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Omaha cinema culture provides diverse screen landscape


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).

 

 

Film Streams

 

 

Omaha cinema culture provides diverse screen landscape

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared 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.

 

The Dundee Theater is Omaha’s last single screen theater

 

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.

 

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Film Streams at Five: Art cinema contributes to transformed Omaha through community focus on film and discussion

July 13, 2012 5 comments

The Film Streams art cinema in Omaha gets more than its share of attention and deservedly so.  It operates at a world-class level under the leadership of Rachel Jacobson.  It has the likes of filmmaker Alexander Payne and novelist  Kurt Andersen as board members and advisers, not to mention guest curators and hosts.  Its visiting artists have included Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger, Laura Dern.  And to help celebrate its fifth anniversary and raise funds for the organization it’s bringing Jane Fonda in for a July 22 on-stage conversation with Payne.  The following story I wrote, soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com), examines the organization’s strong community orientation and considers Fonda’s legendaric status.

Film Streams at Five: Art cinema contributes to transformed Omaha through community focus on film and discussion

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Just as Omaha’s come of age with performing arts venues, nightlife attractions, community events and public spaces, so it’s matured in cinema.

This maturation first bloomed when Alexander Payne made features here. Then the local indie filmmaking scene organized. Subsequently the Omaha Film Festival’s provided an annual juried focus on movies.

But the real growth came when Film Streams launched in 2008, thus giving north downtown a vital new anchor and the metro its first year-round dedicated art cinema. Another amenity in the transformed Omaha.

More than a showcase Film Streams is viewed as a cultural center that invites discussions around movies and their themes.

“I love that there is a place to talk about complex and difficult issues and where I am learning about and appreciating film in a whole new way,” says board member Katie Weitz White.

Board member Paul Smith says “films that would never be seen in Omaha but for the existence of Film Streams are shown and provoke a discussion amongst a diverse community of people who attend those showings, and I think it’s very healthy and enriching to our community.”

He mentions the documentaries Food Inc. and A Time for Burning as films whose subjects, the nation’s food supply and racial discrimination, respectively, became talking points following screenings.

The nonprofit is part of the new community engagement model championed by young professionals here. Perhaps no one embodies that aesthetic more than Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson.

 
Rachel Jacobson

 

 

The Omaha native long harbored the vision for an art cinema. She enlisted artists, entrepreneurs, community leaders and business experts to help realize it. A classic networker, Jacobson’s built an enviable, pro-active board of directors and advisory board filled with heavy hitters, influencers and tastemakers.

Two celebrity players from Omaha, Payne and Kurt Andersen, are more than window-dressing names associated with it. They guest curate series and host the annual fund raiser, Feature Event. The July 22 Feature Event IV pairs Payne in conversation with Jane Fonda. Past Features brought Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger and Laura Dern. It’s no secret Payne reels in these major cinema figures.

“That’s really all about Alexander,” says Jacobson. “We wouldn’t be able to do that without him and we are so fortunate because Feature Event provides 15 to 20  percent of the annual budget. So that’s a huge deal for us as an institution.”

The gala’s evolution reflects how Film Streams capitalizes on relationships.

“It’s been a collaboration between us and the Holland and each of the different chairs of the gala. The first chairs were Betiana and Todd Simon, the second chairs were Paul and Annette Smith. Last year it was Katie Weitz White and her husband Watie White and the Weitz family. This year’s chair is Susie Buffett.

“All the different chairs and gala committees have helped shape the event and make it into this interesting thing. Alexander’s been involved. It’s not the kind of fund raiser where we’re auctioning off stuff. We’re not talking about fund raising at the event. We raise the money up front. That way the event gets to be about our mission.”

It’s only one night but in that small window Film Streams coalesces everything it stands for by giving film-as-art a big fat community forum.

“It’s become this signature thing that’s perfect for us. The fact that we get to bring these world renowned actors and directors to town is absolutely thrilling and the conversations have been I think really meaningful and one-of-a-kind,” she says.

Similarly, the whole community development piece of Film Streams has been shaped by many participants. Jacobson says the one-page prospectus she devised “of what Film Streams was going to be,” which amounted to her version of Charles Foster Kane‘s declaration of principles in Citizen Kane, “is very similar to what the organization has become. But the way that everything’s been created has been very collaborative with the staff and the board and with everyone engaged with the organization. Even though it matches what was inside my head it really is outside of me now. It’s something that a lot more people have a hand in authoring.”

 

Sherlock Jr

 

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Among those varied authors is her father David Jacobson (Kutack Rock), who chairs the board of directors. The board of directors includes members of old-line art philanthropist families.

Jason Kulbel and Robb Nansel of Saddle Creek Records and Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein with the Peter Kiewit Foundation are advisory members from different generations, each exerting pull in different segments.

The broad-based support Film Streams has received from donors, granters and box office patrons has allowed it to become a vested fixture on the arts-culture landscape in a short time.

“What Film Streams has achieved in only five years in being one of the jewels in the crown of the Omaha arts scene, together with the symphony and the zoo and The Rose and the College World Series and the Bemis, is an amazing achievement as far as I’m concerned,” says Payne. “I go to other cities and they don’t have Film Streams.”

Paul and Annette Smith support the organization monetarily and as advocates. The couple sponsored Feature Event II with Debra Winger.

“We’ve been a vocal proponent of Film Streams and we do that really because we believe it plays a critical role in the community,” says Smith a Taneska Capital Management. “The way I think about this is it’s an investment of time, talent, some treasure in an organization which is a cultural asset.”

For film buffs like Sam Walker, “Film Streams has been a dream come true.” Before it the University of Nebraska at Omaha emeritus professor of criminal justice made do with scattershot screenings of art and classic films at commercial theaters and other venues. Documentaries rarely showed. Visits by guest film artists were almost nonexistent. Forget about any discussion or education.

The situation worsened when local universities and museums abandoned curated alternative film series. As cineplexes became slaves to blockbusters and sequels, the metro starved for an art film fix. Enter Film Streams. It’s already presented more than 200 first-run premieres and 400-plus classics, shown films from 43 nations and welcomed 222,000 patrons to 700-plus programs at its Ruth Sokolof Theater.

Forty-some visiting filmmakers and guests have spoken there. Dozens of panels and Q&As have followed screenings.

Payne sums up the seascape change with, “Omahans now take it for granted they can go see great movies, and that is an amazing development.”

Alexander Payne

 

Guest filmmakers sing its praises too.

Louder Than a Bomb documentary producer-director Greg Jacobs says Film Streams “really was one of the favorite stops” on its theatrical tour. “It’s an amazing facility and program. i just got the sense it’s a creative hub.” Jacobs notes what many observers do – that the organization takes its role as catalyst seriously.

Just as it occurs wherever the film plays some Omaha viewers “came up afterwards interested in Louder Than a Bomb as an event,” he says. “But what makes Film Streams stand out,” he adds, “is that Rachel Jacobson helped connect us with poet Matt Mason (Nebraska Writers Collective), which ultimately led to the creation of Louder Than a Bomb Omaha. I think it’s something very special when people take interest not just in the film but in the outreach activities around it. The folks there were involved enough to see the film could have an impact beyond its screening.”

