For as long as the movies have been around, Omaha has had a cinema culture of one kind or another. Back in the day, when neighborhood theaters dotted the landscape and grand movie palaces still operated, you could reasonably say that the city’s cinema culture – at least in terms of the exhibition and viewing of movies – was at its peak. This would have been true from the 1920s through the early 1950s. There were theaters all over the city then. Television then began rearing its ugly head and neighborhood theaters started closing. However, a new dimension in moviegoing emerged with the arrival of drive-in theaters and the opening of one of the nation’s few Cinerama theaters, the Indian Hills. Additionally, uiversity and museum sponsored film series became in vogue. I helped run two of these series – one at UNO and one at the Joslyn Art Musuem. There were even art cinema oprations here before Film Streams. I was associated with the longest-lived of these, the New Cinema Cooperative. Thus, for a period of a couple decades or so, Omaha boasted a rich mix of moviegoing options that simply doesn’t exist today in the same way. Of course, so much has changed. The neighborhood theaters, drive-ins and grand palaces are nearly all gone or being used for other purposes. The Indian Hills is gone. The university and museum film series are no more. But there are some currents happening that may bring back the past. The metro’s last remaining neighborhood theater still being used to exhibit movies, the Dundee Theater, closed for remodeling and was on the verge of never reopening again until it landed in the hands of Film Streams. Thanks to its new owners and managers, the Dundee will indeed see new life again. Concurrently, the 40th Street Theater has recently been renovated and reopened after being inactive and unseen for 65 years, although this former vaudeville house turned movie theater is being used for live peformances rather than screenings. That could always change. The old Benson Theatre may have new life again if the funds needed for its renovation are secured. Some new movie viewing options have sprung up in such event-destination style venues as Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. The Omaha Film Festival has made a nice contribution to the cinema scene. More than any single entity, Film Streams raised the film culture here.
Outside of the exhibition-viewing realm, the biggest differecet in film culture enrichment these days is all the local filmmaking going on. It’s only in the last 20 years but really more in the last decade and ever more that the technology and means to film production have become highly accessible and affordable. These are, with a few notable exceptions, very small indie projects that fly under the radar but they do give filmmakers experience in practicing their craft and the work does get seen and does find audiences, some of it more than others. Of course, the phenomenon of Alexander Payne, followed by Nik Fackler, has brought Hollywood A-list talent to town and given locals opportunities to work with that talent. Now, some new filmmakers on the investing, producing and artistic sides of the industry are developing projects unlike anything seen here before. Parallel with that movement is the increasing number of locals who are making it in the industry, forging careers in television and film, and some of these folks are coming back here to do things, which is another new wrinkle to the story. If more follow, then a depth of skill sets, connections, finances and faciltiies may build up here to finally give Omaha and greater Nebraska a true film infrastructure. The biggest missing piece, however, remains tax incentives for filmmaking. People are working on making that happen, too.
All of this is background and context for my new Omaha Cinema Culture story in the August 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Omaha Cinema Culture Provides Diverse Screen Landscape
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the August 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
If there is an Omaha Cinema Culture, it cuts across consumer, exhibitor, artist, aspirational experiences. Being far from traditional film centers poses certain barriers, but rich offerings and showplaces exist. Natives pursue and some achieve screen careers. It’s been this way since the industry’s start.
In addition to many name actors, Nebraska’s produced studio heads (Darryl Zanuck), network execs (Lew Hunter), filmmakers (Joan Micklin Silver) and producers (Monty Ross). Alexander Payne is the only native A-list talent who brings work here. He cut his teeth in local art houses, then studied film at UCLA before embarking on his acclaimed writer-director journey that’s seen five of his seven features shot in part or entirely here.
Omaha filmmaker and educator Mark Hoeger said Payne’s insistence on setting and shooting movies here is what distinguishes him from his Nebraska counterparts.
Fellow filmmaker Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still) said, “I wouldn’t have been inspired to make my own films if it wasn’t for filmmakers like Alexander Payne, Mike Hill and Dana Altman. It fuels the fire of excitement for young filmmakers. I was an extra on Election and after being on set for a day, I realized I wanted to be a director.
