The Gene Siskel Film Center reopened in early August after nearly a year-and-a-half of dark screens with a new director of programming, Rebecca Fons, looking toward the light.
Fons’ few predecessors since the Film Center’s founding in 1972 include Camille Cook, B. Ruby Rich (author of “Chick Flicks” and “New Queer Cinema” and current editor of Film Quarterly), Richard Peña (now-retired longtime head of the New York Film Festival) and Barbara Scharres (alongside Marty Rubin), who was at the Film Center for nearly forty-five years until her December retirement. Fons began the job part-time in January, and took the reins full-time in July as hopeful plans were made behind the scenes for a return to in-person screenings.
When the thirty-nine-year-old lays out her experiences, connections to the Chicago film scene and to the Film Center itself, it sounds like she was preparing for the position for over a decade, even if she couldn’t have known it. She does, however, confess to a fascination with the nuts-and-bolts of film exhibition and its colorful history. A longtime Film Center member and member of the center’s Community Council advocacy group, she was education director of the Chicago International Film Festival for nine years, and has spent over a decade programming for art-house theaters and film festivals. Fons has been director of programming since 2017 at FilmScene, a six-screen, nonprofit art house cinema in Iowa City, and is director of programming at the Iowa Theater, a century-old historic film and performance center in Winterset, Iowa, a hometown she shares with John Wayne, and which she and her mother larkily determined to restore and revive on her wedding day. (More on that below.)
We talked for over an hour in a discursive conversation in the front lobby of the State Street theater the night before reopening and the premiere of Leos Carax’s “Annette,” where fresh posters from the Film Center collection were on the wall and other corners and crannies were still unfinished, and the stories-high marquee of the Chicago Theatre looked down on us from across that great street.
How many dark days?
I know when we reopen tomorrow, it will have been 508 days. Seventeen months?
When were you hired?
I was offered the position after the interview process on 1… 1-2… 2-1. January 12. It’s not a perfect palindrome, but it’s pretty good. We’re part of the School of the Art Institute, so the position was part of the H.R. process of posting the job description and submitting my resume through that portal, which is not very exciting. But the exciting thing was that I had been on the community council here at the Film Center for years, I had been a member for a decade, probably, I’ve advised a number of programs here, including the education program, when I was at Chicago International, and the junior board-associate producers program. So I was not a stranger. That was a really nice sort of entry point in that I knew a lot of the players here, Jean [de St. Aubin], Lori [Hile]. It was nice, I had a history with the organization.
What did you know about the institution via that hands-on experience?
As a community council member, it reinforced my awareness of film festivals and art-houses and independent cinemas, that it really does take a village. It’s about, we have a particular film, how can we connect with a particular audience? It’s like being able to secure desserts for a EU [European Union Festival] party, I knew someone who had a patisserie. We need these small little details to make an event special. That was my experience when I was at Chicago International, too, it really took a village, a lot of collaborators and a lot of support. I knew that at the Film Center, there are not a hundred people on staff, there’s no endless catering budget. I knew that the Film Center was very much a part of the ecosystem of support, of film exhibitors. That was not a surprise, but it was nice to see that they operate on that same kind of energy that I knew at the film festival. I had advised when they were creating a young professionals board. They had called me because I was in charge of the junior advisory board at the Film Festival. So I gave them a brain dump of, “this is what I know, this is how we built this.” Then the education program here, the high school screenings, that’s what I was doing at the Film Festival for nine years. So I said, you’ve got to find the right teachers, you’ve got to get the good bus company, you do your study guide. Then as a member and a person who had patronized the Film Center for so long, the history of programming was very much in my mind when I was going through the interview process. All of that knowledge of the inner workings of the space and the place, but also my larger knowledge of the film community in Chicago were really feathers in my cap, I suppose, when I was interviewing. It’s great there was familiarity with me and me to the Film Center.
You were impressed with the history, too? Did the familiarity keep you from being cowed about taking the reins of a place that’s been central to the Chicago film scene for almost fifty years?
