Growing up in Los Angeles, Karen Chappell remembers a weekend tradition. Every Saturday, her family would head to the movie theater and “sit in the way, way back.”
“It wasn’t just one movie. You would choose two movies with either a newsreel or a cartoon in between the two,” Chappell recalled. “I grew up loving the movies.”
Her stepfather was a plasterer for RKO Pictures, one of the “Big Five” movie production companies in the Golden Age of Hollywood, so movies were a common topic of conversation.
“I feel like I’ve had movies in my blood since I was born,” she said.
Movies continue to be “in her blood.” Chappell is a founding member and past chairwoman of the board of directors for FilmScene, a non-profit movie theater in downtown Iowa City operating in partnership with the Bijou Film Board.
Formed in the fall of 2011, FilmScene got its start showing movies through the Starlite Cinema open-air series at City Park.
FilmScene’s founders, Andrew Sherburne and Andy Brody, hoped to open a full-time theater on the Pedestrian Mall in downtown Iowa City. When Chappell and her husband, Wallace Chappell, moved back to Iowa City in 2012, Brody approached her about becoming a board member to help FilmScene get off the ground.
The first FilmScene theater opened on the Ped Mall in 2013. From there, plans were drawn and a funding campaign got underway to build a three-screen theater in The Chauncey at the corner of College and Gilbert streets. FilmScene’s new location opened last September.
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“A lot has happened in those eight years — a very successful progression for FilmScene, I must say,” Chappell said. “It’s really made a name for itself in Iowa City and in Johnson County, not only bringing some commercial-grade movies in, but also a lot of independent and local films as well. That’s part of the mission of FilmScene — it’s an arthouse theater so we’re not really after the blockbusters. We want the art films, independent films, foreign films and documentaries.”
It wasn’t just her love of film that made Chappell a strong supporter of FilmScene.
As the former associate director of the Center for International and Comparative Studies at the University of Iowa, Chappell was well-known in Iowa City, as was her love of the arts. She’s served as program specialist in the performing and literary arts for the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts in Hawaii, was executive director of Young Audiences in St. Louis and development director for the Paul Taylor Dance Company in New York City.
She understood art and what made it work. And she knows how rich Iowa City is when it comes to culture.
“This area is just so very art-centric,” she said. “I don’t mean just movies, but music and painting and sculptures and just everything. So did FilmScene help craft that, or did that help craft FilmScene? Certainly the atmosphere in Iowa City has made it very easy for FilmScene to get started, and for us to raise the kind of money we needed to have FilmScene survive.”
Chappell was on the board when FilmScene opened on the Ped Mall in 2013, offering the first movie theater downtown in seven years after the closing of the Campus 3 Theatres in Old Capitol Town Center.
Though founders Sherburne and Brody always intended to house their theater in The Chauncey building, legal issues surrounding that building’s construction delayed that plan. As the Ped Mall location was being built, the board would hold “sneak peeks” to potential donors to come in and see what FilmScene could be.
“It was an excellent way to get people to see the future of FilmScene, and that’s how we started,” Chappell said.
When it opened, “we developed a pretty large following right from the beginning,” she said. “This just seemed to be the right thing in the right place at the right time.”
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When plans for The Chauncey building began to solidify, Chappell and other board members, along with Brody and Sherburne, started to again look to the future. A fundraising campaign designed to help both FilmScene and The Englert Theatre — the Strengthen, Grow, Evolve campaign — was launched in April 2019 with a goal of raising $6.5 million to strengthen both programs and provide educational outreach to area schools.
The city of Iowa City made a $1 million commitment, kicking off the campaign and showing its support to the future of arts in the city, Chappell said. By the end of July 2020, the campaign had reached $4.9 million.
Much of that, she said, has come in the months the theater has been closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We opened in the new site in September 2019, and we had six good months of solidifying our reputation, in letting people see that yes, this is a great place to watch a movie,” Chappell said. “And then we had to close.”
The theater didn’t close entirely. It couldn’t be open every day, but staff and board members devised a program where groups of 10 and under could rent a screen room and watch a movie three nights a week.
It’s far from the 30 to 60 people who would be in the theater daily, Chappell said, but it’s allowed the community to use the theater it supported.
“That doesn’t in any way give us the kind of money we need to survive, but it is a way to keep our name in front of the public and to allow some people to enjoy the theater,” she said.
And most of those nights, she said, all three screen rooms are full.
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