Spinning their reels in Whitefish 

When the Whitefish Film Society announced last fall that its monthly film series would not return to Mountain Cinema for a 2002-2003 season, fans of the series figured its demise had something to do with the content of the films. Some guessed it was the explicit lesbian lovemaking in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Others figured it must have been the French film Fat Girl, with its adult content and disturbing finish.

Those suspicions seemed confirmed when Mountain Cinema’s manager was quoted in The Whitefish Pilot saying that the films selected by the Society were “too sophisticated and controversial” for the Flathead. Amid a barrage of letters to the editor from furious film fans, the manager claimed she was misquoted.

For her part, Whitefish Film Society co-founder Jill Zignego doesn’t know exactly why Mountain Cinema ended its relationship with the Society after five successful seasons. It could have been Fat Girl, says Zignego, explaining how “independent films make you think and take you places that you usually don’t go. And Fat Girl was one of those that took you to places a lot of people don’t want to go.”

But, says Zignego, the decision to boot the Film Society from Whitefish’s only true movie theater probably had more to do with money than cinematic taste.

During its popular run, the Film Society would often pack one of the Mountain Cinema’s theaters. The proceeds at the door sometimes totaled upwards of $3,000 in profits, which Mountain Cinema would then give to the Film Society to cover its operating costs. That’s a nice take, especially considering that the films screened only on the last Saturday and Sunday of the month. Showtimes were also relegated to early in the afternoon, far from the prime-time slots reserved for mainstream Hollywood fare.

“The major studios don’t want their shows off the screens at 7 p.m. on a Saturday,” explains Becky Dupuis, the film buyer for Polson Theatres, which owns Mountain Cinema and movie houses in Havre, Dillon, Polson and Salmon, Idaho. Dupuis says her company ended its relationship with the Whitefish Film Society because it wanted more control over both profits and the line-up of films.

“It was partly about money,” says Dupuis. Concern about content “was a very minor issue,” adds Dupuis, explaining that Mountain Cinema has picked up where the Film Society left off by launching its own “art film series.”

Acting as a kind of indie ambassador to the hinterlands, Dupuis programs similar series in the other, more conservative markets where Polson Theatres sells movie tickets. However, truly controversial films generally don’t make the cut. The most recent example is Bowling For Columbine, which Dupuis says could be perceived as too sympathetic to the gun control agenda to be welcomed in places like Havre and Salmon. Michael Moore’s most recent documentary will screen in Whitefish, but as Dupuis puts it, “Whitefish is a different story.”

The ski town might be home to a more open-minded audience, but the Society’s Zignego says she’ll be pleasantly surprised if the Mountain Cinema’s art film series manages to consistently challenge moviegoers in the Flathead. In addition to Bowling For Columbine, the line-up for the next couple months includes Frida and Real Women Have Curves. Mountain Cinema might bring in more provocative works like Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her, which is tentatively slated for March. “It’s very controversial,” says Zignego of Almodovar’s latest film.

A native of Miles City, Zignego worked for years as a film scout and distributor for the likes of Miramax and Universal Studios. She was working for Island Pictures when that company launched the career of Spike Lee. And she was involved in a bidding war over the independent sensation Strictly Ballroom.

Zignego’s connections to the industry will allow her to continue bringing films to Whitefish once she finds a suitable venue. She’s trying to talk one of her contacts into donating a projector and sound system to the Film Society. That gear could go to the O’Shaughnessy Cultural Arts Center, where Zignego thinks the Society might find a new home.

Until then, Zignego is planning a one-time benefit screening for the Society in Kalispell, maybe at the Strand Theatre downtown. In true, seat-of-the-pants indie fashion, the exact date of the benefit featuring a yet-to-be-named film is up in the air. Maybe some time in March. Maybe some time in April. Whenever it happens, cinema fans in the Flathead will turn out, even if just to demonstrate their appetite for the sophisticated and controversial.

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