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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.

 

When Omaha independent filmmaking took a new turn or did it?

August 15, 2012 7 comments

 

A decade ago I fairly called out the Nebraska independent filmmaking scene with this story that bemoaned the lack of home-grown feature filmmaking here.  I used the example of locally based Oberon Entertainment completing a feature of some size, Full Ride, and with a distribution channel in place as being a great depature from what had been happening and what was happening at the time.  Sadly though, with the exception of Nik Fackler taking things one step further with his Lovely, Still, in 2008, nothing much has changed.  Oberon hasn’t made another feature.  And whatever features Nebraskans have made here have apparently not gained much traction.  No Omaha native filmmaker has yet broken out the way Alexander Payne has.  Fackler’s come closest and I would still bet he’s the best candidate of the filmmakers who’ve emerged here the last decade to do so.  Charles Fairbanks may be another.  That’s not to say there aren’t some terrifically talented folks making shorts and even features here or that one or more them couldn’t break out.  I just don’t know about them.  I hope someone does if for no other reason then I’d like to write about them and their work being discovered and embraced by the masses.  I must add though that the prospects for this happening have brightened because the film culture here has much become richer since this story was first published in 2012.  The Omaha Film Festival and Film Streams are longer overdue and welcome additions to growing the film culture.

 

 

 

When Omaha independent filmmaking took a new turn of did it?

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Filmmaking is a lot like sex. There are the wannabes who mainly talk about doing it and those who really get it on. With the exception of Alexander Payne, whose Hollywood-financed films place him in a special category, Omaha has had its share of cinema wet-dreamers. A few, like Steve Lustgarten, Dan Mirvish, Dana Altman and Shawn Prouse, managed scraping together tens of thousands of dollars from local investors and, by hook or crook, realized their grassroots indie aspirations using almost entirely local casts and crews. Until recently, though, no one succeeded in raising really serious money for a native-born production. That is until Oberon Entertainment Properties hit the scene.

An Omaha film production company formed in 2000 by Mark Hoeger, Andy Anderson and Thompson Rogers, Oberon’s partners quickly separated themselves from the local cinema pack by not only setting ambitious production and distribution goals but by doing enough homework and opening enough doors to actually reach some of those lofty goals. In researching the biz, including such centers of indie filmmaking as Austin, Texas and Charlotte, N.C., Oberon’s principal players say they found plenty of data to support their contention that homegrown movie-making could be a going concern.

Displaying a business acumen unseen before among area filmmakers, the three men went about doing exactly what they set out to do, including acquiring a marketable script and hot lead actors, lining-up investors to bankroll the $1.84 million project, securing a major distributor for the property before filming even commenced, completing their teen romance film, The Full Ride, without incident and attracting major players to represent their product around the world. Now, they are in the midst of raising a film financing pool, which they hope will total between $10 and $40 million, to help fund future Oberon projects.

While the company is still “pushing” to net a theatrical release for Full Ride, that prospect dims as time goes by, meaning the film will likely find exclusive distribution via home market venues (cable, video, network TV). With one major foreign TV sale already inked and other overseas-domestic sales in the works, Oberon has leverage on its side. The only thing left unproved is whether it returns a profit to investors and has any legs or staying power as a boutique film business. While Oberon seeks to avoid being a flash-in-the-pan, it should be noted no Omaha filmmaking venture (other than Payne’s) has followed-up a first pic with anything more than unfulfilled promise.

“When we started putting this company together it wasn’t to make a film, it was to create a film business. We don’t want to play at this — we’re too old,” said Anderson who, along with Hoeger, headed Full Ride’s 40-something creative team, with Anderson serving as cinematographer and Hoeger as director. It may be Oberon that is part of a Nebraska New Wave given that indie hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding was financed by Gold Circle Films, a division of Omaha-based Waitt Media.

The story of Oberon offers an insider’s-look at how things work in an industry predicated on gumption, guile and glad-handing, but also bottom lines. In an unprecedented move for local filmmakers, Oberon sold itself and its dream, in the form of a well-articulated business plan, to deep-pocket money-men. The journey began when Hoeger, former executive director of the Omaha Theater Company for Young People, was approached by Omaha author and ex-UNL football player George Mills with an original film story. The story concerned a troubled star high school football player, Matt, who is pressured by an ambitious coach and smitten by a small town girl, Amy, whose perfect facade hides an ugly truth.

 

 

 

 

Mark Hoeger

 

With Mills bringing the project’s first investor aboard along with him, Hoeger agreed to film an 18-minute “pilot” or teaser to test the investment waters. Needing someone to shoot the pilot, Hoeger collaborated with Anderson, the maker of scores of TV commercials via his Anderson Productions. Each man had flirted with the movies before, Hoeger as a sometime filmmaker and film instructor and Anderson as a second-unit cinematographer on Hollywood export pics (including Payne’s Citizen Ruth andElection) and as cinematographer for omaha: the Movie.

The pair next approached Thompson Rogers, an Omaha entrepreneur and investor. It turned out their timing was right, as Rogers had already begun looking at film as a business opportunity. Rogers joined the team, but demanded his partners gather more facts and figures. “The great thing about having Tom on board is he put us through our paces in getting us to prove that we had a good idea and that we had the capacity for doing it,” Hoeger said. Anderson said the process “helped build our credibility in the business world because we approached it from a business standpoint rather than as, ‘Oh, we’ve got a great idea for a movie.’ We looked at the independent filmmaking business…at what independent films are doing domestically and internationally through all the different distribution venues.”

