It’s been 18 months since Gina Duncan became the associate vice president of cinema at Brooklyn’s BAMcinematek. She’s been juggling new industry contacts as she gets the hang of booking first-run and repertory programming for the venue’s four screens, but one issue continues to nag her.
“It’s funny when folks who have never met me email me or call me over the phone,” she said, over coffee recently, “and they tell me what they think POC audiences want. That’s always a laugh for me.”
As one of the few black women running a major film exhibition house in the U.S., the 37-year-old former programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center has embraced that side of her story — and at a pivotal moment of cultural transformation across the movie business, uses it to inform many strategic decisions for BAM programming.
“My overall mission is to have a nimble, responsive, socially engaged film program,” she said. “I take that really seriously as a woman of color.”
It’s working. The 157-year-old Brooklyn Academy of Music has maintained esteemed film programming for decades, but under Duncan’s tenure in a new position for BAM, it has shown an undeniable bend towards diversity.
Fifty percent of this year’s BAMcinemaFest, which begins its tenth edition on Wednesday, consists of features directed by women or people of color. Earlier this year, Duncan booked “Black Panther” in the 837-seat Harvey theater for four weeks straight alongside a retrospective of black superhero movies organized by Ashley Clark, one of her programming hires.
Other recent series and events include “Women at Work: Labor Activism,” “Chicano Cinema Pioneers,” and a 25th anniversary screening of Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.” Lee’s Cannes-acclaimed “BlacKkKlansman” will make its New York premiere at BAM in August before opening at the venue in its initial run, just a few weeks after “Sorry to Bother You,” rapper-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley’s raucous satire of race in the workplace, which also opens BAMcinemaFest.
“I’m really excited to have a calendar featuring two new releases that feel like a part of our curated series,” Duncan said, while acknowledging these options remain in the minority. “I’m hoping the astute audience member is seeing the rep screen and saying, ‘If there is this rich history of women and POC contributing to the industry, why aren’t we seeing that in new releases?’ I want people to recognize we’ve always been here and making this work.”
Of course, the nonprofit venue faces the same challenges of any independent theater in getting people to show up, so Duncan prioritizes outreach. New York’s hardcore moviegoing scene is an expanding universe of small cosmopolitan bubbles, from the old white Jews who frequented Lincoln Plaza Cinema until it closed last year to the downtown cinephiles who crowd Metrograph each weekend. While BAM tends to skew toward young, college-educated working professionals, the borough has many underexploited demographics that might find the latest programming worth checking out.
“I’m really focused on new audiences,” Duncan said. “If there are 2.6 million people in Brooklyn, how do I get them in there? That’s the big goal.”
That brings her back to the issue of identity. “It’s one thing to put up programming by a black artist,” she said. “It’s another thing when a black person is presenting it. Especially in terms of bringing new people into a new space. If I’m trying to tell someone in Bed-Stuy to come check out BAM, it’s just different if I’m saying it.”
The last white male director to receive a full retrospective at BAM was Jonathan Demme last August, a few months after his death. “And the next white male filmmaker we do a retrospective on needs to be a Jonathan Demme,” Duncan said. “His curiosity and love for all people, onscreen and off, I want to support that.”
Duncan talks a lot about Demme. During her time at Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York, Demme served on the board and took an active role in the programming strategy. He became a key mentor and encouraged her when the BAM opportunity came up. He died of cancer less than five months after she assumed the position.
“It was really, really horrible to lose him,” Duncan said. “He was a mentor and friend to so many, so I don’t want it to seem like it was my loss alone. We were really looking forward to all the fun programs we’d do in Brooklyn together.” At Demme’s memorial, she connected with Paul Thomas Anderson, who flew himself out to New York for the Demme retrospective to support several screenings.
Duncan became a New Yorker through pure happenstance. After college, she worked as a producer for NFL Films, developing football documentaries before moving to L.A. She did her time at a talent agency, as an assistant at Border Webb Silvermann under Bill Zotti, now at UTA. Eventually, she moved into theater, and helped produce Mike Birbiglia’s off-Broadway production “Sleepwalk With Me,” which later became a Sundance-acclaimed film. The play was scheduled to run three months but ran eight.
By then, Duncan decided to stay in New York to care for her ailing grandmother in Pleasantville. So she approached the Jacobs Burns, which counted Demme, Ron Howard, and Steven Spielberg among its community. As the programming administrator, she launched REMIX, a series about black experiences in film, media, and art. She said it prepared her for her current challenge. “The Jacobs Burns was incredibly different from Brooklyn,” Duncan said, “but what I learned there was that audiences will come to weird things, and they will be more adventurous if they trust the program and the programmers.”
