Arts & Culture

High risers: FilmScene readies for its Chauncey debut

Nonprofit cinema hopes to change for the better

Chauncey Swan Park next to The Chauncey in Iowa City is undergoing an $500,000 renovation. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Chauncey Swan Park next to The Chauncey in Iowa City is undergoing an $500,000 renovation. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — As FilmScene’s shiny, new, state-of-the art theater has taken shape in the first two levels of The Chauncey high-rise, and the nonprofit cinema rolls toward its Sept. 20 grand opening, loyal patrons have had questions for programming director Rebecca Fons.

Will FilmScene — which has operated out of a cozy, two-theater space by the Pedestrian Mall since November 2013 — change? Will it still offer independent films and similar content? Will staff still introduce every screening? Will the theater still offer fun activities?

The answer Fons gives those concerned fans is yes, FilmScene will change — for the better.

“We’ll be able to do all of that and more,” Fons said. “More often, more regularly, with more films ... So, I tell people, ‘No, don’t worry. It’s only bigger and better.’ Bigger, in this case, very much equals better.”

‘There was a hole in the cultural fabric’

FilmScene’s origins can be traced in part to co-founder and Associate Director Andrew Sherburne’s roots in Minnesota. He lived within a few blocks of seven screens of art-house cinema in Minneapolis before moving to Iowa City.

Iowa City, in contrast, lost Campus 3 — a small theater on the second floor of the Old Capitol Town Center that showed independent movies — in 2007.

“I felt like there was something missing in the fabric of downtown Iowa City,” Sherburne said. “There was a hole in the cultural fabric.”

So Sherburne and co-founder Andy Brodie formed FilmScene as a nonprofit cinema in 2011. A board of directors was formed and everyone chipped in $20 to cover fees and start a bank account. From there, FilmScene grew “conversation by conversation,” Sherburne said.

One of the earliest conversations was with local developer Marc Moen.

“And that was so critical because Marc got it right away,” Sherburne said. “When you have a big idea, but you don’t have a ton of money, you need other people to kind of share your passion, see your enthusiasm, see what is possible. Marc saw that.”


About the same time, the city put out a request seeking proposals for developing a site at the corner of College and Gilbert streets.

Moen’s proposal — the $57 million Chauncey — included a theater for FilmScene, a bowling alley, hotel, restaurant, coffee shop, commercial and office space and condominiums. It was selected by the Iowa City Council in 2013. However, because of legal action, the project did not break ground until December 2016.

Fortunately for FilmScene, Moen had space available for a temporary cinema at 118 E. College St., where the nonprofit has flourished.

“I feel like we’ve learned a lot of really wonderful lessons here and we know how to run this organization in this facility,” said Executive Director Joe Tiefenthaler. “Right in time to throw it out the window and start to see what a bigger version is.”

space offers ‘More than a movie theater’

While FilmScene’s staff expresses love and adoration for the original space — which they will continue to use after The Chauncey opens — it is not without limitations.

Much of that lies in rules governing the release and distribution of films. As Fons explains it, when a film is distributed, the distributor sets guidelines for how often and how long the film must be screened.

In some cases, distributors require a movie to be shown “clean,” which means if FilmScene is open, that movie must be showing, Fons said. But with only two screens available, that restricted what FilmScene could do in terms of the films it screened, as well as offering other programming such as classes.

“I think (the new location) really opens us up to play more films, to do more show times,” Sherburne said. “We’ll be able to keep films longer, give them more show times and just make everything more accessible.”

The Chauncey location will have three theaters, including one that seats up to 120. With that space at its disposal, FilmScene intends to begin adult education courses this fall and potentially double the size of its seven-week animation summer camp. FilmScene also plans a film festival about this time next year.


Tiefenthaler said the third theater at The Chauncey is designed to be “purposefully flexible” and serve as space for board meetings, conferences or other events.

“Theaters are naturally built as presentation-ready spaces,” he said. “We hope to and have been working with the Think Iowa City group or the event planners association to say as the community is looking to recruit maybe more conferences or national meetings, we have spaces we hope to open doors up to besides the films we do.”

