FilmScene at five: Origin story and future projections

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

FilmScene’s 5th Birthday Party

FilmScene — Friday, Nov. 30 at 8 p.m.

Exciting progress on FilmScene prior to its opening in 2013. — courtesy of FilmScene

Iowa Theatre. Astro Theatre. Varsity Theatre. The Strand. The Pastime. The Capitol. The Englert Theatre. Campus 3 Theatres. Downtown Iowa City has always had at least one centrally located movie theater, in addition to — at various times — a drive-in theater, as well student-run films from the Bijou Film Board at various campus locations, and the Marcus Theatre branches in Coralville and Sycamore Mall.

There was a hole left in the downtown Iowa City culture when, in 1999, the twin movie screens of Englert Theatre closed for the large scale renovation and reopening of the Englert Theatre that we enjoy today. This was made worse when the University of Iowa bought and closed the sole remaining theater, Campus 3 in the Old Capitol Mall, in 2007 to convert into UI offices and, after the flood, to house the UI School of Music. Iowa City was left without a permanent downtown movie theater for the first time in almost 100 years.

Andy Brodie, a former Bijou programming director, and Andrew Sherburne, current associate director/marketing of FilmScene, surveyed Iowa City residents and decided to create a space for independent films, foreign films, documentaries and arthouse fare in downtown Iowa City, the sort of films that have always been central to any university town. As much as the team behind what would become FilmScene admired the Bijou film series, Joe Tiefenthaler, executive director, explained that those offerings were limited to the academic calendar rather than being a consistent presence, and they often received films later in their run.

In true emerging filmmaker and DIY ethos, the partners sought out creative and community-focused solutions at every step of the process. During an interview with the current administrative staff of FilmScene, Sherburne explained that among the earliest challenges was the choice to be a nonprofit cinema.

Joining other microcinemas and nonprofit theaters nationwide, as a non-profit arts organization, FilmScene would be able to apply for grants and funding otherwise unavailable for corporations. FilmScene acquired its 501(c)3 status in 2011, becoming Iowa’s first non-profit theater. The co-founders also knew from the beginning that as a nonprofit, they wanted to work with Bijou, find other educational partnerships and be fully connected to other Iowa City arts programming.

FilmScene: the planning stages. — courtesy of FilmScene

Ross Meyer, head projectionist and facilities manager, said that he “got roped into helping” with Brodie and Sherburne’s original idea of creating pop-up movie viewings in bars, churches and outdoor spaces, but that never fully materialized. Instead, Iowa City developer Marc Moen agreed to let them the space that was formerly Vito’s bar. However, that space — beloved now by FilmScene’s patrons, with its familiar exposed brick walls, comfy couches, inviting bar, welcoming gallery wall and rooftop patio — was always meant to be an interim theater space.

Meyer explained from his crowded projection room that 118 E College St has served many functions in its long history: an attorney’s office, a casket factory and showroom and in possibly its earliest use, a packing and provisions store. While the space may be ideal for storing provisions, however, it is not necessarily ideal for showing movies.

Over the years, FilmScene has faced limitations due to the current space: Only certain movie projectors may be operated due to the beamed ceiling, which is in conflict with optimal projection angles; the larger of the two theaters only accommodates 66 moviegoers; and movies cannot be shown downstairs during a Rooftop Series screening due to the noise overhead.

The space provided another early challenge: They needed to appeal to the city for exemptions to serve food and drinks in the Ped Mall location, as there was legislation to limit the amount of alcohol-serving locales. Rebecca Fons, programming director, points out that FilmScene was once the only (and remains one of the few) non-bar option open later in the evening on the Ped Mall, although they do have a fine selection of local drafts and vegan popcorn on the menu.

Early progress on FilmScene was made possible in part by an IndieGoGo campaign. — courtesy of FilmScene

Brodie and Sherburne turned to crowdfunding for financial support to get their dream off the ground, creating an IndieGogo account that raised over $90,000 — $16,000 beyond their target goal. Emily Salmonson, current director of operations and FilmScene’s first full-time employee, had been living in Madison, Wisconsin for several years when, while visiting family in Iowa City, she saw Brodie and Sherburne promote their vision for FilmScene at the Farmers’ Market.

