FilmScene at five: Celebrating a milestone with Iowa City’s iconic art house theater

This article is the first in a three-part series exploring the past, present and future of Iowa City’s art house theater on its fifth anniversary.

FilmScene, 118 E College St, Iowa City. — Adam Burke/Little Village

Noted L.A. Times film critic Michael Nordine lamented in mid-2015 that it took months for a Los Angeles theater to pick up Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, but that theaters in small cities throughout the U.S. were screening the 3-D experimental film: “It’s long been known that the art house scene in Los Angeles lags behind that of New York,” he wrote, “but must we be outdone by Iowa City and Bloomington as well?”

That was three years ago, and the Iowa City theater was the nascent FilmScene, Iowa’s first nonprofit theater. Since then, FilmScene has firmly established itself as part of the larger cultural fabric of downtown Iowa City.

FilmScene is turning five on Thanksgiving of this year, just a wee kindergartner compared to many established theaters — from other indie movie houses to multiplexes — throughout Iowa, especially when compared to the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the United States, the State Theatre of Washington, Iowa. Yet, in that short time FilmScene has proved itself integral to the larger Iowa City arts community and has developed an impressive national profile.

FilmScene opened its second screen in 2016. — courtesy of FilmScene

Twice last week, I was lucky to join FilmScene’s administrative staff, patrons and board members to discuss what makes FilmScene such a success. Conducting an interview with multiple enthusiastic film lovers all at one time proved to be a delightful sort of challenge, as the crew finished each other’s sentences, sang each other’s praises and interrupted each other with funny anecdotes of screenings that almost didn’t happen (Nebraska on Christmas Day 2013); personal highlights of FilmScene programming (such as Jim Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL playing as part of Mission Creek Festival); and their eagerness to discuss the possibilities for their new space at Chauncey Tower. (We will discuss FilmScene’s future in an upcoming post.)

FilmScene co-founder and associate director, documentary filmmaker Andrew Sherburne, explained the theatre’s mission: “To simplify it, we’re more than a movie theatre. We are building community and engaging through cinema.”

“You will never experience the same thing twice. You will always experience something really wonderful,” promised Emily Salmonson, director of operations and FilmScene’s first full-time staff member. In a time of endless sequels, remakes and reboots, this is surprisingly fresh.

Rebecca Fons, a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Cinematic Arts program and co-renovator of the Iowa Theatre in Winterset, said of her role as programmer, “It’s about picking the films that deserve to be seen. We are the pipeline to see these films.” Fons said that this anniversary will be “another banner year for FilmScene” with even more movies by underrepresented filmmakers, such as women, people of color and LGBTQ+ directors, producers and writers. “We are busting at the seams!”

Rebecca Fons joined FilmScene a year ago this month. — courtesy of FilmScene

As FilmScene regulars know, this diversity of programming may mean family friendly fare in the morning or midday (The Picture Show series) and schlocky horror and cult favorites late at night (Late Shift at the Grindhouse).This is in addition to ongoing series such as Vino Vérité (co-presented by Little Village), which brings cinema vérité filmmakers to Iowa City along with paired wines selected by the sommeliers at Bread Garden Market; the Summer Rooftop Series (which recently ended with a very chilly showing of the apropos Fargo); Women’s March, exclusively showing works by women filmmakers; and Pride at FilmScene, which celebrates LGBTQ+ films, in addition to others.

If that seems like a lot to fit in, “We are the only arts organization in Iowa City open every day,” Executive Director Joe Tiefenthaler explained.

Ross Meyer, Head Projectionist and Facilities Manager, and the former owner of That’s Rentertainment, explained, “We may have up to seven films running on the two screens in a regular shift,” but during the overlapping October mayhem of Witching Hour, Film Scream and other programming, FilmScene was continuously running films, workshops and lectures for over 40 hours straight. This included a 25 hour-shift for him. “We all work 40+ hours a week, but we all come in here during our time off,” Meyer said.

Late Shift at the Grindhouse celebrated three years in 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

This is all in addition to FilmScene’s engagement with the larger community through education programming, workshops and its many local partnerships, including with the University of Iowa’s Bijou Film Board, which will be explored more in a future post.

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Jason Egge, a pharmacist at the Iowa City VA Health Care System, is a super patron, attending at least two screenings per week, and only begrudgingly missing two or three of the regular featured films over the last five years. The Iowa City movie house allows for “community and engaging conversation,” he said. “This is the space to share. This is the collective experience.”

To celebrate its fifth birthday, there are “encore” features five of the favorite films shown at FilmScene over the last half-decade, plus a bonus Late Shift offering, all as chosen by patrons. The movies (excepting the Late Shift feature) will be shown at 5 p.m., priced at $5 each.

Whiplash (2014): Tuesday, Nov. 20
The Lobster (2016): Tuesday, Nov. 27
The Disco Exorcist (2011, Late Shift at the Grindhouse): Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 10 p.m.
I Am Not Your Negro (2017): Tuesday, Dec. 4
Kedi (2017): Tuesday, Dec. 11
Moonlight (2016): Tuesday, Dec. 18

Sherburne suggests that patrons stay after the show (not just the above encores, but any show) to grab a coffee or beer and discuss the show with each other and the Box Office staff. “Let’s talk about what we just saw,” he said.