“I get the sense Rachel’s innately a connector,” says Jacobs. “That’s the kind of role she plays. There’s a real desire to not just have people there but then to see what other things she can help create from that.”

“I’ve always loved the social action element of film and how it can convey ideas about issues and spark important conversations,” says Jacobson. “You can maximize the power of film by having discussions around them.”

Film Streams screened the documentaries Restrepo and To Hell and Back and hosted ensuing discussions by veterans and heath care workers about PTSD. It screened the doc The Last Survivor and hosted discussions about genocide.

“These are tough conversations to have and I love that we’re able to provide a safe place to have that kind of dialogue. That wasn’t really the initial vision, but seeing that happen has been exciting.”

She considers Omaha conducive to doing community outreach.

“I think a lot of it’s due to the nature of Omaha and how things operate, how everyone is kind of interconnected in 12 different ways. So we just have these opportunities to link to so many different organizations and individuals who in turn are willing to collaborate.

“That aspect has been really surprising. I didn’t realize how wide ranging it could be. I never really imagined how many different interest groups and demographics would be able to engage with it. It just kind of happened.”

 

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 Feature

 

 

The 100-some partners Film Streams has cultivated run the gamut from arts groups to community organizations and social service agencies to school districts and universities. One partner is the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at UNO. OLLAS-Film Streams present a biennial Cinemateca series. It returns August 12.

“The partnership became an instant expression of these two organizations’ mutual commitment to community engagement and to the broadening of learning opportunities beyond traditional spaces,” says OLLAS executive director Lourdes Gouevia. “We continue to explore ways to encourage the Latino and non-Latino community to experience this great theater and the beauty of Spanish and Portuguese foreign films.

“This year’s Cinemateca will include food, music and audience forums guided by OLLAS faculty as well as an invited film expert from the University of Pittsburgh. The series brings in El Museo Latino as a partner.”

All that engagement has a practical side, too. “It has to be that way in order to be sustainable,” says Jacobson, who bends the ear of top business executives.

“It’s very common to find compelling nonprofits that aren’t very well run and Film Streams is a very well run organization,” says Paul Smith. “I spend a good deal of time helping Rachel with organizing the financial management of her business and she’s a very sharp person, a very quick study, and is an effective business manager. It’s great to work with somebody like that.”

Smith says while the business end is not the sexy part of Film Streams, “it’s the infrastructure everything else hangs on. You need to have a good financial infrastructure. Without that you can’t do the fun stuff.”

Payne says the best is yet to come. “Wait till you see all the other outreach programs Film Streams is going to try to do in the next five years.”

 

 

Jane Fonda: A Legend Considered

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Jane Fonda. Love her or hate her, she’s a lightning rod figure like few others in film.

When the actress appears at the July 22 Film Streams Feature Event she’ll not only carry the impressive legacy of her personal filmography but that of her iconic family. Alexander Payne will undoubtedly cover the Fonda family acting tree when he converses with her live on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

“To have such a remarkable star and actress and icon, and with the Omaha connection, well, it’s in my dreams,” says Payne.

The Fondas became a noted thespian clan when Jane and brother Peter followed their father, Henry Fonda, into the family business. Papa got his start at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where the siblings did their earliest acting.

In a life and career filled with makeovers and causes, she’s been sex symbol, counterculture rebel, traitor, feminist, artist, power player and fitness guru. Today, she’s best known as a healthy aging advocate and author.

Her early career rested more on her famous name and fashion model good looks than acting ability. But she remade herself from sex kitten ingenue in mostly forgettable Hollywood and European romps (the latter directed by her Svengali-like filmmaking partner Roger Vadim) to serious actress and wannabe activist. Her commitment to challenging projects and roles set her apart from her peers.

At the dawn of the New Hollywood she was perhaps the most powerful woman in the industry, often developing-producing her own material, and usually choosing a smart balance of commercial and art properties.

She turned entrepreneur in the 1980s when she tapped the nascent fitness craze with home workout videos that went viral. Her marriage to politico Tom Hayden ended in 1989. She then married rogue media czar Ted Turner in 1991 and abruptly retired from acting.

Her 2005 autobiography made peace with her deceased father. That same year she returned to acting. The Omaha event comes just as she’s reemerging as a screen presence. Her persona’s come full circle too – from coquette to neurotic to career woman to unreconstructed yippie.

A repertory series of her work shows now through August 30 at Film Streams.

The series:

Cat Ballou

She’s the fetching, spirited title character who hires gunman Kid Shelleen to meet out justice against Tim Strawn (both played by Lee Marvin) for the murder of her father. She holds her own with Marvin in this whimsical Western comedy with heart.

Barbarella

Fonda’s an eye candy fantasy figure in this surreal, pan-sexual trip. She and the film’s director, her then-husband Roger Vadim, push the boundaries of sexual expression and liberation on screen that he earlier exploited with Brigitte Bardot.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

It’s a harder, jaded Fonda stripped of any glamour in a bleak story of Depression-era dance marathoners intent on oblivion. The guile, vulnerability and yearning she revealed here became her signature face.

Klute

Fonda consolidated her new serious image with this post-modern take on the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold convention. She’s both savvy and brittle as Bree Daniels, a New York call girl entangled with a small town detective (Donald Sutherland) investigating a disappearance in the big city. Her first Oscar win.

Julia 

As playwright Lillian Hellman she juggles writerly insecurities and triumphs, a tumultuous relationship with Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) and danger aiding a friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) caught in the web of anti-Nazi intrigue.

Coming Home

Perhaps her most defining role came as a socially conscious war bride who has an affair with a paraplegic anti-war vet (Jon Voight). Her army officer husband (Bruce Dern) returns from ‘Nam a shattered man and becomes unhinged when he discovers her infidelity, Her second Oscar win.

The China Syndrome

Fonda makes spunk sexy in the part of an ambitious TV reporter who stumbles upon a nuclear reactor accident story. She finds just the right chemistry with cool Michael Douglas and manic Jack Lemmon in this prescient cautionary tale.

Nine to Five

Buttoned-down Jane joins Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton in taking extreme measures against their oppressive boss (Dabney Coleman) and his misogynistic ways in this proto-feminist comedy. She plays it straight and gets laughs.

On Golden Pond

This career grace note paired her with Henry for the only time on screen in a story deeply resonant with their own real-life father-daughter dynamics. Henry disliked her Method style. The cathartic project also teamed her with Katharine Hepburn. Jane came to the Orpheum for the film’s gilded Midwest premiere and later accepted her father’s Best Actor statuette at the Oscars.

At Film Streams’ invitation Fonda’s selected two favorite films – 12 Angry Men starring her father and the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy classic Sullivan’s Travels.

