The once and future FilmScene
Most weekday afternoons the lobby at FilmScene is one part office, one part communal hang place for the staff. Popcorn is prepped and seats are checked in leading up to the first showing of the day.
Karen Chappell is familiar with the usual suspects found there at this time, including director of operations Emily Salmonson, programming director Rebecca Fons, and head projectionist and facilities manager Ross Meyer. As the once and current board director, Chappell remembers a time before most of them worked there, when the theater was a fledgling start up with an uncertain future.
"The first thing we had to do was find a place, get money to furnish it and get all the equipment," Chappell recalls. "We started out doing a crowd funding campaign and we were hoping to get $75,000… we actually ended up raising $91,000."
This came after years of FilmScene founders Andrew Sherburne and Andy Brodie trying to get Iowa City on board with a non-profit indie theater in downtown. From the beginning, community buy-in and financial support has been critical.
FilmScene's small pedestrian mall location — while popular — was always meant to be a temporary home.
But "the Chauncey was always the plan", according to Meyer, referring to the theater's fancy and expansive new digs in Iowa City's newest high rise.
Tentants are already moving into Chauncey's apartments, and on the weekend of Sept. 20, FilmScene will likewise take its long awaited place there as "the greatest small city for the arts" get's a little bit bigger.
Before that can happen, though, some final construction details must be wrapped up.
If you build it...
With the closing of the Campus III theater in 2007, downtown Iowa City was left without a dedicated movie theater for years. Now it's about to inherit one of the most modern in the Midwest between Chicago and Omaha.
"We see this not just as a celebration of how far FilmScene as come in the six years since we’ve opened our doors here," said Sherburne, one of the founders, "but just celebrating what we see as a bright future in Iowa City in that effort to build the greatest small city for the arts.”
Speakers, screens, acoustic panels and the like are still being prepared, and this week projection and sound equipment are being installed with construction on track to finish just in time for opening weekend.
“The theaters are themselves works of art and the equipment in the projection booths are just the best," Meyer said.
The "pods" holding the two main screens in the space, hidden behind wood paneling, aren't conventional theater fair. Patrons don't wander a darkened hall to find a screen, rather this space is open and bright and walk-able.
The largest of the two main theaters will have 121 seats with the other boasting over 60. Kiosks will also be found in the outer space as an option for ticket buying, which will be a reserved seating system.
"You can actually pick out your seats like if you were going to a concert at the Englert," said Salmonson, the director of operations. "That way you don't have to wait and you know your seat's going to be there when you get there."
Helping to ensure the quality of the theater experience is Boston Light & Sound, the team behind bringing Quentin Tarantino's "Hateful Eight" to 70 mm film. The company, which handles specs for film festivals around the country, are setting up FilmScene's state-of-the-art soundscape.
“They do a lot of testing and dialing in of the equipment to really make it customized for this space," Sherburne said. "We’re really working with some of the best in the business to make this all happen.”
Anyone who's been inside FilmScene's ped mall location should be used to couches mixed in with more conventional theater seats. At the Chauncey, the tradition of diverse seating will continue.
“On the top balcony level we’ll have softer seating, kind of swivel chairs and it’ll feel more like a lounge up there," said Salmonson. "It just adds to the unique experience that we’re trying to get over there, it’s just a fun way to play around with how we can get the space to feel more interesting and how we can separate ourselves from mainstream movie theaters.”
With the space and programming essentially set in stone, there is still some uncertainty regarding how often the theater's film projectors will be put to use.
“We’ll (show movies on film) as often as the market demands, as often as people get excited about it," Meyer said. "I think we’ll do it a lot.”
Beyond that, he's still feeling out what might work in film, but there's one old film reel he's got his trigger finger on.
"I have a sort of gloriously beat up 16 mm print of Clint Eastwood’s 'Dirty Harry'," he said. "We’re optimistic that might be our first 16 mm screening, hopefully in November.”
The reason Meyer is optimistic and not certain is "just because you own a copy of the film doesn't mean you can play the film." Calls need to be made and rights need to be acquired before a theater can show a film.
