Making a scene downtown
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Jesse Kreitzer came to the University of Iowa because of the Bijou, the venerable student-driven organization dedicated to film.
Okay, not entirely—opportunities in the film production Master of Fine Arts program and ancestral ties to Iowa also helped seal the deal. But a look at the Bijou lineup while visiting campus convinced Kreitzer that the university was the place for him.
“They were screening films I wanted to see, films that might only otherwise play festivals or short bookings someplace like New York,” he recalls. “It was great knowing I was going to have a cinema here.”
Now Kreitzer has taken a leading role in charting that cinema’s future. Together with colleagues on the Bijou Film Board, he’s developing a partnership with FilmScene, a local nonprofit building a unique theater in downtown Iowa City.
Established in 1972, the Bijou has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s top student-run theaters. From the start, it’s specialized in films that audiences might not see anywhere else, especially in the days before VCRs, DVDs, or online streaming: classic movies, independent productions, documentaries, and international films.
That mission hasn’t changed, says Kreitzer, who serves as Bijou chair. But the way we watch films has evolved, and, together, the Bijou and FilmScene are looking to embrace what’s next.
“Experiencing film collectively almost seems like a dying tradition, and the Hollywood model is facing implosion” Kreitzer says. “Independent micro-cinemas offer something different, a more intimate setting where people can watch smaller films together.”
One of Kreitzer’s predecessors, UI alum and former Bijou programming director Andy Brodie, started developing the idea for FilmScene nearly a decade ago. He co-founded the project with Andrew Sherburne in fall 2011, and it wasn’t long before the Bijou partnership emerged.
“FilmScene and the Bijou are committed to the same ideals,” Kreitzer says. “From the Bijou’s perspective, we looked at this as a chance to allocate our budget in different ways. We’d no longer have to cover costs like room rentals or even popcorn oil.”
Dubbed Scene 1, the new FilmScene space is located in a downtown pedestrian mall building renovated by local developer Marc Moen. It’ll include a café, 80-seat theater (with seats rescued from the original Hancher Auditorium), and a rooftop patio for special events, including outdoor film screenings.
Organizers plan to start screening films in October, but that schedule hinges on a crowd-funding campaign that seeks $75,000 by Sept. 8 to complete construction.
Unlike commercial theaters, FilmScene depends on audiences as partners—while open to everyone, it will offer memberships that include discounted admission. It also will do much more than show movies. FilmScene will also sponsor filmmaker workshops, film literacy programming, and special events.
More on FilmScene and the Bijou
Likewise, the Bijou is seizing this opportunity to expand its work, developing new collaborations on campus.
“We’d like to team up with academic departments to organize projects around documentaries, international cinema, or other specialty programming,” Kreitzer says. “It’s the kind of thing we can do when we don’t have to focus on the day-to-day business of running a theatre.”
That educational role is personal for Kreitzer, who’s driven by his own experience. “My parents put a video camera in my hands when I was really young,” he recalls. “I always knew what I wanted to do.”
He enrolled in a digital arts program while in high school, studied film production at Emerson College, and worked in TV and video for several years before coming to the UI.
Lomax, his first big project at Iowa, offers a fictionalized account of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s quest to record blues songs from the Mississippi Delta. His Master of Fine Arts thesis film also will focus on history, place, and folk traditions, telling the story of a turn-of-the-20th-century coal-mining family inspired by the life of his maternal grandmother in Albia, Iowa.
“I like rural storytelling—urban environments don’t inspire me,” he says. “In Iowa, there’s a vast, open landscape for the taking, and the people here are so receptive to filmmaking.”
When it comes to presenting films, the Bijou will operate much like it always has. Board members will propose particular films to fill the theater’s slate, then host screenings. The Bijou will likely take on responsibility for FilmScene’s late-night programming.
The main difference, of course, is location. The FilmScene space puts the Bijou in the heart of Iowa City.
“We’ve always served both the UI student body and the larger community,” Kreitzer says. “But, in the Iowa Memorial Union, we’ve always wondered if there are people who don’t know we exist.”
Kreitzer says there’s every reason to believe the new plan will work. More than one survey has identified a movie theater as the top attraction respondents would like to see in downtown Iowa City. The community’s demographics resemble other cities where independent cinemas are thriving, and FilmScene has garnered strong initial support.
For Kreitzer and the rest of the Bijou board, the time feels right for change.
“The Bijou is a campus institution, and we could have kept it just that,” he says. “Better to try something new that we think is going to have an impact.”