Yeah, I had reverence for the space through my knowledge of the place, since I’d been in Chicago, when I came here for grad school. I moved to Chicago in 2006 for grad school at Columbia. I got my masters in what was then called “Arts, Entertainment and Media Management.” It’s now “Business and Entrepreneurship.” It’s the business degree that my mother had wanted me to get when I was a film student at the University of Iowa. She begged me to take business classes, just in case. Lo and behold, I had worked at film festivals in college and really found myself interested in film exhibition. I got my bachelors at the University of Iowa in cinema and comparative literature, now it’s cinematic arts. I’m sure they will have a rebrand again. When I was getting my film studies bachelor’s degree at the University of Iowa, I was really enticed by the Columbia College program, which basically said, do you have passion for the arts? Here’s some business acumen, marketing, profit-and-loss, economics, apply this to your passion for the arts. The week after I moved here, I think, I immediately got an internship at the Film Festival. After I graduated, I joined their team full-time at Chicago International.
You were interested in both the wooly world of exhibition as well as programming the movies themselves.
I’ve always been somebody who likes the holistic world of film exhibition. The programming is what brought me to the role and my first love of the movies. But I really, really love all the detail around that moment when an audience is in a theater with the film. It is everything, from what kind of popcorn oil do you use? So many places, people say, “I love going to wherever, but the popcorn sucks!” That becomes part of the anthropological experience of going to the movies. I love thinking about the spaces and the places where film exhibition happens, and then all of the choices that are made, in marketing, by the film distributors, but also the exhibitors as well. What pull-quotes are they using from what critics? The film festival had a small team, so we really all dabbled in that. If I was involved in programming sometimes, I was also probably involved in creating a volunteer schedule for the festival or ordering T-shirts. I like all of that! I think it makes me a better programmer to have done all those things, because I don’t sit on some lofty throne where I close the door and come out and say, “Here are the films.” I’m very much, how’s the staff, do we have the staff, can we do that many showtimes, how will this play for our audience? Who are the partners who can maybe elevate this film? I like all of that stuff.
Tell me about the Iowa Theater.
After I left the film festival, and after nine years, I renovated this theater, the Iowa Theater, in my hometown. I’m from Winterset, a really small town, in central Iowa, about 7,000 people. When I was a kid, it was like [4,000], so it’s grown. It’s the birthplace of John Wayne, it is also the county seat of Madison County, so the “Bridges of Madison County”? The area has this cinematic history, but the movie theater! Imagine a town square, “Back to the Future,” clock tower, courthouse. On the town square is the Iowa Theater, which is a single-screen, historic movie theater. The building was built in the early 1900s, it was a grocery store, was converted into a vaudeville theater, and then it was made into a movie theater. And I went there as a kid, all the time. I mean, my first kiss was there, I got into fights there when I was in high school, went to movies I was probably too young for, went to see movies over and over again.
What movies were the first kiss and the fights?
It was “Seven,” the Fincher film, and I remember a friend of mine couldn’t handle it and I didn’t want to be left alone because I was a little scared, too, and we had a fight in the lobby about staying or going. The first kiss, which will sound really bad, but it was “Toy Story.” I would have been in junior high, anyway, I remember they played “Blue Chips,” that Nick Nolte movie—this is the Midwest, they’re not programming [high art]. I remember I saw “Blue Chips” like three times because that was the only thing to do in town. So, anyway, the movie theater, the floors were sticky even when I was a kid, and in 2015, it closed, unceremoniously, that May. They had not converted to digital. If there weren’t enough people, they would tell everybody to go home, give ’em their money back. They were showing things off DVD. In August, my mother and I bought the theater and I left my job at the film festival within a year. We, together, fund-raised over a million dollars, reopened the space, completely gut-rehabbed it, from the studs to the rafters. Got a digital projector and reopened it two years later. That was a huge job. And I loved building that from the ground up.
What gave you the confidence, or foolhardiness, to do that?
It sounds really simple! I had been at the film festival for a long time and I was ready to think of what was next. There was that personal/professional thing happening, and that space was so important to me, a foundational place. I’ve seen so many movie theaters in Chicago, you can tell they were a movie theater at one point. The Village Theatre that was at North and Clark, there’s a hint of the façade there.
But just the façade.
