This November, FilmScene announced a new addition to their movie-loving family: Rebecca Fons joined the staff as the programming director of Iowa City’s four-year-old downtown cinema. Working with film buyer Connie White, Fons will continue to craft new series and programs, while ensuring that the theater continues to screen provocative and engaging new releases — what filmgoers have come to expect from FilmScene and their university-based partner, the Bijou Film Board.
Fons received a BA in Cinema and Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa before serving as the education director for the Chicago International Film Festival for over nine years. She also holds a Masters Degree in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and recently spearheaded the million-dollar rehabilitation of the historic Iowa Theater in her hometown of Winterset. Here, Fons shares her formative movie experiences and hopes and plans for the future of FilmScene, as well as her favorite movie theater snack.
You’re joining an incredible staff at FilmScene: Joe Tiefenthaler (executive director), Andrew Sherburne (associate director), Kate Markham (director of operations), Ross Meyer (head projectionist) and Connie White (film booker). Can you describe your particular role and responsibilities at FilmScene as the program director?
I am so honored to be joining the FilmScene team. In my first few weeks I’ve been reminded again and again why FilmScene is a leading name in the art house theater community — it’s the talent and dedication behind the scenes. We’re all working together to bring the best cinema to Iowa City audiences, and so — in broad terms, as programming director, I’m leading that charge.
My role and responsibilities are to not only continue crafting some of FilmScene’s already robust and popular programs (our Rooftop series, The Picture Show) but also curate and craft new series, programs and initiatives. I also work closely with Connie to ensure that we bring highly anticipated, critically acclaimed new releases to our screens. Even though 2017 isn’t wrapped up yet, we’re already looking at 2018, 2019 and 2020.
You earned your BA in Cinema and Comparative Literature Studies from the University of Iowa. Did you have an “aha” moment regarding film during the course?
I graduated so long ago even the department has a new name! First, my “aha” moment was probably watching F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, when I realized I wasn’t watching the film, I was studying it, like I would a painting at a museum. That was when my relationship with cinema went from “I just really like movies” to “film is art”. I also really loved the moment that I realized I don’t like Citizen Kane. I watched it probably five times, in five different classes and just didn’t get the hype (I’m sure people are reading this, shocked!). That moment — finding my voice to say what I did and didn’t like about a film, even one so universally beloved — was a big moment for me.
I hear you used to frequent the Bijou Theater when it was at the IMU. Were you excited to learn that Bijou now works in partnership with FilmScene? What do you think are the benefits for FilmScene in partnering with a student organization? What are the benefits for a student organization like Bijou in partnering with FilmScene? What do you think the future holds for this partnership?
I was a big Bijou nerd, for sure. I saw Donnie Darko at the Bijou something like six times! It’s terrific that FilmScene and the Bijou are so connected, and I can’t imagine it any other way. We are positioned in the backyard — or more like the front yard — of the University, and how fortunate to be surrounded by engaged, enthusiastic students. Film programming is made more exceptional by the diverse voices who program the films and connect them to audiences, so to work with the Bijou board and to support them as they select films and facilitate dialogues around those films is an honor. My goal is to make the partnership between FilmScene and the Bijou stronger and one to last a lifetime.
When I was seven years old, I saw The Little Mermaid at the theater. I had to close my eyes when Ursula came on screen because I was terrified, but I loved being at the theater. I’m still a fairly fragile filmgoer, but of course I still love going to the movies. Did you have a formative movie theater experience as a child?
I’m right there with you on The Little Mermaid — I distinctly remember being very scared by the eels, Flotsam and Jetsam and then leaving the theater in Des Moines and there was a thunderstorm raging. I can — to this day — sing all the lyrics to “Part Of Your World,” by the way. I think my most formative experience was sitting on my mom and dad’s bed out in the country of Winterset, Iowa and watching, on VHS, the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts. The special effects blew my mind, in the same way that I imagine the audience seeing the Lumière brother’s “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station” felt when the saw that train and thought it was coming straight at them.
In addition to its regularly scheduled films, FilmScene offers a variety of specialty film series — Late Shift at the Grindhouse, Vino Vérité, The Picture Show, Bijou After Hours, Bijou Horizons, etc. Do you think FilmScene has something for everyone? In what ways do you think FilmScene can continue to reach out to — and serve — all members of Iowa City’s vibrant and diverse community?
FilmScene has an amazing reach — that we are open 365 days a year means we are always bringing something new, always challenging audiences with diverse titles. From kids to film snobs (I say that lovingly), from students to the permanent residents of Iowa City, I think we’re doing right by our patrons. That being said, there is always room for growth.
I’ll be working with the rest of the FilmScene team to promote diversity on our screens, to support relationships between FilmScene and Iowa City’s underserved population and to make sure as much as we are showing films, we are also listening to our community and bringing stories that are relevant to all of Iowa City’s residents. One great example of this effort is my focus on further development of FilmScene’s education program. We’ve already got our incredible Animation Camp that will continue and grow, and we’re working on initiatives like year-round film screenings for Iowa City public school students and a program for continuing adult education.
Until recently, I always ate Milk Duds at the movie theater. Now I go for the Jujubes. I’m not sure if that communicates something profound about me. Do you have a favorite movie theater candy or snack? Do you think it says something about you?
Whoa, you made the switch from chocolate to fruit! That’s a big change, so I think it must communicate some shift in your psyche. I’m a Swedish Fish and glass of white wine person. I think my choice just means I don’t like to have sticky or greasy fingers.
You have experience working for both theaters and film festivals in Chicago and across Iowa. Which experience do you think you’ll draw from the most as the programming director of FilmScene?
I’ll never forget, years ago, wise words that were said to me. It was day seven of the Chicago International Film Festival (out of 14) and it was a busy night — I was handling someone very famous, shuttling them from the red carpet to the theater, and then had to run and moderate three Q&As. Then I had to somehow pick up the celebrity, get them to their car and run to my computer to confirm ten school buses for a student screening the next morning. I must have looked stressed out, because a colleague said to me, “Fons, we’re just showing people movies.”
I say this to myself all the time — we’re just showing people movies, and what a joy that is. How fortunate I am to be a facilitator of audiences and stories. I have been lucky to work smooth events and rocky ones, pre-screen and program endless films, moderate discussions in front of audiences as small as two and as large as a thousand. All of that experience will come in to play every day at FilmScene, because I’m always thinking about the audience and the goal: showing people movies.
On your average trip to the movies, would you rather watch a comedy, horror or romance?
That’s tough. Definitely not horror. I love to be scared, but it’s too stressful. Romance is super subjective and usually incredibly unrealistic on the big screen (at least lately). I’ll go with comedy. Many of my favorite films — Tootsie, Big Trouble in Little China, Home For the Holidays — are ultimately comedies.
FilmScene hosts a lot of events throughout the year, including trivia nights and a live Oscar viewing party. Do you have any ideas for potential new events at FilmScene?
I love a good film-themed costume night! I’m sure I’ll suggest far too many of those. I’m also interested in highlighting films from different regions of the world. Maybe you’ll see a series dedicated to films from the Middle East or from China on our screens in the future — there are so many exciting new artists to discover. We are also working on showcasing female-made films in 2018; stay tuned for those details.
How many times have you seen Moana?
Zero. I’ve heard it is actually pretty great, too.
As FilmScene’s programming director, what do you hope to have accomplished one year from now?
I’d like to have at least 50 sold out shows happen between now and this time next year. I’d like to have FilmScene’s education initiatives be developed, starting and/or in full swing, and I’d like to have worn a hard hat over at the Chauncey’s construction site at least once.