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. Feature event are $35. For pre and post-event party tickets and screening dates-times, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

For love of art and cinema, Danny Lee Ladely follows his muse

July 8, 2012 2 comments

When I wrote the following article in the early 2000s the alternative cinema landscape in Nebraska was very different than it is today.  The profile subject of the story, Danny Lee Ladely, headed the only dedicated art cinema in the state, what was then called the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater but which came to be known as the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center , located in Lincoln, Neb. At roughly twice the size of Lincoln, Omaha had no such venue.  Neither could one be found anywhere else in the state.  That’s changed with the addition of Film Streams in Omaha, where Rachel Jacobson is the metro’s equivalent to Ladely in running and programming a full fledged art cinema complete with screenings of the best in contemporary film, along with repertory programs, visiting filmmakers, Q&As, and panel discussions.  The Omaha Film Festival has added another dimension to the film scene.  And there have been concerted efforts to restore long abandoned neighborhood and small town theaters.  This is all familiar territory for me, as I used to be a film programmer in Omaha and I appreciate any attempts to engage and energize the cinema culture here.  Ladely was way out in front of anyone in Nebraska in nurturing an alternative film culture and what he’s accomplished with the Ross in Lincoln is remarkable, including the new facility he got built courtesy of the cinema’s major patroness and namesake, Mary Riepma Ross.   My piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared as the facility was under construction.  It’s been operational for years now and now that Film Streams in Omaha has provided a comparable venue in Omaha, the area’s once rather stark art cinema landscape has turned bountiful.  It took the vision and will of Ladely and Jacobson (who’s profiled on this blog) to make it happen.

 

For love of art and cinema, Danny Lee Ladely follows his muse 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

With his braided pony tail, arrowhead-pattern shirt, blue jeans, boots and Stetson hat, Nebraska film guru Dan Lee Ladely looks like a holdover from the 1960s, when the Gordon, Neb. native was in fact an anti-war demonstrator in college. During his undergrad days at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned a degree in English lit between showing films for the student council, he once led a takeover of the campus ROTC building. These days the 50-something Ladely is an activist for the aesthetic, educational and entertainment value of the moving image and more and more his cinema dreams loom large on the horizon.

As construction proceeds on the new Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater (MRRFT) at 13th and P Streets in Lincoln, the new home for the nationally recognized alternative film program Ladely’s overseen since 1973, he daily watches his dreams taking shape from the temporary office he and his small staff occupy a block away. Once the theater opens in early 2003 he plans an ambitious exhibition schedule that will give cinephiles access to see American independent, first-run foreign and classic films the way they’re meant to be seen and opportunities to meet emerging and established filmmakers. Two auditoriums, equipped for film, digital and video projection, will provide flexible exhibition space to show a large, diverse menu of feature, documentary and short films as well as video art pieces. Plans call for the theater’s Great Plains Film Festival, a celebration of regional indie film which Ladely inaugurated, to continue unreeling there every other year.

The new theater will replace the auditorium the program exhibited in at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, located within a block of the new site.

The MRRFT is an anomaly. Where art houses and alternative film series have failed in more populous Omaha, Ladely’s program has survived 30 years in Lincoln of all places and now, in the midst of a recession, is embarking on a new building program.

It is a stunning accomplishment, especially in the capitol of such a conservative state, because the pitfalls to success in the art film market are legion. Among the obstacles to running any art house in today’s environment are: the tight economy; the fact that indie films regularly play at commercial cineplexes; and the encroaching presence of cable television, video-DVD and the Internet, media formats that feature much of the same kind of fare art houses used to be the exclusive outlet for.

Now, a film buff outfitted with a home theater system can select from the market’s glut of viewing choices and, in effect, be his or her own film programmer. In addition to this competition, Ladely’s program faces additional constraints in the form of: budget cuts, as his theater is partly subsidized by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where it is a department within the College of Fine and Performing Arts; the whims of private and public contributors it depends on for the bulk of its funding; and ever higher operating costs. All of which might lead one to wonder if this is the right time to build a new theater?

“There still is a place and a need for this program and I think people will respond,” a reflective and soft-spoken Ladely said. “I think people will come out, at least at the beginning out of curiosity, in pretty good numbers. The new building is going to do one thing for us. We were sort of hidden in the Sheldon Art Gallery. I think being in an art museum kind of put some people off and now that we won’t be there we have the possibility of a whole new audience.”

The mission of the theater, which he said he “sort of created out of thin air” over the years, has always been “to provide an alternative venue for true commercial cinema and to bring films here that wouldn’t get shown here otherwise.”

 

 

 

 

He said the proliferation of art films on cable and video/DVD has made it “harder and harder” to stay true to that vision. But the one thing MRRFT can still provide is a state-of-the-art space where you can watch these films in the manner in which they were meant to be seen, namely, a theater. He said regardless of how elaborate one’s home theater system is, “it’s still not the same” as the real thing. “No matter what happens in the future there’s always going to be a place for the film theater because film is really still a social event. Even though you’re there in the dark, there’s an audience and the audience reacts and that’s part of the experience. It’s totally different when you’re home alone.” Plus, there’s the dearth of alternative film exhibition in Nebraska, where except for the Dundee Theater, art houses have come and gone, the most recent being the short-lived Brandeis Art Cinema.

As Ladely points out, “There isn’t any other alternative place in this whole area right now where you can see these films.”

Much of what Ladely envisions has already been done from its old site in the currently closed Sheldon Art Gallery, where a major renovation under way has put a halt to the film program’s exhibition schedule until the new theater is completed. For years the program has been the state’s best and most consistent venue for presenting what used to be called underground cinema and the people who make it.

Where many like programs in Omaha once thrived but eventually folded, including those of the New Cinema Cooperative, the Joslyn Art Museum and the UNO Student Programming Organization, Ladely’s has continued uninterrupted for 30 years. How? Part of the answer lies in the fact the Lincoln program has enjoyed a measure of institutional support unknown elsewhere in this state owing to the legacy of the man who formed it and hired Ladely to run it, Sheldon’s director emeritus Norman Gesky, and to Ladely’s own passion for creating something of world-class stature. Ladely also had hands-on experience running two theaters in his native Gordon. Long a step-child of the Sheldon, where the MRRFT eventually lost favor under the man who succeeded Gesky as director, George Neubert, who cut the exhibition schedule and made life uneasy for Ladely, the theater is now poised to have its own stand-alone facility and identity.

And then there’s the one factor separating the theater from its imitators — Mary Riepma Ross. The retired New York lawyer is not only the theater’s namesake but its most ardent patron, biggest contributor and tenacious protector. A former UNL undergraduate student who fell in love with the movies as a young girl living in Lincoln, she was serving on the University Foundation board of trustees in the 1970s when then-chancellor Durwood “Woody” Varner put her in touch with the Sheldon’s Geske, a fellow film buff just beginning to shape plans for a full-fledged film program. She bought into Geske’s vision and, according to Ladely, “pledged she would support the program, which she’s obviously done. She started very early on sending us financial donations.”