Beyond providing a meeting place, Sherburne and Tiefenthaler said they hope FilmScene and The Chauncey become a destination for a getaway to Iowa City where visitors can take in a movie, go bowling, grab a bite to eat and stay the night without leaving the building.

The Chauncey location also will allow FilmScene to show films in a variety of formats. It will have digital projectors — including a top-of-the-line 4K projector in the main theater — just as the original location uses. But The Chauncey location also will have a 35-mm film projector in one theater and a 16-mm projector in another, said Ross Meyer, FilmScene’s projection and facilities director.

“We’ll have the ability to play any alternate content, whether we’re hosting visiting filmmakers and they come in with their fresh-out-of-the-camera digital video files or if we’re doing some retro night where we’re going to play Betamax or VHS,” Meyer said. “We’ll be able to do it all. No format is too advanced, no format is too defunct. We’ll be able to make them all look and sound good on the screen.”

Meyer and other projectionists will receive additional training with the hopes of becoming accredited by the Library of Congress, Tiefenthaler said. That will allow FilmScene to borrow and show films from the Library of Congress’ collection.

Meyer said the space and technology will allow FilmScene to offer both the biggest and smallest movies.

“The fact that we could do a Marvel super hero picture ... and then play some really off-the-wall stuff is really exciting,” he said. “Because both of those movies deserve it. Both of those movies deserve the best you can possibly give them.”


FilmScene also will continue its partnership with the University of Iowa student-led Bijou Film Board, which screens independent, foreign and classic cinema at FilmScene. The Bijou will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2022 and plans are in place to mark the occasion, Tiefenthaler said.

“It’s a mentor-mentee situation where students are empowered and have their own budget and marketing and their own positions and titles,” he said. “There’s an experience there for students coming to the university that is really unlike anything else in the country.”

All of these opportunities will go to serve FilmScene’s mission “to educate, inspire and entertain through the presentation of film as an art form,” Sherburne said.

“Every night, we’re trying to be more than a movie theater,” he said. “We curate what we put on our screens based on what we think are high-quality films that have artistic quality or start conversations. And then we host those conversations with a panel afterward. Or we provide space in our lobby where we encourage people to gather before and after films. ... We really want to create community around film. That happens in many different ways, with many different programs.”

More patrons means more economic impact

FilmScene’s expansion will have an impact in Iowa City beyond showing films. An Americans for the Arts study found that people spend an average of $31.47 — not including the cost of admission — when they take in an arts event. Those expenditures include meals, lodging, child care and transportation. FilmScene had roughly 45,000 paid attendees last year, Sherburne said. It expects attendance to double next year.

“It makes a huge impact,” Sherburne said. “It affects the overall vitality of our entire downtown economy.”

FilmScene itself could become a destination as it establishes itself as one of the premiere cinemas in the country, Fons said.

“It’s so modern and so state-of-the-art and unlike anything,” she said. “I don’t know how far you’d have to drive in any direction to find a space as state-of-the-art and as forward-thinking and uniquely designed as The Chauncey.”

FilmScene and the downtown Iowa City Englert Theatre are in the midst of a fundraising campaign, Strengthen Grow Evolve. Together, the two nonprofit arts organizations hope to raise $6.5 million to be split between them evenly.


As FilmScene expands into its new facility, the Englert has its sights set on maintaining and improving the theater that was built in 1912. Planned improvements include facade work, window restoration, upgrades to the heating and cooling system and new lighting and audio systems.

Tiefenthaler said the opening of The Chauncey location should be a boon to the capital campaign and both organizations.

“We’ve certainly leaned into the opening of our facility for the campaign,” he said. “It’s a natural high point. This is happening. You’re going to see something right away ... see where your impact really has been as we start to transition and show the community the what the Englert will be doing and what that will look like. We’ll turn around and champion the preservation of one of the dearest spaces for Iowa City.”

Tiefenthaler said the Strengthen Grow Evolve campaign also will — hopefully — allow the nonprofit to own its space in the Chauncey.

“The more money we raise, the less of a mortgage we’re going to have on the back end,” he said. “The ideal scenario is ownership because then you take away that burden on a nonprofit. It’s sustainable for that next generation and the one after.”

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