Hoeger said, “In an industry more akin to the lottery, seeing those winners is essential to keeping the dream alive.”
Nebraska Film Officer Laurie Richards said Payne’s in-state shoots have an impact.
“Locals get hired, locations used, hotel rooms booked, cars and trucks rented, food-entertainment providers procured.”
Then there are branding opportunities for the state, the city and the various other towns and locations utilized.
Other natives with industry clout , such as creator-executive producer of The Blacklist , Jon Bokenkamp, as well as Gabrielle Union (Being Mary Jane), Marg Helgenberger or Andrew Rannells could conceivably bring projects here.
Former Nerbaska state senator Colby Coash, who acts in local movies, said, “Hollywood is full of Nebraskans looking for opportunities to return to their home state to share their art.”
Matt Sobel did return to make Take Me to the River. Erich Hover did the same with It Snows All the Time.
Nebraska Cinema Project principals Kevin McMahon and
Randy Goodwin are Hollywood veterans hoping features they’re developing build a sustainable in-state film industry.
Chad Bishoff’s bi-coastal and Omaha-based Syncretic Entertainment is producing a TV pilot to be set and shot in Omaha.
Film-TV actor John Beasley of Omaha found financing to greenlight a $20 million feature with A-list pedigree he’s producing on local sports legend Marlin Briscoe.
Coash said, “Payne, Beasley and others are great role models for Nebraska artists.”
Payne also enriches the cinema culture by curating series at Film Streams and bringing major figures (Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda, David O. Russell, Bruce Dern) for its Feature Event.
Film Streams is an established cultural center in its North Downtown Ruth Sokolof Theater digs. As the metro’s first and only fully dedicated art cinema, it’s the hub and “home base for the hard core community of cinephiles,” Hoeger said.
With the metro’s last remaining neighborhood cinema, the Dundee Theater, now under its management, Film Streams educational-community programming will extend to midtown. Reader film critic Ryan Syrek said Film Streams’ impact “can’t really be overstated,” adding, “It’s night and day. Before, smaller films simply never came to Omaha. We can now enjoy the movies shown on the coasts. Their repertory series do an excellent job filling in cinematic gaps.”
Syrek said the Dundee satellite location opening late 2017-early 2018 is “a big deal because right now you have to go downtown to see art-house movies.” Having that venue again after it closed is a boon to “cinema lovers,” he said.
Any must-see movies Film Streams misses usually make it to the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.
Other viewing options include the Henry Doorly Zoo’s Lozier IMAX Theatre and a plethora of outdoor screenings metro-wide. Bruce Crawford revives classic films twice a year with the old ballyhoo. Marcus Midtown, Ak-Sar-Ben and Alamo Drafthouse cinema feature enhanced amenities. Historic theaters in Kearney and Scottsbluff have been preserved.
Rachel Jacobson left Omaha only to fall so hard in love with sharing cinema art and history she returned to found and run Film Streams. Filiing the seats is a constant challenge, “You need to create a special experience for people to choose to leave their home,” she said. She doesn’t do it with frills, but with relevant, inventive, niche programs that engage ideas.
“I really love people who are frequent attendees but did not consider themselves movie lovers before we came along. I’m also impressed by people who have been inspired by the content they’ve seen on screen. Urban farmers who learned about global food issues watching Food, Inc. or folks working with refugees inspired by a documentary we showed. It’s amazing how much impact creating a community around film can have beyond the arts and culture scene.”
As a nod to and outlet for a burgeoning Nebraska New Wave, the Omaha Film Festival’s added a local feature showcase similar to what Film Streams offers. Mark Hoeger said, “What I love about the Omaha Film Festival is what it does to highlight local films. which means you see some stuff that’s not very good. But it’s also just really fun to see what local people are coming up with, and some of it’s really quite nice.”