Hoeger said, “One of the pieces of data we found showed that films that get released are profitable overall, especially over their lifetime, but that the number of films released compared to the number of films that get made is very small. Because what we figured out was it’s easy to make a movie — it’s harder to get it out there. Now, one strategy is you make a film and then you try to get it into the Sundance Film Festival, where you hope to get a distribution deal. But out of the literally thousands of entries to Sundance, maybe only 50 films get shown and of those 50 maybe five end up in distribution. So, that’s a very high risk operation…it’s sort of the lottery theory of a business plan. We realized it was going to be hard to pitch that. We wanted something with better odds, which meant not starting production until we had some distribution channel in place.”

He said it turned out many of the 14 investors who signed on with Oberon have invested in films before or been approached to. He feels what aided Oberon in getting their support is the sober way it wooed potential backers. “I think the main thing is we didn’t oversell what the potential was. Most of the investors have been around the block enough times to know that if it sounds impossible, it probably is. It seemed the more honest we were…the more interested people got because then they began to take us seriously. Plus, it helped that Andy and I had a track record in the community. That opened the door for us.”

It didn’t hurt, either, that Oberon knew how the game was played and brought in some bona fide players on its side. In a classic case of it’s-who-you-know-in-Hollywood, Hoeger got an old college roommate, novelist-screenwriter-producer Don Winslow to rewrite Mills’s treatment for Full Ride. Winslow then pitched the script to Porchlight Entertainment’s Bruce Johnson, who bit on it. Winslow also led Oberon to former Universal executive Peter Heller to produce Full Ride and to prestigious Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to represent Oberon. “Don’s very well connected,” is how Hoeger describes Winslow’s influence. Rounding out the creative team were production designer Sandy Veneziano (Father of the Bride) and Oscar-winning editor Mike Hill (Apollo 13).

Even with this power package in place, Hoeger found the labyrinthian Hollywood system made it difficult to know whether their film was ever green-lighted “until we started shooting.”  “You get yessed to death. The suits never want to say ‘No’ because nobody wants to be the jerk that passes up the next Blair Witch Project. So, you always get, ‘Yes, but…’ or ‘Yes, come back to me…’ It’s an odd thing to deal with.” If anything finally sold the film, Oberon’s partners say, it was the script. “What George (Mills) was really great at was an authentic rendering of the football experience. What Don did is he filled out the characters of Matt and Amy and their romance,” Hoeger said. In his hands, Anderson said, “the story became one of overcoming adversity or misfortune, which is sort of a universal theme, and the football aspect became the backdrop.” In turn, the meatier story of redemption and the solid parts attracted a top casting director and rising young stars in Riley Smith (Matt) and Meredith Monroe (Amy).

The May 2001 shoot, which unfolded largely in and around the Dana College campus in Blair, Neb., weathered the usual production burps, including rainy weather not called for in the script. “I thing the biggest challenge was staying on schedule and on budget,” Anderson said. “We were very diligent those two things happened and despite some hiccups we came in under budget and on time.” He equated filmmaking’s high stakes pressure to “being an artist with a gun to your head,” always ready to improvise when problems arise. Hoeger feels the process promotes more creativity, saying, “In some ways, the best stuff comes out of that problem solving.” Hoeger added it was not until post-production at the Gower Studios in Hollywood when he had an epiphany signifying his and Oberon’s arrival. “After working there awhile I’d drive on the lot and the guard would give me a little wave and the valet would get my car. One day, walking back from the commissary, there were wardrobe racks rolling by, film crew members sitting on cranes and stars walking around when I looked up at the big Hollywood sign on the hill and I thought, ‘Oh, wow, cool…It’s like we’re making a movie.’”

Hoeger said Oberon’s success in steering a film through financing, production and distribution has established the company in Hollywood circles. “That’s considered quite an accomplishment in L.A. because there are so many people who want to get that done but never do. To actually pull that off puts you in an amazingly elite club…” Interestingly enough, he said, in the entire three-year process Oberon has met no L.A. snobbery about its Omaha roots. “The industry is now so much decentralized — it’s moved all across the country and into Canada — that as far as they’re concerned Omaha might as well be Austin or Charlotte or Minneapolis or Vancouver. It’s all the same to them — it’s not L.A.”

The company is now weighing its second feature project. “We have boxes and boxes of new scripts that people have sent us, but we haven’t optioned any at this point. The next project will probably be a property owned by one of the production companies that have proposed doing a co-production with us,” he said, adding Oberon may one day be in a position to directly acquire scripts.” He said Oberon doesn’t so much pick scripts as pitch them. “When we go out to L.A. it’s with an armful of scripts and it’s up to the distributor to decide ‘This is the one.’”

Would-be filmmakers now come to Oberon in droves asking, How do you do it? The dreamers are told it takes preparation, knowledge, talent, guts and patience, lots and lots of patience. Hoeger said, “Anybody who dreams of becoming a filmmaker has to be prepared for the fact that it’s a pretty slow go.” Or, as Anderson likes to say, “sometimes you have to wait for the stars to align.”

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