Yes. So, the idea of that space, which was my space… The marquee, this art deco marquee says “Iowa,” in neon, but the neon lights had never been lit up when I was a kid, but whenever the caucuses come around every four years, the reporters stand under the marquee, “We’re here in Iowa!” and it’s so beautiful. I just didn’t want to see it become anything but what it had been.
It’s very cinematic: It was the weekend of my wedding to [program director of The Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City] Jack [Newell], my husband, that the theater closed, Memorial Day 2015. At my wedding someone said, “Did you hear that the Iowa closed?” Even more cinematic, you couldn’t even write it, it would be cliché, but it was John Wayne’s birthday weekend! His birthday weekend, of course is Memorial Day weekend, and the John Wayne birthplace museum would partner with the Iowa Theater, even though it was a shambles, they would show John Wayne movies off DVD. It would pack the theater. That weekend, unceremoniously, the theater shuttered its doors and a line of college-ruled paper was put in the window and said, we’re closed forever. There were all these John Wayne fans there… and my mom and I had this moment, it was very strange, I said, “Oh, we should buy it,” and she said, “We should! I would do it, but only if you would do it!” She lives in town and had reinvested her life in the community, and wanted to make her town better. She was a professional quilter on PBS, she’s on the board of the quilting museum, participating in the Rotary. She said, “I can raise money, I can pound the pavement.” She said, “You know films and you know the industry, you know the movie side, I know the money side, we could really make this special.” That’s all I needed. I flew to Iowa from Chicago O’Hare, which is a fifty-five-minute flight, they don’t even give beverage service, and we met with the contractor, and he said, the bones of this building are incredible, but it’s going to cost you over a million dollars to fix it. We said, we’ll take it, we’ll take that bet, and we turned it into a nonprofit and opened it two years later. There are classics every Wednesday, Wayback Wednesday, and second-run new releases. “Space Jam” is playing right now. We’re going all Westerns in September, “Johnny Guitar,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Magnificent Seven,” “The Quiet Man,” which we show annually. It’s a place for families. The closest movie theater is about thirty-five minutes away, and we’re 150 seats, between the balcony and the lower level. Pre-COVID, we sold out regularly. The popcorn’s good, real butter.
[We talked at length about a shared interest in what, historically, audience members have taken away from the big-screen experience.]
You get stories from watching streaming product, but there’s so much more to remember personally, from making the trek to the movies, moving through space and into shared spaces.
I worked with [Chicago International Film Festival founder] Michael Kutza for a long time, and he would regale me with stories about all the theaters on State Street, all of the stories of opening nights. Does anyone experience cinema like that anymore?
The worst thing about streaming, and Martin Scorsese had said this already, is that’s there’s nothing to watch. I will look and look and look. I’d been watching a lot of Criterion Channel, and last Friday, there was nothing that I was really into. I went onto Amazon, on Netflix, and ended up rewatching… I don’t even know what it was. I spent an hour looking and not being enthused about any of it. That maybe was me, I don’t know, but it just feels…
The specialness of a place like the Film Center and films [I programmed at FilmScene] in Iowa City is that we have made a choice for you. It’s still not a huge choice, there are multiple screens, there are set showtimes, but there’s an inherent suggestion that we think that you will find something in these films that is worth seeing, whether you just like the story or the actors, or you like the Film Center or you like the popcorn, but somehow it makes you feel, this is worth your time. That’s a really powerful position to be in. In the Film Center, that’s not me, I’m saying, as the Film Center, that’s a very… I have a lot of reverence for that, for what we do here.
You take the movie with you, but everything from leaving the house to falling asleep that night has a buzz to it.
You take with you the movie, but you also take with you the other elements, too. I used to get printed tickets, I would write down who I went with, y’know, this was high school, where we went to eat, this was when tickets were like this big, went with mom, got burgers, went with Dave and Kelly, and I kept those, I probably have them in some Ziploc bag and that, then, becomes the story of that film for you. “Oh, I saw it,” “Oh, I saw it at this place, that theater isn’t there anymore,” “Yeah, there was a drunk guy in the back,” all of those things. I got into a fight at “Seven,” I had my first kiss at “Toy Story,” that becomes… those movies become part of your memory and I think that’s beautiful and wonderful and I don’t know if that’s happening anymore, all those spaces and the places and the audience that you share the movie with.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.