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The Northwest Film Center is No More: Say hello to the Center for an Untold Tomorrow

The stars show up, a cinemonster crashes the party at Tuesday night's Cinema Unbound Awards – and the film center forges a new identity.


The Northwest Film Center’s renaming was announced during the Cinema Unbound Awards

Goodbye, Northwest Film Center. Hello, PAM CUT: Center for an Untold Tomorrow.

That was the biggest news to come out of the third annual Cinema Unbound Awards, held Tuesday night in the Portland Art Museum’s Kridel Grand Ballroom. Director Amy Dotson announced the name change at the close of the ceremony, saying that “We’ve got a new name for a new era,” blowing out a single candle on a birthday cake to commemorate the occasion, and leading the evening’s honorees and presenters in a cacophonous sing-a-long that didn’t seem to garner the expected level of crowd participation. It’s a bold move for a fifty-year-old institution that for so long bore the imprimatur of longtime Director Bill Foster, whose name I didn’t notice being uttered from the stage once all night.

I spoke with Dotson last week about the motivation behind the redubbing. “We’ve been around for fifty years, and the Film Center has been a beloved place for artists, and audiences,” she says. “We’ve been exploring this magical world we call cinema for some time. That spirit is still there, but a lot has changed, and not just in the last two years. We embrace that, and our entire ethos going forward is to change for whom, by whom, and how cinematic stories are told.”

The new name attempts to pay homage to the Film Center’s past through its acronym (which unfortunately suggests the end of a scene), while emphasizing a supra-cinematic approach by removing the word film, and signaling a forward-looking, frontier-crossing mission. That mission meant exploring fresh ideas about what 21st-century storytelling looks like, and how it can be best incubated and presented.

“And we’re taking our own medicine. Every great story, including our own, can expand and grow and take on new forms, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re de-siloing and letting go of the idea that it’s a place for some but not for all,” says Dotson. “If you love movies, we’re still here for you. But we’re also inviting artists, musicians, dancers, technology, design, and creative folks in general to come in and help us to mix it up.” As an example of this sort of cross-pollination, Dotson cites a recent event co-presented with Friends of Chamber Music featuring the documentary filmmaker Sam Green and the Kronos Quartet.

Carrie Brownstein, one of the honorees at the 2022 Cinema Unbound Awards

One change from the old regime is evident. The Cinema Unbound Awards have definitely upped the glamor quotient, as evidenced by Tuesday night’s hosts, Izhonny, “Portland’s Glamazon Burlesque Power Duo,” who presided over a room where a stilt walker, a Sleestak, and some sort of helmeted futuristic warrior had free reign.

The ceremony itself was brisk and entertaining, with star power provided by recorded introductions from Will Smith, Isabella Rossellini, and Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum’s, introducing honoree Carrie Brownstein, was (naturally) the best of the bunch. Brownstein’s acceptance speech, which riffed on the different meanings of “bound,” was nicely done, but the most affecting words of the night came from director Roger Ross Williams, who spoke about being the son of a single mother who cleaned dormitories so that he could attend college. Izhonny brought welcome doses of irreverent energy to the evening, and the gorgeous, well-dressed crowd reflected a diversity that, it must be said, was not a hallmark of the Film Center’s demographic.


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An aerialist performs during the 2022 Cinema Unbound Awards (Marc Mohan)


One of the last big indoor gatherings in Portland prior to the pandemic shutdown was the inaugural Cinema Unbound Awards banquet on March 9, 2020, where the Northwest Film Center, under Dotson’s then-new leadership, honored Todd Haynes, John Cameron Mitchell, and other visionaries in line with the institution’s increasing focus on “working against the traditional constraints of film and media.” It was meant to be the jumping off point for the Film Center’s new identity, one of experimentation and exploration, and of thinking outside the box.

The sense of curiosity and anticipation was abruptly quashed later that week, when the Portland International Film Festival came to a screeching halt along with the rest of the world. Like every other arts organization, the Film Center sought creative ways to survive, including a barrage of outdoor screenings last summer (literally “outside the box”) and an online edition of 2021’s Portland International Film Festival. Even as most Portland theater screens re-opened, the Whitsell Auditorium remained shuttered until last month, when it held matinee screenings of work by this year’s Cinema Unbound honorees. That the Film Center continued to exist at all is something to be grateful for, for as Dotson rightly notes “a number of museums shut down their cinema programs during the pandemic. And they’re not coming back.”

An anonymous Sleestak crashed the party at the 2022 Cinema Unbound Awards

Now, Dotson and her staff are finally able to work unfettered towards realizing this new vision of what the organization is about. “I came in as a story-starter,” she says. “I talked to people in the museum and in the creative community at large, and I got to go out into the real world and see and listen and then act on what I saw and heard. I’m the pebble in the puddle, taking in all these concentric circles of feedback.”

And Dotson understands that these changes may seem disruptive, but maintains, “We’re not going to be a one-size-fits-all kind of experience. Artists are really hungry to contain multitudes and to not be contained by one thing. Part of our job is to push those boundaries, get people to be in the same room and be participatory and vibrant and ever-evolving. That’s what the new name represents.”

The Center for an Untold Tomorrow website went live during the ceremony, and reaction on social media from former employees and associates of the Northwest Film Center was swift and harsh, with the general sentiment being that this move marked the end of an era and the demise of an institution that nurtured Portlanders’ appreciation of, and creation of, cinema.