Local filmmakers also have exhibit opportunities at the White Light City and Prairie Lights festivals in Fremont and Grand Island, respectively. Eastern Nebraska Film Office director Stacy Heatherly said “festivals not only offer local filmmakers a platform to screen their films, they offer collective support.”
A one-off theater showing is easier than before, Hoeger said, because in today’s digitized environment a filmmaker can have a high quality image projected from a disc or flash drive. Fackler appreciates the access cineplex managers provide in “helping fan the flames of ‘film as art’ exposure.” He added, “I like that they support filmmakers and create relationships with them.”
Don’t expect seeing Mike Hill, longtime co-editor of Ron Howard’s films, at the theater.
“I very rarely go to movies anymore,” Hill said. “I get my entertainment from Netflix and TV. “I guess that is my cinema culture now. Breaking Bad, Fargo, House of Cards, Peaky Blinders, True Detective, Game of Thrones, Ray Donovan are cinematic entertainments vastly superior to most theatrical releases. So there is obviously a lot of talent out there. It’s just a different delivery system.”
Hoeger said the followings some new media content acquires, paired with the means of production being affordable and accessible, reflects a decentralized, democratized production-distribution shift. He predicts the music model that finds even major artists posting work online “is going to happen in film.” The Holy Grail big budget movie is “a product increasingly on the way out” as the norm,” he said. He expects more micro projects to come out of local-regional markets like Omaha.
“I can see down the road where community film production is just as normal a thing as community theater production. What was cost prohibitive even 10 years ago is not anymore and we have enough people with the right skill-set to do that.”
World class mentors are as near as Oscar-winning Omaha residents Payne, Hill and (cinematographer) Mauro Fiore. Others with serious credits reside or maintain close ties here.
The old model still works. One with new legs is L.A. and Omaha-based Night Fox Entertainment. CEO Timothy Christian and local partners find investors for Indiewood features the company helps finance and co-produce. New projects like East Texas Hot Links (Samuel L. Jackson is executive producing) may take Night Fox more on the lead production end. Filming here is possible, but lack of incentives makes it tough.
Mark Hoeger’s worked with the Nebraska Film Association and others to muster support for state tax incentives as Hollywood bait. Those efforts stalled but a new tact has gained traction.
“We’re working with the Department of Economic Development to come up with a plan that stays away from any parochial view of attracting ‘real’ moves to Nebraska. Instead, we want to find ways that encourage and support true local productions – everything from commercials to Web series to documentaries to narrative films. The emphasis is on encouraging young creative minds to stay and work here.”
He said Gov. Pete Ricketts recognizes film-TV-Web production as an economic engine. There is consensus now, Hoeger said, that content producers are entrepreneurs whose value-add this brain-drained, resource-strapped state cannot afford losing.
Fremont’s implemented its own incentives package for film production. Laurie Richards said statewide incentives remain elusive minus “a concerted effort by all islands of filmmaking across the state.” Colby Coash said, “Gaining tax incentives has been a challenge – not because they don’t work or aren’t valuable, but because they aren’t prioritized like incentives for agriculture and manufacturing. Lawmakers are starting to see film as a more viable industry that has real impact on economic development and jobs. The trend seems to be more of a focus on regional support where a film may have a tourism value.”
While aspiring filmmakers enjoy a robust Omaha Cinema Culture for seeing films and crewing on them, formal education lags. Jacobson said Film Streams fills some gaps and looks to do more at the Dundee site.
“We are growing our film education programs all around film history and criticism and media literacy. Now open almost a decade, the thing I’m most proud of is meeting young adults who grew up attending our free student night and education programs who are pursuing filmmaking. I love hearing someone was inspired to work in film when they saw their first Kubrick film on the big screen at the Ruth Sokolof Theater.”
She added, “I’d like to see other organizations develop filmmaking programs. There is a film studies minor at Creighton and film production classes at Metro. UNO is working on a film studies minor. It would be great for one of the major universities to establish a BA in film or even an MFA program for visual arts. We have far to go in film production ed.”
There’s no ideal cinema culture outside New York or L.A. Natives take what they can from home. Some leave, some stay and others return to realize cinema dreams right here.