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James Harrison | Webster Film Series


Working with someone like Mike Steinberg, the energetic director of the Webster University Film Series, has its perks, sure. But the Series’ coordinator, James Harrison, probably suffers from a lack of notoriety for his own work in keeping the cultural gem intact.

Focusing on many of the nuts and bolts of the Series—designing flyers, tracking films, sending out press releases—Harrison sits just a few feet away from Steinberg in the pair’s tiny office. Various work-studies are nearby, too, separated by a small wall.

On a recent weekday morning, intern Lee was ingesting a seemingly bottomless bag of pretzels, taking some time to wave a plastic, pink flamingo in the air as Harrison and I chatted about his varied job.

Do you often hear from the viewers on what’s hitting with them and what they’d like to see?

We hear some feedback. Most of it’s positive, which is good, but sometimes there’s negative. We have one regular who’ll call about the length of the films, in that he’s gotten in his mind that features are 90 minutes; with some of the silents, he doesn’t feel he’s getting his money’s worth. But generally, we can tell by attendance what’s going to work and what’s not. Unfortunately, we never know ahead of time; a lot of it’s timing. But Mike will say a lot is programming. There are films that people are dying to see, but a lot of ours are films they’ve not heard of, so we’re informing and educating them.

What do you think even regulars at the Film Series might not know about the ease or difficulty of running such an operation?

Something they might not know is the thought that goes into each calendar. Mike likes to work with themes, like Punk-a-Muck, which featured several films on the punk movement. Every year it becomes more difficult to schedule films because of competitors, like Landmark; because they can book all across the country, they sometimes have an inside track on what’s coming out. Film Series fans also might not know that there are studio independents. It’s not just the barebones independent films out there anymore; these are independents backed by studios.

Is there something that plays well in St. Louis that wouldn’t be as popular in art-house circles elsewhere in the country?

I think people in St. Louis like politically charged films. We show films like Outfoxed that appeal to their beliefs. It’s not necessarily a film that’s going to convert people, but it’s going to charge people, get them excited. Also, our audience really enjoys accompaniment: We’ve had the Alloy Orchestra in, Text of Light, and Yo La Tengo, and those also did well. It brings in a new audience, a younger audience.

And are there particular things that you’ve seen change in your two years here?

It took us a year to find the files and pay old invoices. I think that Mike and I have settled into a mode of now trying to get the Film Series moving, going ahead, through different programming ideas. Mike was able to get a special academy grant for indigenous cinema last fall, things like that.

Have you had any particularly interesting encounters with visiting filmmakers?

We’ve had several. The one that stands out is with John Waters, an incredible character. He’s very professional and down-to-earth. I expected a prima donna, only because he’s achieved a certain level of celebrity. But when he arrived here, he went through his delivery, a monologue almost. Which was like a routine: He just did his bit, his one-liners. He was incredibly quick and funny. Afterward, we went out with him and got to see a little of the personal side of John Waters. We had to stop at Walgreen’s to get his favorite candy, Jujubes. And then we went to a club on the East Side, which I normally wouldn’t attend. That’s all I’ll say.

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