In 1990, with the then Sheldon Film Theater struggling financially after a round of state budget cuts and slowly but surely being squeezed into oblivion by a director (Neubert) unfriendly toward the program, Ladely sent her a letter outlining his bold dream for a new theater space that would give the program a solid, independent foundation for survival and growth. It was just an idea. Ladely didn’t even ask for money. Amazingly, her response was to donate 3.5 million dollars in an irrevocable trust, a giant windfall for an arts organization of any size anywhere, but a truly extraordinary and unprecedented commitment for a film series in the Midwest. The Sheldon Film Theater quickly became the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater.

Ladely, who has a portrait of his benefactress hanging in his office, said, “She’s actually the perfect patron. She has really impeccable tastes in film and she loves the kind of films we show. She sees them in New York and often writes to me and sends in articles about films she’s seen and makes recommendations to me. And very often they’re films we’re considering and we end up showing.”

In the new space Ladely anticipates reviving some activities he was forced to abandon during leaner times, such as film retrospectives, artist showcases and screening seven nights a week. In the past he has brought to Lincoln prominent filmmakers and actors with local ties, including Joan Micklin Silver, Peter Fonda and  John Beasley. And now for the first time the theater will sell concessions, including popcorn, a new revenue stream he’s counting on to help defray expenses. He would also like to resume the theater’s long dormant touring film exhibition program and to share programs with other organizations, such as a film series it cooperatively presented with the Joslyn a few years ago.

There’s even more Ladely would like to do, but he admits all his plans are ultimately “contingent upon whether or not we can come up with enough money to keep the program going.” That’s why Ladely is using this down time while the MRRFT marquee is blank to write grants and solicit funds. Even if successful in securing enough money for the new theater’s operating budget, he is left with the nagging realization that attendance just isn’t what it used to be for documentaries by Emile De Antonio, Ricky Leacock, Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker (all of whom appeared at the old theater at one time or another) or for Hollywood classics or for the best emerging cinema from places like Iran.

Even in its fattest years, he said, “if the university hadn’t been paying all the utilities…we couldn’t have survived as a stand-alone theater in a market this size.” That, and the fact the theater is about to come out of the shadows and expand in every way, has made for “sleepless nights” for Ladely, who is left “wondering how we’re going to do it.”

But, if nothing else, Ladely is an evangelist for film. He has a way of making you see the stars in his eyes when he discusses the kind of cinema he sees at the Telluride and Sundance festivals and that makes him compelled to share it with audiences here.

“I’m really interested in what’s going on now. What’s coming out. What’s the next big thing. Who’s doing what. I’m always interested in new filmmakers. And I’m very interested in what’s happening locally. One of the major things we’ll be doing in the small theater is have an open screening night where local filmmakers show their films. We’ll be able to show them in almost any format.” He said he keeps tabs on the local filmmaking scene and expects more new filmmakers to surface as technology makes moviemaking, especially the digital variety, more accessible and affordable, “That’s going to be very exciting — to see what comes out of that.”

Despite shrinking attendance for things like politically-charged documentaries, he will continue programming quality cinema regardless of how little box office potential it has, because that is part of what an alternative film series is all about, particularly one allied with a university.

“We have to balance this out between showing stuff that’s very esoteric and very important, even if there’s just one person in the audience, and showing stuff that’s more popular and generates a bigger audience. Just like there are classes that are real popular and classes that aren’t popular but are really important and you have to have, there are some kinds of films people don’t want to see but it’s absolutely important that, for example, film students see them in order to get a well-rounded education. The university has these burgeoning film studies and new media programs and I think our program definitely serves a need for those students.” Reality also dictates the theater at least break even, which means Ladely must show slightly more mainstream fare or at least indie cinema with a strong buzz behind it in the hope that better box office returns offset losses incurred on more obscure selections.

Two-time Oscar-winner Alexander Payne delivers another screen gem with “The Descendants” and further enhances his cinema standing

February 10, 2012 12 comments

UPDATE: Alexander Payne has added to his growing legendaric status by picking up his second Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.  He, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash shared the Academy Award for their work on The Descendants.  Payne shared the same award with Jim Taylor for their Sideways script.  It seems only a matter of time before Payne is recognized with a Best Director Oscar.

Here’s a capsule take on Alexander Payne and The Descendants, the latest in the filmmaker’s seriocomic forays into the existential angst, folly, fragility, and yearning of the human condition.  If you’re a fan of Payne, the film, or of cinema in general, then check out the batch of stories on this blog about about him, this picture, his other movies, and a slew of other films and filmmakers from cinema’s past and present.

Alexander Payne In this handout photo provided by NBC, (L-R) producers Jim Taylor, Jim Burke and writer/director Alexander Payne, accept the award for Best Motion Picture - Drama 'The Descendants' onstage during the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton International Ballroom on January 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.
Jim Taylor, Jim Burks and Alexander Payne accepting Best Picture Golden Globe

 

 

Two-yime Oscar-winner Alexander Payne delivers another screen gem with “The Descendants” and further enhances his cinema standing

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Until The Descendants opened to golden reviews last fall, seven years elapsed between feature films for its celebrated writer-director Alexander Payne.

The Omaha native and Creighton Prep grad came of age as a film buff here. He made his first three features (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt) in his hometown, each moving him up the ranks of elite moviemakers. His surprise 2004 hit, Sideways, took him to Southern California’s wine country. The combination road-buddy picture and unconventional love story confirmed Payne as a film industry leading light, earning him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

He then busied himself writing-producing films for other directors. When he couldn’t find financing for his own pet project, Downsizing, he made The Descendants. Before shooting it in late 2010 the only directing he did in this period was a segment of Paris, I Love You and the pilot for HBO’s Hung.

The Golden Globes won by Descendants star George Clooney for best dramatic actor and by Payne and producing partners Jim Burke and Jim Taylor for best drama harbors well heading into the Oscars, where the film will be well-represented with five nominations (for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Actor). The three friends share their own production company, Ad Hominem Enterprises, which produced the picture for Fox Searchlight, with whom Ad Hominem has a first-look deal. The pic’s strong showing with critics and award shows is reminiscent of Sideways. Like that film, this one took Payne far from the Midwest – to Hawaii. A decade after working with iconic Jack Nicholson on About Schmidt, Payne teamed with another icon, Clooney.

As land baron attorney Matt King, Clooney is a man in crisis. His wife Liz lies in a coma after a boating accident. After years of indifferent parenting he’s suddenly in charge of his two girls. He’s burdened, too, by the valuable land entrusted to his care by ancestors. When his older daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) reveals her mother’s infidelity, Matt sets off on a journey that begins in retribution but ends in forgiveness. Payne says “two acts of love” are what drew him to adapt the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel.

The story shares in common with Schmidt and Sideways and Payne’s forthcoming Nebraska a beleaguered protagonist trying to mend an unraveling life.

“It’s just the comic archetype Jim Taylor (his producing partner and former co-writer) and I came up with and I’m continuing of the middle-aged guy who’s really unconscious and has a bunch of anguish and frustration in life,” says Payne. “It’s a guy with good intentions but who’s bought the wrong package. I think it’s funny.”

Extracting equal amounts pathos and humor from human folly is what Payne does.

