“If the ancient Greeks had invented cinema, they’d have a temple like this,” director Peter Weir mused during his visit to the Indiana University Cinema.
When Meryl Streep taught her first-ever master class on acting, she did it on the IU Bloomington campus.
And when IU alumni Angelo Pizzo and David Anspaugh visited to give a lecture and introduce their 1986 film Hoosiers, they were so impressed by how the movie looked and sounded in the IU Cinema that they canceled dinner plans so that they could stick around to watch it.
Since opening in 2011, the IU Cinema has established itself as one of the premier arthouse cinemas in the United States, attracting big-name filmmakers and film-buff adoration alike. Such a staggering rise to prominence, in just a few years, is enough to make you wonder: What is it about IU’s single-screen theater more than 2,000 miles from Hollywood that elevates it to a position of such prestige?
Setting the Scene
To understand the IU Cinema’s importance, you have to start by going back to when it didn’t exist.
“Film had been sort of dispersed at IU. It was all over the place,” says Michael Martin, professor of cinema and media studies, and longtime member of the IU Cinema programming board.
Of course, IU has long had a robust film studies program, which is now part of The Media School. And “massive” is a subtle way to describe the university’s archives of moving images. But in spite of these achievements, there was no proper venue for showing such films, for featuring the work of student filmmakers, for sparking academic conversations about film, or for hosting cinematic luminaries and scholars.
There is a community now—a community that’s in conversation with all of its parts.
Then in 2007, in his first speech as IU’s president, Michael McRobbie called for the creation of just such a venue. In short order, renovations began to turn the former home of IU theatre productions into the IU Cinema.
“The IU Cinema has enhanced learning opportunities for students and provided space for faculty with varied cinematic interests,” Martin says. “There is a community now—a community that’s in conversation with all of its parts.”
Cast and Crew
“A lot of the highlights of my time at IU have been at the cinema—from filmmaker visits to seeing films to interacting with the staff,” says Nzingha Kendall, a doctoral student in the Department of American Studies.
Kendall started out as a volunteer in the IU Cinema’s early days, and over the years she’s co-programmed film series, worked one-on-one with filmmakers, and shown her own films there. She’s also worked with the Black Film Center/Archive, a frequent IU Cinema collaborator.
“The fact that I’m not in The Media School and still so involved speaks to the kind of outreach that the IU Cinema does,” Kendall says.
Bringing in students, no matter what they study, is a top priority for IU Cinema staff. Thanks to donor support, tickets to most programs are free or discounted for students, and the programs are wildly varied.
“We get to think creatively about curation in a way that wouldn’t be possible in commercial venues,” says IU Cinema Founding Director Jon Vickers.
Each semester, the IU Cinema partners with schools and programs around IU—and not just those with obvious connections to film. One night you’ll find a movie exploring themes of mental illness, thanks to a partnership with the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research. On another, you’ll see a series sponsored by IU’s Center for the Study of the Middle East.
Embodying the spirit of what a university cinema should be and do, the IU Cinema uses film to bring people together to experience and discuss diverse ideas. While you may go to your local movie megaplex for escape, you go to the IU Cinema to engage.
“Inviting people into a way of thinking that’s different from their own and having a conversation about it—that’s fundamental to a lot of experimental work, and that’s what the IU Cinema does, too,” says Russell Sheaffer, an experimental filmmaker who graduated from IU in 2017.
While working on his PhD at IU, Sheaffer was deeply involved with the IU Cinema. When director Josephine Decker visited, she and Sheaffer teamed up for an unconventional event. They buried a 16mm reel of the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin in Sheaffer’s garden and then recovered the deteriorated film onstage, cutting and editing with audience participation and conversation. At the end of the collaborative session, the completed film premiered for the audience.
“It sounds nuts,” Sheaffer admits. “But it was one of the most incredible experiences that I’ve ever had with film—period.”
Sheaffer understands the skepticism people may have about such offbeat cinematic experiences. But, he says, it’s the IU Cinema’s willingness to take risks and support unique learning opportunities like this that make it so special.
In 2014, Sheaffer’s short, experimental documentary Acetate Diary was selected by the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. There was a catch, though: Sheaffer’s film was in 16mm format, but the festival only showed films in 35mm. Sheaffer would have to pay for costly film enlargement or forgo the festival. The IU Cinema and other IU units banded together to fund the valuable opportunity.
“It’s so unreal, so incredible, to have that sort of support from an institution—just emotional, financial, and everything kind of support,” Sheaffer says.
Vickers and his team would like to make that kind of transformative support available on a regular basis through the IU Cinema.
“We now have an unparalleled film scoring award, and we’d like the opportunity to help fund student filmmakers too,” Vickers says. “This idea came up when we heard about students going up to $10,000 into debt to make their films.”
Funding student filmmakers is just one of many dreams for the IU Cinema’s future:
- What if original film scores by IU students could be recorded, published, and distributed?
- What if the IU Cinema could commission films, bringing top filmmakers to work alongside IU students, faculty, and staff?
- What if actors like Streep could become regular fixtures on campus through an artist-in-residence program?
- What happens when—not if—new and better motion picture technology comes along?
- What if IU rivaled the top film schools on the coasts?
No one could cry foul if the IU Cinema were to rest on its already-significant achievements, doing nothing more in the years ahead than all the things it’s been doing for the last seven, never daring to consider these what-ifs.
But which movie would you rather watch: The same old sequel after sequel rehashing, or the work of a visionary who steps behind the camera and shows the world something it’s never seen before?
To support innovative film programming and the work of visionary students, filmmakers and scholars, and to provide general support to the IU Cinema, use the button below, or contact Jon Vickers, founding director of the IU Cinema, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-855-7632.
This article was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of Imagine magazine.