Salmonson, who was serving in patron and customer service at Englert Theatre at its closing, followed their IndieGoGo campaign closely, intrigued by their moxie and excited to see the donor base growing. This was in addition to the “Founders Circle” donors, who believed so greatly in the project that they pledged $1,000 or more “sight unseen,” according to Tiefenthaler.

Everything came together, somehow, and FilmScene officially opened on Thanksgiving 2013, with All is Lost, a survival film with only one cast member (Robert Redford) and almost no dialogue, and Blue is the Warmest Color, the much lauded but controversial French coming-of-age love story between two young women, as the first two films shown. (Little Village reviewer Scott Samuelson lauded both the film and the venue in his review of the second.)

Sherburne explained that the first year was all trial and error. “We were trying to learn how to run a movie theater,” he said.

Tiefenthaler elaborated: “[That includes] all the nuts and bolts, pricing and purchasing, staffing, the importance of the donor base.”

Despite the steep learning curve, there were successes and surprises, too.

“In the first year, we expected about 18,000 moviegoers,” Tiefenthaler says, “but over 30,000 people attended our films.” Likewise, the expected membership of 250 FilmScene members reached over 500 in its first year.

Tiefenthaler stated that in its freshman year, FilmScene had to fight hard to earn the trust of film distributors. This included an early coup for FilmScene when they acquired the hyped family dramedy Nebraska to debut on Christmas Day — but the film almost didn’t arrive on time. Sherburne explained what a failure this could have been for the fledgling moviehouse. But through frantic phone calls and flying a copy in from California, the Christmas viewing happened.

Meyer shrugged it off: “If everything goes right, no one knows the work we’ve done.”

Fons points out that because of FilmScene’s reputation five years later, distributors now court the Iowa City theater, citing The Wife as the most recent example. This film, distributed by Sony Picture Classics, has earned much praise for Glenn Close in the titular role, and is thematically perfect for a UNESCO City of Literature, with its focus on the careers, successes and complex relationships between two authors. She points out the FilmScene is often the premiere destination for acclaimed releases at both the regional (Moonlight) and state (Suspiria) levels.

Next fall, FilmScene will enter into a brand-new phase as it expands into Chauncey Towers, also a Moen property. According to Tiefenthaler, it’s natural to continue this partnership.

“The Moen Group believes in our energy and how the theater adds to our downtown community,” he said.

No longer the little crowdfunded, non-profit theater in an old casket factory that it was five years ago, FilmScene is moving even beyond its current place as beloved cultural institution in downtown Iowa City. The three new state-of-the-art theaters will vary in size, with the smallest at 30-40 seats. The medium venue will have 80-90 seats, and the largest area will accommodate up to 120 viewers.

Rendering of the Chauncey at night. — courtesy of FilmScene

Sherburne points out this landmark building will have a café, bowling alley and restaurants in addition to condos and office spaces. “This will be a vibrant place,” he promises.

Tiefenthaler looks forward to expanding educational programming in the new setting, such as hosting more series, offering consistent filmmaking workshops. and becoming the home for Iowa’s movie makers.

“We hope to keep talent in the area,” Tiefenthaler explains.

Meyer is excited to show 35 and 60 millimeter films and archival films on projectors that FilmScene owns but cannot readily use in their current space. Salmonson explains that they are deciding on the best use of their original home; the space is perfect for events, and the theaters can allow for extended runs of films. She also imagines that there will be a few new challenges in Chauncey Tower.

“It will be starting over again,” Salmonson explains. “We need to make patrons feel like this is their place. We will need to manage the dual spaces.”

For the last five years, from its plucky crowdfunded origins to the possibilities offered in the larger, state of the art cinema opening next fall, FilmScene has remained focused on bringing the best, the brightest, the oddest and the buzziest films to the area, and to working with and for the film-loving community of Iowa City. That will not change in the future.

Meyer said that what he’s most proud of from the past five years is actually something that happens every night. “The screen lights up, the audio kicks in and the movie plays. It’s sometimes a struggle, but it’s always worth it.”

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