Light Cone – 25 years of devotion to experimental film

One of the major homes of experimental film in Europe, Light Cone film distribution, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. For the past quarter-century, Light Cone has been a key partner in the presentation of experimental film for curators, festivals and filmmakers. Light Cone’s archive contains today more than 3,000 experimental films in all formats. The cineaste can find everything here from up-to-the-minute video works to installations to avant-garde classics. With its regular screenings, Light Cone in addition plays an important role in bringing international experimental film to the attention of the public.


Light Cone in jeopardy
Unfortunately, this refuge for experimental film art is now in danger. Like many other state-funded cultural institutions, Light Cone has repeatedly faced funding cutbacks in recent years. Although intensive efforts have been made to find alternative sources of funds, the distributor’s financial basis remains precarious. In early 2007, the situation came to a head when the Centre National de la Cinématographie announced a further massive cutback of 20%. This, coupled with the expiration of public employment programmes on which the organization had relied, put the continued existence of Light Cone at risk.

The board of the non-profit cooperative saw no other choice than to address an urgent request for assistance to the public. Draconian austerity measures were undertaken in parallel: two employees had to be let go. Office space was sublet to save costs, and filmmakers were called on to forego their distribution earnings until the end of the year in order to help the distributor get out of the red as quickly as possible.

To date, over 50 rights holders have responded to this plea, so that this step alone has brought in almost 10,000 EUR in just a few months. As a long-term measure to consolidate the budget, the distributor decided to reduce the filmmaker’s share of film rental fees to 50% starting at the beginning of this year. Before, the filmmakers had received 70% of rentals, with Light Cone trying to cover its costs with only 30% of the take. This split had long been regarded in the industry as unusually favourable to filmmakers, underpinning the Paris co-operative’s claim of acting less as a business than as a representative of filmmakers’ interests.


International solidarity
In the meantime, over 1,100 individuals and more than 220 institutions have publicly declared solidarity with Light Cone, emphasizing in their protest letters that Light Cone is indispensable to experimental film. Concurrent with its public appeal and strict consolidation course, Light Cone promoted its cause intensively in talks with representatives from the various funding institutions, eliciting promises from the major agencies at least not to reduce funding further in the coming year.

At the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, Christophe Bichon, one of the few remaining (paid) employees at the distributor, showed a programme of current French experimental films to a sold-out theatre and expressed his thanks for the overwhelming response to Light Cone’s appeal for help. It is not yet certain whether the diverse international avowals of solidarity will have a positive influence on the boards of the funding institutions, but Light Cone’s board and staff members are confident that, with so much support, the current crisis can be overcome.


Light Cone was founded in 1982 by filmmakers Yann Beauvais and Miles McKane as a non-profit organization for strengthening the status of experimental film in France. The two founders were acting based on their own personal experience: there was simply a lack of mediating institutions for experimental film art. In France – and worldwide – there were very few film archives and distributors that were even open to experimental work. Although the Agence du court métrage (ACM) was coincidentally established more or less simultaneously with Light Cone, there were few overlaps between the two institutions. The films they represented were too disparate, as were the target audiences and the way the organizations worked. While the Agence du court métrage sees itself above all as a stronghold for cinema-ready French short film, Light Cone assembles in its programme international experimental films of all lengths, including many structural, non-narrative works. While ACM endeavours by various strategies to re-anchor short film in the normal cinema and TV programme, Light Cone aims not so much to appeal to the classic mainstream audience as to a specialized international clientele. The fact that the self-conceptions of the two institutions do not coincide is also reflected in their relationship with filmmakers. While ACM gives rights holders 15% of the income from every film rental, the rate at Light Cone was for a long time a spectacular 70%, as mentioned above.

The same tendency can be discerned in the selection of a cooperative as organizational form: Light Cone views itself as an initiative by filmmakers for filmmakers and only second or third as a commercial enterprise. Unfortunately, these democratic decision-making structures are just what sometimes make it difficult for the organization to react swiftly to new developments – something that Light Cone is now experiencing, not least due to its increasingly dire financial situation.


Archive and distribution
Light Cone today boasts an archive of over 3,000 experimental films, made between 1905 and the present. More than 90% of these are short films, which for the most part are stored as 16mm prints. The co-operative has taken pains from the very beginning not to give preference to any school, region or period when acquiring films, ensuring that the collection provides a broad overview of international (experimental) film history. European museums, festivals, universities and cinemas in particular take advantage of these offerings. Around 2,000 films and videos are rented out each year.

The core of the collection is formed by avant-garde films from the 1920s and 30s (Adrian Brunel, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, Oskar Fischinger, Fernand Léger, Len Lye, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann, etc.), films by the post-war avant-garde (Isidore Isou, Maurice Lemaí®tre, Maya Deren, Jean Genet, James and John Whitney) and a comprehensive showing of so-called “artists’ films” from the 1960s/70s acquired during the past decade (Patrick Bokanowski, Christian Boltanski, Daniel Buren, Paolo Gioli, Gordon Matta-Clark, José Antonio Sistiaga, Nancy Holt, Robert Smithson, Unglee, Richard Serra, etc.).