“I’m just always drawn to material that remains human. You don’t need guns and spaceships and great contrivance to have a movie and a meaningful one. I don’t think those elements are necessarily bad – I like movies of every genre, but what I’m drawn to is trying to somehow explore and express and mock the human heart.”

Descendants is being called Payne’s most fully realized work. “I hope so,” he says, adding that any new maturity reflects his more accrued life experience at age 50 and his evolving film craft. Some observers note he seems more comfortable letting tender emotions play out on screen.”Well, that’s what this story called for,” he says. “I mean, it could be a new vein of filmmaking in me or could just be I was serving this particular story as a professional, workman-like director. I have no idea.”

Staying true to his Omaha roots, he attended the movie’s local premiere at Film Streams, where Descendants smashed box office records. Payne enjoys sharing his work at the art cinema whose board he serves on. Before an appreciative crowd of friends and supporters he announced the film was among the highest grossers nationally its first week. By early February its domestic take stands at $66 million-plus, makeing it the top indie flick released in 2011.

Exuding grace and humility, Payne personally greeted audience members before and after the opening night screenings here. In accepting his Golden Globe, Payne deflected praise to cast and crew, to the people of Hawaii and to Hemmings, whose “beautiful gift” of a novel he made his own.

“He made this movie that’s hugely successful and he made sure that success was also Film Streams’ success, and hopefully Omaha’s success,” says Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson. “We had so much fun at the premiere. It was just a blast. I wondered if we should do it at a bigger venue, and he said, ‘We’ve got to do it at our home.’ Getting the exclusive from Fox Searchlight was all him. That was huge for us.”

He’s conquered Cannes, Toronto, New York, Hollywood, but he proves he can come home again. Payne, who keeps a condo here, plans shooting the father-son road pic Nebraska in various Panhandle locales come spring. Home is where the heart is and he’s always happy to return where his cinema dreams were first fired.

Living the dream: Cinema maven Rachel Jacobson – the woman behind Film Streams

February 1, 2012 8 comments

Since its late 2007 start Film Streams has given Omaha a much-needed and celebrated infusion of art cinema.  This still young nonprofit theater already enjoys a strong following and a national reputation.  Film Streams is the vision of founder and director Rachel Jacobson, an Omaha native who left here only to come back with a mission of giving her hometown its first full-fledged art cinema.  Until she came back from New York City with her dream of forming a center devoted to film as art this metro area of more than 800,000 never had a theater dedicated to screening the best of old and new cinema and to presenting  educational programs around the films.  Thanks to her, Omaha finally has a film home befitting its large population.  She’s not only made her dream a reality but she’s made this Midwest theater nationally known thanks to first-rate screenings and programming and the involvement of board member Alexander Payne, whose clout has allowed Film Streams to nab some major guests, including Laura Dern, Debra Winger, and Steven Soderberg.  2012 will make the biggest splash yet when this year’s special guest is revealed.  A true film icon.  My short profile of Rachel is the cover story in the new issue of Metro Magazine.

 

 

 

 

Living the dream: Cinema maven Rachel Jacobson – the woman behind Film Streams 

©by Leo Adam Biga

The cover story in the February 2012 Metro Magazine (http://issuu.com/metmago/docs/metromagazine-february-2012)

 

Film Streams is coming off its fourth and most successful year yet, capped by the record-breaking, exclusive run of Alexander Payne‘s The Descendants. With the art cinema riding high, it’s easy overlooking the determination founder-director Rachel Jacobson, 33, showed in turning her dream into reality.

Film buff in the making

The success has made her a respected leader among the young creatives and professionals set that’s helping transform Omaha’s once amorphous culture into an identifiably cool scene.

The Omaha Central High graduate left here to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and to get her professional start but her plan always included coming back to her hometown. When she returned in 2005 the then-20something set about selling philanthropists on the idea of a film center in the barrens of North Downtown.

Most embraced her vision. Some expressed reservations. But anyone who dealt with her soon fell under the sway of her informed passion to support the project.

Before coming back to pursue her dream, she laid the groundwork for it back East. She immersed herself in an intensive arts administration course at New York University and made a study of art cinemas, all to formulate the nonprofit public film model Film Streams follows. She strategically worked at a SoHo art gallery, Miramax Films and WNYC public radio to learn lessons for making her Omaha cinematheque sustainable.

“It was sort of grad school without having to pay for it,” she says.

She never intended going to New York City. Chicago was her choice out of college. But once there, she says, “I just fell in love with the city.”

She often describes an epiphany she had in college as the defining moment when she abandoned law school plans to pursue being a film curator-exhibitor. Her cinephile leanings began long before that, as a girl, when she accompanied her parents to see movies at the Indian Hills Theatre. “It was such a beautiful theater. It felt like this grand experience,” she says. The Dundee Theatre and then-AMC Westroads 8 became frequent haunts. As a college English and political science major she fell ever more under cinema’s spell via film studies courses and art movie house screenings.

 

 

 

 

A public film theater model

Her film education continued in New York, where she devised the core principals behind her Omaha cinema. True to her vision she’s made it “a mission-based” showcase for film as art. With support from memberships, grants, donations and other contributed revenue almost equal to box office-concession revenue, she’s freed Film Streams from commercial pressure and compromise.

“A big part of why I wanted to work in film is I wanted to figure out ways to get beyond the fact that film is seen as a product. Yyou need to have a way to fight against that commodity perspective,” she says.

Her serving on a National Endowment for the Arts grants panel has helped Film Streams win NEA and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences funding.

Not having to turn a profit or pack the house means Jacobson can schedule the kind of limited appeal movies cineplexes rarely play: first-run American independent and foreign features, repertory classics, documentaries and shorts. Unlike mainstream theaters, Film Streams presents panel discussions, educational programs and extras, often in partnership with community organizations.

She strives for a schedule reflecting world cinema. “An important part of our mission is to be a platform for those under-heard voices,” she says.

Early 2012 season highlights reflect this diversity. There’s a 10-film repertory series of international masterworks on restored 35 millimeter prints. Partnership screenings-panels are scheduled around documentaries about urban planning, education, women’s self-image and developmental disabilities. First-run narrative features include Pariah and We Need to Talk About Kevin, both by women directors on tough subjects.

There’s also the annual Oscar-winning shorts series.

As for the remainder of the year, she’s working on bringing prominent filmmakers and eying a possible film noir series. Ingmar Bergman may be the focus of the next Great Directors series. The biennial Cinemateca of Spanish-language films is slated for September. The 2012 gala promises a film-pop culture icon in August. Past guests of honor have been Laura Dern, Debra Winger and Steven Soderbergh. Board member Alexander Payne gives Film Streams pull in attracting major names.

 

 

Film buff friends Alexander Payne and Rachel Jacobson

 

 

Growing a film community

Just as Jacobson’s cultivated a close relationship with Payne and other celebs, she’s nurtured a growing audience at Film Streams, where ticket sales climbed to 54,000 last year. Memberships have held steady at nearly 2,000.

“I feel really great about where we are as far as audience. Hopefully it indicates more people are seeing the kinds of films we’re showing than would have if we didn’t exist.

“The interesting thing about what we’ve become that I didn’t imagine is that I feel like people perceive us as not just a place for cinephiles but also as a community space because of the discussions and the partnerships we do. I feel like that’s what makes us distinctive because that helps us reach new, wider audiences that may not otherwise come. Those connections help us serve the entire community.”

She strikes a balance serving both hardcore film buffs and casual movie fans. Along the way, she hopes general audiences sample more challenging fare.

Film Streams has also expanded its administrative staff and budget. “It’s over a million dollars now,” she says. “We’ve just kind of grown incrementally every year.”

She’s perhaps most pleased by how Omaha has gotten behind Film Streams. There’s a sense of ownership in it, and that’s precisely what she wants.

“We’re all sort of stakeholders in it – Omaha, our members, the board.”

A creative life and career

The island that Film Streams, Slowdown and Saddle Creek Records anchors is gaining a foothold in North Downtown along with Creighton University, Tip Top, Hot Shops, the Mastercraft and TD Ameritrade Park. She sees development there as a mixed-bag but the entrepreneurial spirit and energy on display make her optimistic.

She feels young creative class professionals like herself and her friends are more and more being heard. She likes the vibrant Omaha that emerged while she was away and that continues spinning off creative new ventures. She’s a big advocate of Omaha’s indie music scene.

“There’s something distinctive about what people are creating and there’s a strong community around it,” she says.

Film Streams gives her a little slice of the Big Apple in Omaha, where her life and work revolve around art, beauty, creativity, rock music, friends, donors and social entrepreneurs. “This job is that,” she says. Best of all, she gets to share her film passion. “I love that experience so much. It’s a way to connect with people. It feels really great to show someone something they appreciate. Man, I love that.”

Visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

Omaha’s film reckoning arrives in form of Film Streams, the city’s first full-fledged art cinema

November 27, 2011 11 comments

The much-ballyhooed rise of Omaha’s culture scene got a major boost with the addition of the city’s first full-fledged art cinema, Film Streams, in 2007.  I wrote the following cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the eve of Film Stream’s much anticipated opening. It’s an analytical piece that examines the viability of the enterprise in this market and the various things that this art cinema’s founder and director, Rachel Jacobson, put in place to give it sustainability. Because I was a film programmer myself for several years in Omaha I have a certain informed perspective on what the art cinema scene looked like before and after Film Streams.

Five years later, there’s no doubting that Film Streams is a runaway success and that Jacobson is the main reason why.  She’s cannily secured both a strong endowment and membership base from Omaha’s movers and shakers, along with steady grant support, as backing for the world-class programming she and her staff have presented right from the start.  She’s also cultivated two star advisory board members in Alexander Payne and Kurt Andersen who help give the venue cachet and credibility well beyond Omaha.  If you’re a local and you haven’t been to Film Streams yet, shame on you.  If you plan to visit, be sure to make it one of your stops.  Payne has been instrumental in the theater hosting some high profile film names at special fundraising events, including Laura Dern, Debra Winger, and Steven Soderbergh.  My stories on the Dern, Winger, and Soderbergh events can be found on this blog.

The theater’s next special guest, for a spring-summer event, is a genuine cinema legend.  More on that in a few months.  Check out everything Film Streams at http://www.filmstreams.org.

And if you’re so inclined, check out my deep store of film stories on this blog.

Rachel Jacobson outside Film Streams

Omaha‘s film reckoning arrives in form of Film Streams, the city’s first full-fledged art cinema

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeard in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Rachel Jacobson’s Film Streams dream turns reality this weekend. That’s when the non-profit art cinema she’s synonymous with opens in North Downtown. The Ruth Sokolof Theatre at 14th and Webster joins Slowdown, the Saddle Creek Records live music bar that shares the same shell, as the next-big-thing in Omaha culture.

In truth, her dream is one many area cinephiles harbored over time, but she’s the first with the means and the moxie to have gone after it. Audaciously, she’s not hitched the theater to an entrenched cultural institution, such as a university or museum. Instead, Film Streams is an “autonomous nonprofit.” While Saddle Creek doesn’t have an active business interest in it, as the building’s builder, owner, landlord and neighbor, Saddle Creek Records is an institutional partner in spirit.

In some respects, it’s a case of good karma, as Jacobson articulated her vision just as Omaha’s much-discussed synergy of ambitious new art-cultural endeavors took off. Since 2000 the city’s seen come to fruition: various public arts projects; Qwest Center Omaha; the Riverfront Jazz and Blues Festival; the Holland Performing Arts Center; the downtown Omaha Lit Fest; the Great Plains Theatre Conference; the Omaha Film Festival and the Blue Barn Music Festival. Slowdown and Film Streams only add to the growing mix of can-do, cosmo, entertainment projects.

With an urban industrial look, from the clean, simple lines of its red brick and black steel exterior to the airy, open, many-windowed loft-style lobby-offices, the building plays off the retro-gentrified face of its eclectic environs. The interior’s exposed precast concrete and steel infrastructure and metal panel-encased windows lend a vaguely 19th century factory vibe. The pastel walls, natural finished Maple woods, Omer Arbel decorative lighting and Bludot furniture, plus a neoclassic Dineresque concessions stand, add a post-modern touch. A huge lithograph on one wall is of iconic Robert Mitchum from Night of the Hunter (a Jacobson favorite), adding a splash of drama and color to the light, Pop-style lobby.

The two auditoriums, one seating 206, the other 96, are intimate spaces with such requisite creature comforts as high-back, cup-holder chairs, and with such techno features as ample sound panels and multiple projection systems.

Surrounding the building is a mix of manufacturers, warehouses, divey boarding houses, pawn shops, bars, a homeless shelter and a day care center. To the west and north is trendy residential living in Creighton University dorms and Tip Top loft apartments, respectively. Hotels along the emerging Cuming Street Corridor to the north are going up fast. Bohemian spots like the Hot Shops, a few blocks north, are few and far between. The InPlay sports bar and Rick’s Cafe Boatyard are the nearest nice eateries. A couple blocks east is the whole riverfront scene. Traffic to and from the Qwest Center and Civic Auditorium may generate some walk-ins.

The building, set off by its striking black and white marquee and a wide, tree-lined curb, is the subject of much buzz. On a recent afternoon, as workers streamed in and out installing auditorium seats and unpacking assorted boxes in the lobby, passersby on foot and in cars rubbernecked for a glimpse inside.

Film Streams is situated in the projected hub of NoDo, the North Downtown redevelopment district the city’s pinning high hopes on. It could blow up into a destination place or just stagnate. Directly west is a vacant lot overgrown by weeds, a speculative site for a baseball stadium that some consider the missing anchor piece of this puzzle. For now though NoDo has a solid toe-hold and Film Streams is well-positioned as a cool modern throwback — a downtown neighborhood theater attached to the Saddle Creek-Slowdown star.

“Yeah, it couldn’t be a better location, really,” the lithe, long-haired Jacobson said from the Film Streams conference room, with its great view of the cityscape. “I mean, it’s amazing timing…it’s right place, right time, right people involved.”

It’s been a three-year love-fest for Jacobson. With her Cameron Diaz good looks, expatriate return from New York to her hometown, Saddle Creek hook up, Alexander Payne endorsement and philanthropic connections, she’s wrapped her fingers around the Big O!. Per her Revlon-smiling presence in those First National Bank television spots, she’s viewed as a poster girl for the Cool Young Urban Entrepreneurial set that local movers-and-shakers covet.

She’s also an example of the reverse brain drain this state needs; namely, she’s among the long line of Nebraska’s best and brightest to leave, only she’s the exception by coming back to realize her dream here. It’s a Chamber-made PR story.

 

All the attention has her a little queasy.

“This has been so tied to my personality the past two years because so much of it was in my head,” she said, “but now there’s a building, there’s people invested in it, it’s an organization. So I’m hoping it won’t be so synonymous with my name and my identity because that’s a little bit awkward and it also doesn’t bode well for the future…You want it to take on a life of its own and I hope it does.

“I think it’s important it have its own specific voice and personality just like any interesting small business.”

Rare for any start-up, much less a non-profit arts group venturing into unknown territory, i.e. a full-fledged art house in a burg that’s never really seen one, she’s gotten donors to pony up big time. Shaping Omaha’s cool quotient is a seductive thing and may help explain why Film Streams has attracted such widespread support.

“I think a lot people’s motivation for giving and being engaged with this organization is to have an affiliation with everything that’s going on in the arts scene in Omaha and to feel a part of it,” she said.

Her first home run was getting the Saddle Creek Boys, Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel, to build the theater as part of their new NoDo headquarters complex, which includes Slowdown. The Saddle Creek-Film Streams relationship is a case of young urban professionals who share like-minded visions getting together. She lived and worked in New York when she ran into Nansel in 2002 and they laid out their dreams.

“Initially we were talking to Rachel as a friend and trying to help her figure out a place that would work for a theater in Omaha,” Kulbel said. “We had already been on some real estate searches for a similar sized space so we knew what was out there — nearly nothing, unfortunately. There was a fair amount of time that passed between first talking  with her about it and approaching her about the idea of doing it downtown. I was personally very into the idea before we were involved on a business level. I have always seen it as something that would really help out the culture of Omaha, so I have really been into supporting the idea any way I could.”

Kulbel and Nansel serve on the Film Streams advisory board.

Then, with the help of her dad, Kutak Rock chair David Jacobson, she launched a capital campaign. It’s raised $1.7 million for theater operations and an endowment.

“You can’t underestimate the connection thing,” she said in reference to her father and the fact he heads a well-heeled law firm with a history of arts philanthropy. Her family’s standing in the Jewish community has also paid big dividends, including the Sokolof family gift recognized by the theater’s name. Even so, getting old farts to fork over serious dough for an art cinema took some doing in a town unused to thinking of film the way it does music or fine art. 

“It’s not a new concept obviously, but it’s a new concept for Omaha,” she said. “There were definitely people in the beginning who gave me quizzical looks and with whom I had to use examples of older art forms, like theater or opera or symphony, and how these things have had to become nonprofit and how film is the great art form of the 20th century. So it just makes sense to have an organization devoted to celebrating film in that sort of reverential way.”

She feels her New York experience, including stints at Miramax and WNYC, gave her a foundation for thinking and speaking about film as a legit art form.

“In New York film is seen in the kind of light I’m talking about,” she said. “Werner Herzog is a household name. Even more obscure directors are known, not only by people who consider themselves to be film buffs, but just by anyone engaged in the cultural environment of the city. So I knew what needed to be articulated here. I don’t know if I could have done this without having lived there…”

New York’s vital arts community also instilled in her an “attitude that anything’s possible” asdding,”My friends there have been so supportive of this project — they all got it in like two seconds.” She’s found enough cinema sophisticates here to move forward.

Snagging an Oscar-winning filmmaker in Payne and a best-selling author and national public radio personality in Kurt Andersen for her board helped seal the deal.

The Payne name adds sizzle and legitimacy. It opens doors and check books. “I never imagined he would be involved to this degree,” said Jacobson, referring to his curating the inaugural repertory series. “His involvement is so significant.”

 

 

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Alexander Payne has lent his support to Rachel Jacobson and Film Streams

Any skeptics left soon drank the Kool Aid when she secured mucho bucks from such community stalwarts as the Peter Kiewit Foundation and Dick Holland.

Besides getting heavyweights to embrace and fund her project, she’s done her homework, asked all the right questions and put in place a fundraising-membership structure that holds hope this experiment might bear fruit and have a future.

Experiment is the operative word, as no one knows whether Omaha can support an art cinema. Why? Start with there not having been one here before. Sure, there’s the Dundee Theatre, but it often shows titles that also play the cineplexes, it has no education component and its single screen, mid-town location and loyal fan base make comparisons difficult. 

Then ask yourself, what size of an audience really exists for new indie American and first-run foreign pics that outside a few crossover titles a year do little business anywhere? Or for classics now readily accessible via NetFlix or cable?

If anyone knows it’s Danny Lee Ladely, director of the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln, one of the nation’s longest-lived art cinemas.

“There’s a good reason why there aren’t more art theaters in Lincoln and Omaha,” he said, “and that’s because the markets here really aren’t large enough to sustain them. The only way the Ross has been able to survive over all these years is by having lots and lots of subsidies through grants, donations, memberships.”

Ladely also serves on the Film Streams advisory board.

Just how tough it is to get butts in the seats for art films is revealed by a recent study Ladely’s business manager did. “For every two-week run of a film we show we lose $3,500,” he said. It’s only the occasional art house darling, like The Piano or  Fahrenheit 9/11 that makes a profit, much less a killing. Most lose money. He’s curious to see how the Film Streams repertory program, which features classics, does. He long ago stopped showing older titles as they drew fewer and fewer moviegoers.

If Omaha history is any gauge then there’s a limited pool to be sure. Many alternative film efforts have come and gone. As recently as six years ago the Brandeis Art Cinema tried and failed to be a Dundee Theatre at the Southroads Mall. Nontheatrical causalities in the ’90s included student-sponsored film programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Creighton University, various  series at the Joslyn Art Museum and a short-lived series at the Blue Barn Theatre. The New Cinema Coop., a part-time presenting group, had a long run in the ’70s-’80s. The Old Market Puppet Theatre and Edison Exchange preceded it. 

Until now, the nearest art cinema has been the Ross, which might as well be Siberia for the few Omahans who trek down I-80 to catch a flick. Distance alone seems to negate head-on competition. Jacobson believes the two venues serve separate markets. Ladely mostly concurs, though he worries about losing the “handful” of Omaha faithful who go there. He sees a bigger conflict between Film Streams and the Dundee, but Jacobson says she’s after different titles than that mid-town theater and is willing to work cooperatively to avoid booking issues.

