitize the work and draw a larger audience via the Internet. Cinematheque (French for "film library") included a cyber-directory of St. Louis' "creative class," where arts professionals could post head shots, CVs and work samples. When Hollywood and New York producers considered St. Louis for a movie shoot, they'd have an online repository to skim for talent.

"St. Louis is always on the defensive," explains Gunn. "This was offense. Instead of letting other people define our character, we wanted our creative professionals to say, 'Here's who we are,' and to make money doing it."

Gunn initially set about creating a nonprofit so his financiers could get tax breaks for their gifts. But at the urging of a lawyer at the Regional Arts Commission (RAC), he instead established a so-called "fiscal sponsorship." Used in other cities, including Kansas City, the arrangement allows not-for-profits to act as financial clearing-houses for donations made to artists, saving artists the time and hassle of incorporating as nonprofits themselves.

"An artist can then devote themselves entirely to the work they're being funded to do," explains Geoff Link, executive director of the San Francisco Study Center, which tracks such sponsorships nationally. "The artist doesn't need an accountant or a lawyer or a board of directors because the fiscal sponsor brings all of that to the table."

RAC agreed to do the job for Cinematheque. Gunn hoped his group would eventually become St. Louis' premier film sponsor, like the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle and the Bay Area Video Coalition in San Francisco.

By early this year, Cinematheque was rolling along with its film production, and hundreds of artists had signed up for the online directory. The plan was to begin screening the films at St. Louis Cinemas next year.

Gunn says he had long been frustrated, though, by a lack of support from RAC and still keeps a year's worth of e-mails he's sent to Jill McGuire, RAC's executive director, in which he's almost begging for the art commission's assistance.

Still, in March, Gunn hand-carried to the commission another $100,000 check from the family foundation.

The following month RAC abruptly severed its ties to Cinematheque and returned the $100,000 to the foundation. Gunn says he received two brief phone calls from the art group's directors telling him it was over. But no explanation was offered. "If they would have called and said, 'Walter, you screwed up!' Then, OK. Tell me what I did, and I'll fix it."

McGuire says a "convergence of factors" prompted her organization's sudden departure from the film project. Specifically, says McGuire, RAC's auditors wanted more documentation from Cinematheque to justify their sponsorship. "At that point, we reviewed what paperwork [Gunn] presented to us and said, 'This is not going to work.'"

A representative of the foundation backing Cinematheque is still fuming over the rift. "I went in there for an explanation, and they tell me it's because Walter has not kept good records," says the donor, who declined to be named because her family has donated money anonymously for decades.

"Well, Walter has every e-mail, every budget they've ever considered, every rough draft of every rough draft," she goes on. "You just can't tell me this guy wasn't organized enough to give them everything they ever needed. I said, 'Go ahead and investigate him. Let the IRS check him out. You have nothing to be afraid of.'"

Gunn is an artist who made his name at the Sheldon Concert Hall. He was hired in the mid-1980s to rehab the building and became its executive director before being forced out by the Sheldon's board in 1994. He says that public ouster was so painful that he's avoided any involvement in civic activities ever since — that is, until he came up with Cinematheque.

Cliff Froehlich, executive director of Cinema St. Louis, considered the plan ambitious. "Ultimately, I didn't have a great hope for it having a huge impact outside of town," he says. "But I thought it would have been a really good thing for the local filmmaking community."

Gunn's project, though, still has support in powerful corridors.

"From an economic-development point of view, I see [Cinematheque's] utility as, 'Hey, wouldn't it be cool if site-selection and casting agents were able to readily recognize that St. Louis has that capacity and is ready?'" notes Jay DeLong, vice president for new ventures at the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association. "Plus, the notion of each one of the neighborhoods in St. Louis having some sort of cinematic representation in the database seemed pretty cool to me."

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