Likewise from this era is a series of “diary films”, e.g. by Jonas Mekas, Jerome Hill, Jakobois or Jan Peters. Another focus of the collection is found-footage films (e.g. by Adrian Brunel, Henri Storck or Jürgen Reble) and the practice of cineastic sampling, known best perhaps from the work of Matthias Müller and Martin Arnold. Films by Barbara Hammer, Jack Smith, James Watson & Melville Webber and others in addition provide a historically solid cross-section of productions on the queer film scene.

Structural film and abstract cinema are represented here by their major protagonists, such as Hy Hirsh, Peter Kubelka, Paul Sharits and Michael Snow. Stan Brakhage, Len Lye, Cécile Fontaine, Carl Brown and Jürgen Reble are just some of the artists in Light Cone’s catalogue who work directly on the celluloid.

“Expanded cinema” can also be found here: Light Cone distributes not only films and videos but also installations, multi-screen projections and body art films/ performance documentations (e.g. by Kurt Kren, Maria Klonaris & Katerina Thomadaki, Carolee Schneemann and VALIE EXPORT).

All in all, films by more than 360 artists are available in the archive – including a series of “rare” works of which no other print exists. Light Cone is thus living up to its ambitious aspiration of supplying an “alternative history” of film with its own collection. If the work of Light Cone is endangered by a further reduction in public funding, access to a key part of cinematic history could be lost.


Scratch Projection and Preview Show
Light Cone has viewed itself from its inception not primarily as an archive where treasures are locked away for posterity, but rather as a presentation and discussion platform. The Scratch Projection film club was founded in 1983 for this purpose. The club puts on film evenings at regular intervals (in peak periods once a week!) featuring both historical and contemporary works. Lacking a permanent venue, the Scratch Projections migrated for a long time amongst various spaces and districts in Paris. Although this demanded a great deal of organizational effort, it also had the pleasant side effect of reaching a steady stream of new viewers. Later, the film evenings found a temporary home in the Wallonie-Bruxelles Culture Centre at Centre Georges Pompidou. In the course of the restructuring at the beginning of the year, the venue was changed again, to the Confluences bar and gallery.

The Scratch Projections were shaped above all by the work of Yann Beauvais, who curated the programmes for many years, in effect setting a new standard for film programming. In co-operation with institutions such as the Musée National d’Art Moderne, the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Cinémathèque Franí§aise, Beauvais put together comprehensive thematic film series, artist surveys and retrospectives, often accompanied by major publications.

In addition to these theme-based publications, an updated catalogue comes out annually (which can today of course be accessed online) with general information on the film and its content as well as a filmmaker biography. Supplementing these activities is an annual Preview Show where new additions to the distributor’s archive are presented over 3-4 days to a professional audience. Some 100 visitors make the pilgrimage to this event each year, among them curators, festival and cinema organizers, critics, university lecturers and artists. This year, the daily screenings for industry professionals will be joined for the first time by an evening programme open to the general public.


In recent years, Light Cone’s financing has come approximately 50% from public subsidies. The lion’s share comes from CNC, but the City of Paris and the Ile-de-France region also support the initiative. The other half of the budget comes directly from distribution earnings. This balanced financial situation was thrown off kilter by the cuts in public subsidies. The reduction in funding from CNC by 20% in particular plunged the co-operative into the red. Exacerbating the situation was the fact that at exactly the same moment a programme expired that had allowed Light Cone (and many other French companies in the cultural sector) to finance three of its five permanent staff positions since 1999.

The “Emplois-jeunes” scheme, launched in 1997, provided financial support to employers who hired young people under the age of 26. The aim of this degressive measure was to integrate young people into occupational life so that they would continue to be employed after the five-year period of state support was over. It was hoped that this would reduce the high rate of youth unemployment.

Light Cone took advantage of this programme in the same way as many other companies in the non-profit field. On the one hand, the co-operative profited enormously from the employment scheme, but at the same time the continual cutbacks in cultural funding eventually left it without much leeway. The biggest change is thus ultimately that state funds now must flow more directly into salaries and it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain grants for the necessary projects, such as archiving films, putting on periodic events, etc.


Future prospects
Despite its still critical financial situation, Light Cone seems to have gotten back onto its feet in the first five months of 2007. Despite all difficulties, the co-operative is already planning events to celebrate its 25th anniversary in autumn, and the next Preview Show is scheduled for mid-September.
In addition to the many volunteers who have dedicated their time to the distributor for several years now, four staff members are currently working at Light Cone in paid positions. Plans are to expand the permanent team as soon as finances allow. Light Cone intends to give up its home in the 20th arrondissement by the end of the year and find less expensive premises.

Vital to Light Cone’s continued existence is an explicit avowal by state funding institutions that experimental film is worth promoting, demonstrated by supporting the distributor with a sum that gives it a certain amount of financial security – not least so that it can start to look for alternative financing sources.

Luc-Carolin Ziemann

URL Light Cone:


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