That, of course, is where Rebecca Fons comes in.
What dreams may come
The most spectacular sound system and the most fabulous film projector mean nothing without the right selection of films.
“We knew (we'd show) 'Field of Dreams," Fons said. "You can’t open a theater without showing one of the most iconic movies in Iowa, and we did want to do a classic wink or a nod to movies with classic movie moments.”
It can sometimes be tricky to snag the rights to show classic movies. FilmScene's opening line-up, which includes sci-fi classic "The Blob" is a perfect example of what Fons sometimes has to do to make a movie happen.
The rights for the 1958 film reside with Judith Harris, the widow of the late film producer Jack Harris. Fons had to reach out to the folks behind Blobfest in Phoenixville, Penn. to try and track down Harris.
"I explained to her what we're doing," Fons said. "She only really secures screening rights for things that are special. She holds it very dear."
According to Fons, Judith responded, "I really love what you're doing and I want to present this film as a celebration of your expansion."
"And then I made a little bit of a joke about how the blob keeps growing and taking over," Fons said, "and, like that, (FilmScene) is growing and taking a new shape."
The new space is effectively doubling the number of screens FIlmScene will have. This means more work for Fons, but she is excited to find more variety of films to share with Iowa City movie fanatics.
Movies like "A Star is Born" and "First Man" were motion pictures FilmScene couldn't fit in last year because of limited screens. Now, they have space to spare.
“I’m really excited with all the movies coming out this fall and into the winter because I can identify the ones that in the past we wouldn’t have been able to show," Fons said. "I feel like a kid in a candy store."
Once Fons has scheduled a movie or series, it's up to Salmonson to make it pop. A job that, at times, involves "figuring out a funny, quirky, movie-themed drink" which will be easier now with the liquor license the organization has at the Chauncey location.
"It will be good to broaden our drink horizons," Salmonson said. "And with the bowling alley in the new building we’ve been like, ‘We need to do White Russians for the 'Big Lebowski.'’ People need to drink Caucasians if we show that movie.”
Also diversifying the selection for the venue is the Bijou Film Board, a student-run film organization which will have offices in the new building. For four decades, Bijou has brought unique and interesting films to fellow students as well as other film buffs, previously located at the Iowa Memorial Union.
“With the new space it’s really opening up the kinds of movies we can show," said Molly Bagnall, the new Bijou Film Board director. "We’re looking to grow the amount of films we can show and we’re also facing something we’ve never dealt with before: What does it mean to have a movie theater with that extreme visibility?"
Like Fons, Bagnall has to balance mass popularity and artistic quality in choosing programming. But Bagnall has confidence in her Bijou team and is particularly excited about the film projectors, which will increase the range of movies they can show.
The first of these will be a Taiwanese sex musical called "The Wayward Cloud" at 10 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, and Bagall hopes to find a way to feature one of her favorite films "Celine and Julie Go Boating."
“We’re on the crest of something that’s really developing (in Iowa City) as far as film is concerned and FilmScene is part of that," said Chappell, referring to not only the film-making efforts of people like Sherburne, but other area movie makers and the UI. “I just think this is a very dynamic community for the arts.”
You've gotta come back with me
The original space, the intended home-between-homes on the Pedestrian Mall, will remain where it is, fully operational and called FilmScene on the Ped Mall.
“People have really grown to love this space, so there’s an attachment here and there’s an attachment for us," said Joe Tiefenthaler, the theater's executive director. "We believe that this is an elemental part of the downtown district, that we should keep that culture of foot traffic running through the ped mall.”
Renovations are scheduled for this smaller space, including a general tune up and new seats. There is also consideration of carrying over the reserved seating system being introduced with FilmScene at the Chauncey, but the original will remain general admission for the time being.
"This space was supposed to be a stop-gap before the Chauncey, but we’ve fallen in love with it over the last five-plus years," Meyer said. "We want it to be as relevant in another five years, 10 years, 20 years, whatever, as it is now; that’s part of the plan.”
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet