Max Denning

This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Oregon Film Festival, which has grown into a regional event attracting filmmakers also featured at the country’s most well-known film fests like Sundance and SXSW. For its 10th year, the festival’s organizers had hoped for it to be an even bigger affair — but the owners of the Granada Theatre have other ideas.

After nine years of hosting EOFF feature-length films, the Granada Theatre has severed its ties with the film festival. In an email exclusively obtained by The Observer from EOFF Director Christopher Jennings, Mark Greulich, one of the owners of the Granada, wrote to Patty Johnson, manager of the movie house, giving the last word on the film festival on Jan. 14. “As we discussed this morning, please inform Alan Arnson the La Grande Theatre will not be participating in the Eastern Oregon Film Festival. We appreciate Alan’s enthusiasm, his military service and his deep commitment to the film festival, and we wish everyone the very best for the future,” Greulich wrote.

The other co-owners of the theater, Charles Greulich and John Greulich, were cc’d on the email.

The Observer made multiple requests for comment via email, and called John’s home number in Carlsbad, California. None of the Greulichs responded to the requests.

Alan Arnson is a Granada employee who worked as the venue manager for the EOFF and helped coordinate the festival’s films at the La Grande theater. Arnson wrote a letter to the Greulichs earlier in January asking to be trained in the theater’s digital projection systems.

The Granada’s digital projection system allows films to be played at the highest quality and also record box office numbers for films from major companies. While the film festival shows only a few films each year that require box office recordings, the Granada’s system gives the festival a wider swath of films to choose from.

The letter, which was obtained by The Observer, outlines Arnson’s extensive communications background with the Army National Guard and his appreciation for the film festival.

“I have been diligent in the liasion position, ensuring the festival and Granada can host such an event without issue and with a profit to the Granada,” Arnson wrote to the owners.

EOFF was named one of MovieMaker magazine’s “Coolest Film Festivals in the World” in 2017. It was featured in an hour-long segment on the OPB’s State of Wonder. last year In 2018, actor and director Bruce Campbell, well-known for his starring role in the Evil Dead film franchise, held a Q&A in La Grande as part of the EOFF.

Arnson, who has worked at the Granada since late 2000, said he appreciates what the EOFF brings to La Grande.

“I think it’s one of the best forums for new film and art in our region,” Arnson said. “It’s the best exhibition of independent film for this region. It’s the best amalgam of live music, artists, bands and filmmakers. I love the film festival. It changed my life.”

Jennings said the Greulichs didn’t seem concerned with Arnson’s letter.

“When we received the email, (which) was really dismissive of that heartfelt request, it was disheartening,” Jennings said.

Ian Clark, program director and co-founder of the EOFF, said the Gruelichs’ decision was “extremely disappointing.” Clark also said there has been very little communication between EOFF leadership and the Granada’s owners.

“I wish we could have had a sit-down meeting, if not a face-to-face conversation, then a phone call,” Clark said. “Their decision kind of breaks my heart.”

Jennings, who is also a co-owner of hq, an event venue that hosts EOFF’s after parties and a number of film screenings, said the Granada severing its ties felt cathartic.

“Every year’s been kind of a challenge to coordinate, to get permissions (and) commitments or to get any type of additional marketing support (from the Granada),” he said. “It’s been a great amenity to have for our festival, but it hasn’t been a partnership in the way we had always wanted it to be.”

Clark, who is also an independent filmmaker, said the decision won’t be the end of the EOFF.

“It forces us to do what we’ve always done — innovate,” Clark said. “EOFF will go on. We’ll become a stronger organization.”

In 2019, Jennings said the EOFF will be looking to partner with a number of community businesses to take over the role of the Granada. Among the potential associates are Eastern Oregon University and Arts Center East. Using the event space at what was once the Mt. Emily Ale House will also be investigated..

“All the cool downtown venues, bars, establishments have always reached out and said, ‘If you ever need anything, we could maybe do a screening here or if you need a place to put music.’ All those people are going to come in handy this year. We are really looking forward to mapping out whatever 10 years looks like.”

Jennings also hopes the Liberty Theatre will have its occupancy by then. Michael Jaeger, chairman of The Liberty Theatre Foundation board, said he could not commit to the Liberty having occupancy in time for the 2019 EOFF, set for October. Jaeger said the construction currently has an 18-month timeline, with an expected completion date of sometime in 2020. He also noted the foundation does not currently have funding to complete the construction.

To be able to have its occupancy, Jennings said the theater most likely needs an HVAC system and bathrooms. If the historic theater has enough construction completed, Jennings said the EOFF can be creative with the space.

“People can sit on 200 bean bag chairs,” he said.

Even if the Liberty Theatre has occupancy or the McKenzie Theatre at EOU can be used by the film festival, to get a digital projector that can play films “the way they need to be shown,” as Jennings puts it, the EOFF will need to fundraise between $50,000 and $100,000. No other organization in La Grande has a high-end digital projector other than the Granada.

“That’s probably something we’re going to fall short on this year,” Jennings said. “We’ll have to (use) Blu-rays and other ways to show these films.”

Jennings said the EOFF will be organizing a comprehensive fundraising campaign, but he said they will also need the help of civic organizations in La Grande.

“I’ve submitted a county grant (application). I’m working on a county ask for operational funding,” Jennings said. “I’m submitting a city ask for operational funding, again, even though they’ll direct me to the chamber.”

He plans to make a public comment at a city council meeting in February. Currently, EOFF is run by Jennings, Clark and a team of volunteers. The festival doesn’t have any full-time staff.

“If we want this film festival to grow and stick around and do what it can do, then we’ve got to figure out how to invest in it,” Jennings said, noting the EOFF could co-fund a position with matches from the city, county and perhaps Eastern Oregon University.

In 2020, Jennings hopes the Liberty Theatre will be up and running, and he said the EOFF is written into the contract of the Liberty, making it the only organization that can show first-run films at the theater.

While Jennings and the EOFF team hope to utilize more community spaces and partners in 2019, Jennings didn’t shy away from criticizing the Greulichs’ decision.

“Because the owners haven’t taken the time to investigate what we are, they don’t even have a clear idea of what the community sentiment behind the festival is,” Jennings said. “To make that decision from Portland or California or wherever they’re at, without really considering the community they serve, was irresponsible. I hope the community lets them know that.”

For updates and to support the 10th annual Eastern Oregon Film Festival, go to eofilmfest.com.

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