Danny Lee Ladely, ©photo Lincoln Journal-Star

Likewise, Dundee Manager Matt Brown is willing to consult with Jacobson. It makes sense for them to talk, as each desires exclusive runs. Double bookings at theaters four miles apart would hurt one or both. He said Film Streams is definitely new “competition,” but not one that necessarily “conflicts” with the Dundee.

He feels the two theaters will largely go after different titles, with Film Streams eying more pure art films and the Dundee art films with more mainstream appeal. Jacobson confirms this. Still, there’s bound to be times when the two vie for the same features. The Dundee’s current attraction, Once, would seem to be an Film Streams fit. Film Stream’s opening first-run attraction, the subtitled French film La Vie en Rose, is not standard Dundee material, but who’s to say future titles won’t be?

Where things could get dicey for Film Streams, Brown said, is finding enough art material outside what the Dundee and the AMC chain show that boast the kind of strong reviews and word-of-mouth needed to build audiences. Reviews can make or break things, he said, and only a few titles captivate critics and audiences. Brown said AMC may pose a problem, as it shows many art titles as loss leaders. However, Jacobson said studios/distributors tell her they prefer these titles play in an art cinema that nurtures them rather than in a cineplex that buries them.

It may take time for Film Streams to find its niche. While the Dundee books first-run features months in advance, Film Streams, at least for now, takes a more fluid approach. Jacobson’s eying several titles from the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for her fall/winter schedule. Her upcoming repertory programs after the Payne series include an Adaptations series and a Nebraska series.

Jacobson’s oft-stated belief, one shared by Brown, that the addition of Film Streams can help grow audiences for art fare and therefore benefit everyone sounds good. But the problem gets back to the relatively few folks who go see films that are obscure, subtitled or both or that can be readily viewed at home. Each tells you the city can enjoy a vital art cinema scene with multiple venues. But with two year-round operations here, it stands to reason one or both will be squeezed in the process.

DUNDEE Theatre - Omaha Ne Open! Photo #2 | by SouthEast Dallas Photographer

Dundee Theatre

To cover a projected $800,000 annual operating budget Film Streams won’t need the volume of bodies and receipts suburban cineplexes generate. Film Streams expects to offset its smaller attendance/take the same way the Ross does — with grants, donations and membership revenue. Through last week Film Streams had sold 500 memberships, which are $50 for individuals and $35 for students/seniors.

“That’s the whole business plan,” she said. “That’s exactly why we diversified our income streams. We plan to keep every single one of those income streams afloat if we can. Box office and concessions and even rentals of our space will only amount to just over 50 percent of our operating budget. Everything else will have to come from membership contributions, corporate sponsorships, foundation gifts…People in the community have to continue to support this in order for us to exist.”

A small staff will keep overhead low. Besides Jacobson, chief programmer and fundraiser, there’s operations manager Ann Ploeger and communications coordinator Casey Logan. Box-office/concessions workers and union projectionists will be contracted per show.

Whereas the Ross is insulated to a degree from poor attendance by its association with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Film Streams stands alone, on an island.

“The Ross has an advantage that has really been important in the survival and the success of the program and that is that it’s part of the university,” Ladely said.

On the other hand, Film Streams has formed an endowment, something the Ross, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t have. As Ladely noted, it’s true the center’s namesake Mary Riepma Ross donated millions, but all of it went toward building its new center. The Friends of the Ross does have a small endowment.

Just as the Ross is utilized by UNL for classes, Film Streams plans to invite organizations to rent the space for its own or collaborative programs. “We can make it into more than just a movie theater and bring people here who aren’t necessarily cinephiles. That’s going to be a huge part of what we do,” said Jacobson, who envisions partnering with existing events, such as the Omaha Lit Fest or Omaha Film Festival, and with organizations that have a natural cultural connection to Film Streams films/series.

 

 

Film Streams' Feature V - Payne, Forte & Dern - Photo by Chris Machian

Photo by Chris Machian
Public radio host Kurt Andersen interviews the director of the new film “Nebraska,” Alexander Payne, and stars Will Forte and Bruce Dern in Omaha, Neb. Later, another of the film’s actors, June Squibb, surprised the audience by joining the conversation. The event celebrated Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater, Omaha’s non-profit cinema. In excess of 1,600 people attended, and more than $300,000 were raised to support Film Streams programs.

Previous art film efforts in town lacked the cool, state-of-the-art digs and amenities Film Streams delivers. Joslyn’s flirted with cinema but despite its splendor it lacks a bona fide theater space and has never really committed to film. The closest anyone came is when the New Cinema screened alternative fare at the old Center Street Theatre and when the Park IV ran a repertory classics series, but as legit as those venues were their poverty row quarters, budgets and revenues spelled failure.

Jacobson was so intent on doing an art cinema she was at one time prepared to marry it to a Joslyn or do it on the cheap “like squatting in an old warehouse.”

The way things worked out, she’s got the real thing. The Ross in Lincoln is a model for it, as are landmark programs back East, including those at the George Eastman House, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and New York’s Film Forum. “Film Forum was the one I looked at most frequently,” she said. “It’s completely autonomous and it’s devoted to film and that’s the mode I really wanted to emulate. That’s how I felt you could be most true to the mission, because if you’re within someone else’s mission then you just have to make too many compromises. So I’m very happy it turned out the way it did.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t consult people. She bends the ear of veterans like the Ross’ Ladely and her booker, Amherst, Mass.-based Connie White, who programmed the Coolidge Corner and Brattle Theatres in Boston. She also has the advantage of a network of industry contacts, Payne among them, who should help steer major film artists here for lectures, panels, symposiums, retrospectives, et all.

“I’m really excited about the potential for that,” she said.

In terms of anticipation, there hasn’t been anything like this for a new local arts facility since the Holland opened in 2005. A much larger, costlier project, it was the first major new performing venue here in a long time, thus it netted high attention and expectation. Film Streams is not only the first comprehensive art/repertory house here, it’s the first cinema of any kind downtown since the early ‘90s, when the New Cinema converted a storefront at 15th and Davenport.

Unlike Film Streams, the Holland has a built-in fan base as the home to the Omaha Symphony, whose members it markets to. The Holland is also located right in the heart of downtown, not on its northern fringes. Slowdown’s niche indie music model is much closer to Film Streams and its specialized cinema offerings.

The question now is: Will enough people buy memberships and fill seats to keep the theater a viable center that donors want to support? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, Jacobson’s focused on “executing” what till now has been a run-through. The dress rehearsals are over and now the screen lights up for real.

“One thing I’m constantly thinking about is sustainability. That’s really the ultimate goal,” she said. “My biggest fear with this is that it will fizzle out in five years. I mean, I don’t think it’s going to…I think we planned this out and we have enough people invested in it that it won’t, but who knows.

“If everyone who says they’re going to be here all the time is here some of the time, then we’ll do OK.”

Jacobson was reminded of what someone asked her recently — what’s it like to do a job that’s your passion? “It was always my dream to do something I loved, but one thing is you can never, ever escape it. You’re always working, because it is me.”

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