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FilmScene's new venue hosts grand opening in Iowa City

They came for 'Downton' and to get a look inside

Wendy DeCora of Iowa City, gets her ticket for the 8:30 p.m. Friday showing at the new FilmScene theater in Iowa City. (Amir Prellberg/Freelance)
Wendy DeCora of Iowa City, gets her ticket for the 8:30 p.m. Friday showing at the new FilmScene theater in Iowa City. (Amir Prellberg/Freelance)
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IOWA CITY — If you build it, he will come.

The line from W.P. Kinsella’s novel, “Shoeless Joe,” later adapted into the quintessential Iowa movie, “Field of Dreams,” refers to an Iowa farmer’s efforts to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield.

It turns out, the phrase can be applied to cinemas built in the middle of Iowa City, too.

On Friday evening, FilmScene formally welcomed the public to its new space in The Chauncey high rise, at the corner of College and Gilbert streets. Scores of cinema lovers came to get a close-up look, many of them dressed in suits and dresses inspired by the opening film, “Downton Abbey.”

“It’s unreal to see these theaters full of people,” said Joe Tiefenthaler, FilmScene’s executive director. “This is just something we’ve been looking at on our computers and paper renderings for six, seven years. To see moviegoers enjoying our first night really, really hit us.”

Friday’s opening night kicks off a weekend of celebration, which includes an open house Saturday morning and additional films.

Eight-year journey

The opening is the culmination of an eight-year journey for FilmScene, a nonprofit formed in 2011 dedicated to having a theater in downtown Iowa City showing independent, foreign and documentary films.

The 15-story, $57 million Chauncey broke ground in 2016, three years after FilmScene opened in its original location on the Iowa City Pedestrian Mall. FilmScene is now its anchor tenant, with 325 seats in three theaters on The Chauncey’s first and second floors.

“It was just an imagination or dream, an idea put to paper and now become real,” said Andrew Sherburne, FilmScene’s co-founder and associate director. “It’s amazing to see what we can accomplish when people get excited about something and join together. I’m continually amazed by this community for getting behind big ideas. This is one that’s going to be part of our lives for a long time.”

Emily Salmonson, FilmScene director of operations, was equally amazed to see FilmScene at The Chauncey become a reality.

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She told a crowd before the first screening of “Downton” that she can remember looking at renderings of the theater, somewhat in disbelief that the little one-screen theater on the Ped Mall would one day become a world-class cinema.

“But it’s actually happening today,” she said. “I’m really excited you guys are all here.”

FilmScene staffers said that while their Ped Mall home has served them well — and it will remain in operation — its lack of screens and space limited programming.

The Chauncey location will open new options, including more movies, more programming and a film festival next year.

THEATER IS ‘Best in Iowa’

“Without any exaggeration, this is the best theater in Iowa,” Ross Meyer, FilmScene’s head projectionist and facilities manager, told the opening night audience. “You’re in the best theater in Iowa.”

Among the first patrons were Sandra and John Hudson of Iowa City. Self-described cinema fans, the Hudsons typically watch movies at home but said they come to FilmScene to watch movies they can’t see elsewhere.

“There’s something special about this place,” Sandra Hudson said.

Rebecca Fons, FilmScene’s programming director, said when planning the opening weekend festivities, they knew they wanted to open with “something big.” Enter “Downton Abbey,” a movie based on the popular public television series.

OTHER MOVIES ROUND OUT OPENING

The other movies picked to be screened this weekend also were chosen with care and deliberation, Fons said. The staff knew they wanted to include a “classic title,” and “Field of Dreams” fit that bill.

“I think every movie theater that opens in the state of Iowa has to show ‘Field of Dreams,’ ” she said. “Gotta do it.”

FilmScene also will be screening “Cinema Paradiso,” a 1988 Academy Award-winning Italian movie about a young boy coming of age in a small village with a movie theater, and who later goes on to become a famous filmmaker. Rounding out the opening weekend quartet is horror film starring Steve McQueen, “The Blob.”

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“There’s an iconic scene in ‘The Blob’ that takes place in a movie theater, and the blob is sort of doing its blob thing and everyone is running screaming from the movie theater,” Fons said.

“It’s just fun. ... Those four films together seem like a nice way to open the space.”

While Friday night marked the end of a long journey to make FilmScene at The Chauncey a reality, Sherburne said the evening felt more like a beginning.

“In some ways, we’re at the starting point because the films just started rolling,” he said. “As exciting as it’s been to open this space, we’re just getting going. We’ve got so much more ahead of us.”

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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