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Reel change: Longtime proponents of independent film in Cleveland retire

Marcie Goodman of CIFF and John Ewing of the Cinematheque
Brandon Baker
Cleveland International Film Festival/Cleveland Cinematheque
Between them, the film fest's Marcie Goodman (left) and John Ewing of the Cinematheque have more than eight decades of experience as Northeast Ohio movie mavens.

Marcie Goodman, head of the Cleveland International Film Festival, and John Ewing, co-founder of the Cleveland Cinematheque, are both retiring this month.

Between them, they have more than eight decades of experience as professional movie mavens in Northeast Ohio.

Goodman joined the festival in 1987 after a decade in the health and human services sector. In those days, CIFF was still based at the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights. Goodman said the entire festival was run by just a few people.

"There might have been titles, but I don't even know what they were," she said. "We all kind of did everything.” Goodman was promoted to executive director in 1998. Since then, she's expanded the fest to more than two weeks of streaming and in-person screenings at Playhouse Square. She's brought in artists ranging from Alan Alda to Harry Dean Stanton. When Michael Rooker, star of “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was here, things took an unexpected turn.

"We had the director in town and the actor who played Henry,” she said. “The film was on the screen at the Cedar Lee, and I was sitting with them in the lobby. And a woman walked out of the film and the ‘Henry’ actor said, 'Get back in there.' Probably scared this poor woman to death."

That doesn't happen when a film is viewed online.

"I'm a purist: Film should be seen on a big screen," she said. "I don't think there's a filmmaker anywhere who says to themselves, 'Gosh, I hope someday someone watches my movie on their iPhone.' They're meant to be experienced with other people and to feel that sense of community, whatever the reaction is: Laughing, crying, being afraid."

Despite Goodman's love of film, she said it's time to move on due to chronic back pain and to offer her successor time to plan.

"As we head toward our 50th anniversary, which is now two years away, I know that part of an anniversary is looking back," she said. "I think even more of an anniversary is to look forward and to have a vision for what the future of this organization is going to be like. That person is the next leader of the organization. And so, to have that person in place two years out, I think made sense."

That person is Hermione Malone, who previously held leadership positions at Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. Next year, as Malone is running CIFF49, Goodman said she hopes to finally enjoy films with the audience.

"The great irony of my job throughout these decades: I rarely see movies at the festival," she said. "So, ironically, I will probably come back and see way more movies."

Goodman also hopes to spend more time at the Cleveland Cinematheque, which is going through its own transition: Co-Founder John Ewing steps down on June 30. Until then, he's been programming films which he's always wanted to show but never got the chance. On his last day, he'll present three of his most beloved: Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons," the Japanese film "Late Spring" and his favorite movie of all time, 1953's "Shane."

"I saw it at a pivotal point in my life," he said. "It's very slow and kind of brooding and moody. But I like that about it."

That was in 1966. Soon, he was writing film reviews for his school paper at Glenwood High in Canton. Eventually, he also programmed films while attending Denison University. Later, he did the same thing at the Canton Palace Theatre. Yet showing esoteric art films in a large, ornate movie palace wasn't always viable. After reading about independent art house cinemas in a book by Leonard Maltin, Ewing found his calling.

"Cleveland was notably absent from this book," he said. "I thought, 'That's what I wanna do. I wanna open the theater like that."

That was 1984. After securing backing from George Gund III, Ewing began showing films in a lecture hall at Case Western Reserve University in 1985. A year later, he moved to the Cleveland Institute of Art's Aitken Auditorium.

"I really kind of fell in love with it," he said. "It wasn't the most comfortable room. But it had a stage, it had a screen, it had a projection booth. Most importantly, it was heated, and it was air conditioned. And it had a parking lot. It wasn't really being used on the weekends too."

Four decades and an estimated 10,000 movies later, Ewing said he still looks for the same qualities when selecting films for the Cinematheque’s purpose-built space, opened in 2015.

"The bottom line to me is that these are good movies," he said. "We support film as art and artifact. The whole point of the Cinematheque from the beginning was to show stuff that wasn't coming here. And that still is our mission."

That mission is being taken up by Bilgesu Sisman, who has worked in programming and marketing at the Maryland Hall cultural center in Annapolis and Film Streams in Nebraska. She and Ewing are working in tandem this month as he prepares for retirement.

"I'll still go to theaters, and I hope to be at the Cinematheque regularly," he said. "That's why I keep telling people, 'I may not be on stage, but I'll be in the audience as long as they show stuff that I want to see.’ I'll certainly be lobbying for my kind of movies. So, they may get sick of hearing from me."

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.