While Dotson isn’t ready to announce any events or exhibits that embody this new nomenclature in all its boundary-pushing glory, PAM CUT has announced the next batch of programming at the Whitsell: a retrospective honoring another unbound soul, Tilda Swinton. “We’re going to test-drive something called the ‘Tilda-Whirl.’ We have seven films from the incomparable Tilda Swinton, and we have a local artist who is doing some fun merch for us–Tilda-on-a stick, that sort of thing.” These weekend matinee screenings, which include The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II, begin on March 19.


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Two years after pressing pause on these plans, is it a relief to be slowly getting back to normal? “I don’t know what normal is anymore, but that goes right to the ethos of who we are. I don’t want to go back to normal. I want to try something new. We have two new folks who have joined us just this week, and we have more hiring on the horizon. And we have more big news on the way.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.


15 Responses

  1. So is this in effect cutting film program funding? Why wouldn’t a multimedia and performance program go under the existing umbrella of PAM. This moves just seems to dilute an actual film program.

  2. Dotson did not care or seek input from those of us who supported the NWFC for many years. Amazing someone not from
    the area knew what local film fans would like. Her time in Portland may be short and and the
    Film Center may rise from her ashes.

    I appreciate more and more Bill Foster’s reign,

    1. I hope you are right. I was a PIFF volunteer for 20 years, and I want it back. Hundreds of films from around the world.

  3. Oof.

    What an awkward, ill-advised name change. “NW Film Institute” was self-explanatory, whereas “PAM CUT” is going to require constant explaining. It’s like naming your kid MaKeigh-Lah.

  4. Sounds like a Star Trek episode. Or maybe it’s an effort to Keep Portland Weird. Or she’s your friend Pam, who shortened her last name from Cutteroskizaberschmidt. “Pam Cut and I are going to the movies, er, I mean the untold tomorrow.” Maybe we’ll next get untold tomorrow archives and untold tomorrow festivals. The trouble is once these creations are viewed, they’re no longer untold but told. What do we call them then? Maybe the new name should be the “Center for an untold and told tomorrow.” Yeah, this embraces all forms of unknown mediums pre and post viewing. And yet it still leaves out the stories we know and have been told many times.

    Everyone knows there are different and evolving ways to tell “filmed” stories. You don’t need to cut the word “film” from a perfectly good name, which says what it is. Or are we including books in this new vision? We have libraries and Powell’s for that. If you want to start fresh, redesign the website or logo. When young aspiring filmmakers Google Portland film and get to the Center for an Untold Tomorrow, they’ll likely keep Googling.

  5. What wasn’t said in this article was how diverse the audience was at this event. So many people who are new supporters from different age brackets, races, genders. It was fabulous and vibrant. I hope that CUT is able to balance that line between how things were and what is up and coming.

    1. “Izhonny brought welcome doses of irreverent energy to the evening, and the gorgeous, well-dressed crowd reflected a diversity that, it must be said, was not a hallmark of the Film Center’s demographic.”

  6. New Acronym for NW Film Center Will Look Pretty Dumb hosting first (Afro American) Futurist Film Fest: C-U-T! (Take 2….)

    A shame Paul Krassner and his The Realist not around to chronicle this PoTown, Ore cultural low-light. Firesign Theater & Daniel Flessas for over 30 years at KBOO and often riffing with Firesign Theater on the late after midnight free form aural collage show on community radio named THE OUTSIDE WORLD for which CUT is local fodder of first order. Antero Alli and ParaTheater’s Bukowski ode Welcome to Bardoville paying attention?!?! This is my bardo and I’ll cry if I wanna…

    Mitch Ritter\Paradigm Sifters, Code Shifters, PsalmSong Chasers
    Lay-Low Studios, Ore-Wa (Refuge of Atonement Seekers)
    Media Discussion List\Looksee

  7. As an observer on the side, occasional NW Film Center fan, but an avid film going for over 50 years, I am appalled at the name change. First of all, it’s not clear what “Center for an Untold Tomorrow” even means – does it have anything to do with film? It sound a bit like the sad UFO site I visited once in southern Colorado. The acronym, CUT, is even worse. Let’s hope someone comes to their senses and changes the name (or the management).

  8. I appreciated reading this article about changes at NWFC, but want to point out that the recent “cross pollination” event with documentary filmmaker Sam Green and the Kronos Quartet was with FRIENDS OF CHAMBER MUSIC, not Chamber Music Northwest. Could you please correct that fact in the article? It was an event that both FOCM and NWFC were extremely proud of and we hope to do more collaborations in the future.
    Pat Zagelow, Executive Director
    Friends of Chamber Music

  9. This is very disappointing. I am sick to my stomach that we lost the NW Film Center. The community impact it had on Portland and Oregon as a whole will be missed. We aren’t a glitzy town like the new ED wants us to be. I have had many dozens of filmmakers come through my office and become a vital part of the filmmaker community and many friends who have gone on to teach in slow times or for a career transition. How this happened baffles me. I think we should pull together as a community and bring back the NWFC. Where can an adult now take a class in script writing, lighting, sound, cinematography, production , documentary filmmaking or animation? Is PAM CUT going to do outreach to at risk youth like the NWFC did? I think not. My company has been a long time supporter of them NWFC which I don’t wee in the future. The Portland Art Museum has a misguided vision for this community and should be ashamed.

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