Duncan entered the insular New York film community as a relative unknown, but her old colleagues beamed about her time with them. Brian Ackerman, the founding programming director of the Jacob Burns, said Duncan was “someone who has a very clear sense of not only what it is interesting and essential, but also — and this is rare — how to get there.”
Filmmaker Adam Leon was the special events programmer at the Jacob Burns before he left to make his debut, the SXSW-winning “Gimme the Loot,” and Duncan took his position. “Her antenna is always searching for the goodness in people and to make an honest connection with them,” Leon said. “When we worked together at Jacob Burns, she walked into a bit of a thankless, socially awkward, and politically frustrating job within that department. I was struck by her warmth and enthusiasm, but also her patience.”
At BAM, she faces similar hurdles. The city’s close-knit sect of repertory audiences tend to bond over their discerning tastes and regard any sudden shift with suspicion. A few months after Duncan started, well-regarded repertory programmer Nellie Killian left the institution. Both sides of the dispute declined to discuss the reasons, but many filmmakers, critics, and others in the scene were livid, circulating a letter that demanded an explanation. (It never went public.)
Duncan was rattled by the experience. “When I came to BAM, it was a steep learning curve for me,” she said. “One of the things I had to learn was how to be a leader. I had shaped my own programs, but shaping a program that others had to work with was a different experience entirely.”
She found the response to the staff changes from people she had never met, most of whom never contacted her directly, especially strange. “I was really shocked by some people not recognizing that I deserved that chance, like any new leader should,” she said. “I don’t know if it was a matter of people not knowing that I was there, or knowing I was there but choosing to ignore it.”
Regardless, the work continued: Clark, a British critic and historian of black film, joined BAM in July; he works alongside longtime BAM programmer Jesse Trussell. Programmer-at-large Ryan Werner, better known as head of PR firm Cinetic Marketing, continues to advise on BAMcinemaFest programming. Duncan said she hopes to expand her team, looking ahead to more changes at the institution, with new artistic director David Binder taking over in January.
“I have a long history that I am working within here,” she said. “I’m not just thinking about our film program in terms of the most recent history, but in the overall history of BAM as an institution. It’s a place people came to so they could learn about what was happening in the world, from Frederick Douglass to Helen Keller. There’s a lot more I want to do.”
And there’s a lot more work to be done. BAMcinematek continues to pull the bulk of its box-office revenue from first-run features. “Moonlight,” which grossed $412,000 for the duration of its run, tops BAM’s box-office records — and that was before Duncan got there. New foreign titles rarely crack the charts (the highest-grossing one was “Wild Tales,” in 2015, which pulled in $51,000), but repertory programming remains strong. A new restoration of Agnes Varda’s “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” pulled in a respectable $12,500 on one screen over the past week, while also playing at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema. Overall, according to data available on Comscore, BAM has grossed just under $2 million over the last five years from repertory programming alone.
“On the exhibition side, I’ve seen how an art house, as opposed to a major chain, can actually help get work to the right audience,” she said. “Art houses know their audiences in a way that no studio or marketer ever would. We can do more for a filmmaker than a distributor can.”
A week after our interview, she called from SPACE on Ryder Farm, the nonprofit residency program in Putnam County, New York, where she was running a film lab for the second year in a row. “I don’t want to sell anyone short by saying BAM hasn’t done diverse programming,” she said. “It has. But I think it’s tighter now. There’s an identity that’s forming.”
She recently participated in diversity and inclusion training at BAM. “I was thinking about how fantastic it would be if every storytelling and studio executive went through that process,” she said. “There’s not a lot of stuff created with real care, with art at the forefront. A lot of times people just treat it as content, and that’s how mistakes get made.”
A few minutes later, she emailed with more thoughts about Demme’s impact on her life. “I can be kind of protective of JD and what he meant to me,” she wrote, “but I will share this — we wanted to open our own distribution shingle some day, but when the BAM job came up, he was so supportive of me pursuing it.” Later, he left her a handwritten note. She taped it across her monitor as “a reminder, especially when things get rough, that he saw something in me I sometimes doubt.”
The note reads: “You are destined to be the greatest cinematic giantess ever.”
BAMcinemaFest runs June 20 – July 1.
The article has been updated.