Three women who have long served the Ragtag Film Society are taking the helm of the 20-year-old non-profit, which runs the small two-screen Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri as well as the international non-fiction mecca, True/False Film Fest, which welcomed 15,000 visitors to its 17th edition in early March, just before the pandemic shut down the state.
After the departure of RFS executive director Jeremy Brown (who’s pursuing a career in insurance), a trio of Ragtag veterans, Barbie Banks, Camellia Cosgray and Arin Liberman, have combined forces to lead the non-profit into a far-from-secure future by trying to turn Ragtag into a sustainable year-round effort as well as an annual event, aided by True/False cofounder and current interim artistic director David Wilson, as T/F programming director Chris Boeckmann exits after 14 years.
The big change at this year’s True/False was the loss of its major sponsor, The Crossing (which was supplying $40,000 per year to the festival), after RFS broke off its close, symbiotic relationship with the evangelical Presbyterian megachurch and its congregation following controversy over an anti-trans sermon. On October 18, 2019, several months before the 2020 True/False, Ragtag cut ties with The Crossing, stating, “A recent sermon has crystallized an unbridgeable difference between us.”
The film festival proceeded with its usual eclectic curation of documentaries, from “Crestone,” about Colorado rappers growing weed, to Sundance hit “Time,” described by IndieWire’s Chris O’Falt as “a poetic meditation of the injustice of incarceration,” which sold for $5 million to Amazon Studios.
“We were able to make up those sponsorship dollars,” said Banks. “The more significant loss is the loss of conversations that happened between the Crossing members (typically more conservative) and the True/False audiences (typically more liberal).”
Luckily, Brown left the organization on solid footing heading into the pandemic, so they’ve been able to pay their employees as they work full-time on both efforts, the cinema and the festival. During True/False, they handed out hand sanitizers and kept in contact with their local health department and the CDC. As SXSW canceled on the last Saturday of True/False, the severity of the situation set in. “We just got in under the wire,” Banks said. “A week later and we would not have been able to have it.”
During the shutdown, the Ragtag Cinema switched some programming to virtual screening rooms via indie distributors, which brought in hundreds of dollars a week, about 1 to 2 percent of their usual income. “That’s panicky and exciting,” said Banks. “There may be room for more innovative programming.”
To keep its 1,600 subscribing members engaged (and supplying substantial donations to keep them going), Ragtag has offered free programming on its Watchalong movies platform on Twitch, along with panel discussions. Ragtag has kept afloat by applying for grants to help cover costs, and small business loans made it possible to pay salaries and rent for eight weeks. They run out next week.
“Now begins Phase 2,” said Banks. “Do we make cuts? What does it look like with our new leadership model with three of us in charge? We are more focused on people than the organization was in the past, so we are trying to keep that in mind as we make tough decisions.”
Coronavirus cases in red-state Missouri — home of the Ozarks — are currently spiking. College-town Columbia is more liberal and working to improve the situation. The theater, which serves about 4,500 moviegoers a year, reopened June 12 to low capacity to meet the county’s restrictions, again, bringing in 1 or 2 percent of Ragtag’s previous income. “That’s because no new movies are out,” said Banks, who usually books arthouse fare from distributors such as Neon, Oscilloscope and A24. “We serve a largely older population. Since the cinemas reopened to in-person screenings our audience skewed a lot younger than normally.”
The bigger screen holds 137 and is at capacity at 35 seats; the county requires six feet between patrons. Ragtag rents the smaller 60-seat theater out to group rentals (15 people max). A family can come in and watch a movie curated by Ragtag, or bring their own DVD: members pay $200, non-members $250.
Distributors Magnolia, 20th Century, and Warner Bros. are helping theaters keep going by supplying drives with a selection of older films for a lower cost per rental. “The relationships built over 20 years come in handy now that we’re trying to be more innovative,” said Banks.
A local foundation grant covered the costs of masks and gloves for staff and the odd forgetful patron, as well as plexiglass for the box office and sanitizing the theaters. But Ragtag does not demand that customers wear masks, as they are encouraged to buy food and drinks from the bakery next door.
A summer mentorship program for emerging filmmakers has been turned into a virtual meeting with mentors for the end of July. The theater’s 20th anniversary benefit celebration is going forward on August 15 as an outdoor drive-in movie and picnic dinner at the Les Bourgeois local winery.
Next spring’s True/False Fest is set to run from March 4-7. Submissions for the 40 features and short programs open in August. The specific format of the festival remains to be seen. “I get excited about building events and reimagining what festivals can be,” said Wilson. “It was a challenge to have a chance do that in pandemic times — what can we do to have the same intimacy and community and immersiveness and creativity on the film side?”
“It may be spread out more,” said Banks, “and more virtual. Uncertainty, that’s our motto right now.”