Indiana University Bloomington

Lighting up the silver screen

  • Feb. 25, 2014

By Jon Blau 

Martin Scorsese is the man behind a library of American pop culture -- films such as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas.”

And “The Departed.”

And “The Aviator.”

And “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

To have such a luminary visit the IU campus? Extremely unlikely if the best venue to show his films might be a darkened classroom.

Today, though, IU has the perfect venue to show such great films and to put directors live on-stage to talk with an eager audience about their work. It is the Indiana University Cinema, dedicated in 2011, a venue that can truly honor the work of great filmmakers such as Scorsese or some of the other great artists that IU President Michael McRobbie admired so much as a student in the 1960s and ’70s.

The cinema, with the sharpest aspect ratios and top-of-the-line THX Certified sound, is worthy of the best.

A visit by a big name doesn’t hurt a film program’s image, either.

There is the “post-IU Cinema” world, as Barbara Klinger puts it, and there was “pre-IU Cinema.” The professor of film studies and the chairwoman of the department of communication and culture at IU remembers a time when the best option for showing a Hollywood icon’s work would be a classroom with a projector and a DVD player, pulling the blinds down and hoping students in the hallway would limit their chatter.

That’s not a venue for a Hollywood star. The IU Cinema, its backers believe, is exactly the right place.

Jon Vickers, director of the IU Cinema, had a letter personally delivered to Scorsese, complete with an IU Cinema hat and programs from the past two years at the venue. He’s ambitious enough to hear the word “no” many times over, or nothing at all, because, one day, it could just be a “yes.”

In the three years since the IU Cinema’s $15 million renovation, Scorsese has yet to come to Bloomington -- neither have invitees Francis Ford Coppola or Steven Soderbergh -- but so many others said “yes.” Werner Herzog, the German director of the documentary “Grizzly Man,” paid a visit to IU. Then came Nicolas Winding Refn, the Dutch filmmaker who directed Ryan Gosling in “Drive.” Paul Schrader, who wrote Scorcese’s “Taxi Driver,” said yes, too.

And the list goes on.

This semester’s program is filled with its share of recognizable names: actresses Glenn Close and Meryl Streep and actor Edward James Olmos. The playbill also has its share of gems for the “cinephiles” like McRobbie, including indie producer Roger Corman, oft-mentioned as Quentin Tarantino’s inspiration. Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, an international star, will also come in April.

Vickers got them by not getting others, by hearing no a lot more than yes.

In a few short years, the cinema has become a draw, known in some circles as one of the best venues in the country. That’s just the start for proponents of film at IU. One day, they hope the cinema will be a peg in the map that defined Bloomington as the film hub of the Midwest.

Roll credits

Ask anyone in the know about the IU Cinema, and they give all the credit for the venue’s quick ascension to two men: Vickers, and IU President Michael McRobbie.

Before becoming president, McRobbie had discussed the idea of a cinema with Jim Naremore, a film professor at IU. The university had its venues for music, theater and art. The missing link, McRobbie said, was a cinema -- a place for students to gather and be moved by film the way he had been struck by Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” or Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-up.”

In 2007, McRobbie became IU’s leader. Naremore headed up his steering committee to create the cinema, and they eventually identified the east end of the IU Auditorium as a location. It was all there: the 1930s architecture, a booth that could be converted in a projector, an orchestra pit for music to be played during silent films.

Hollowing out the shell, they made way for someone to build a program.

“I always felt, if you build it, they would come,” Naremore said. “If you do it right.”

Vickers, on the other hand, came to IU after serving as director of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, the state’s first THX Certified cinema. He also co-owned an arthouse theater with his wife, Jennifer, in Three Oaks, Mich. Vickers is quick to sell the bells and whistles, the picture, the sound and the experience of the welcoming den they have created. But the film community at IU credits Vickers for conjuring much of the magic at the cinema.

Klinger calls his work marketing the cinema “miraculous.” He’s a “super man,” she says, his work akin to an intervention into the film culture at the university. Greg Waller, a professor of film at IU, calls Vickers the “greatest hire ever” and the building of the cinema one of the pivotal turning points in the arts’ history in Bloomington.

“There has always been faculty doing important work in film at IU, but for years and years and years, there hasn’t been a place worthy of showing films on campus,” Waller said. “If you put a conference on, it was difficult, if not embarrassing, to find a place to screen films on campus.”

Now it’s Vickers’ mission to spread the message of IU’s cinema and film assets through the filmmaking community.

“How do you build a reputation for film in the middle of Indiana?” Vickers asked. “We have our work cut out for us, no doubt. Indiana has a great film program, but that doesn’t bleed into the industry.

“If we invite a filmmaker and they have a mediocre experience, it’s going to be tough to get them to talk about IU Cinema. If we blow them away …”

Then they might be able to convince someone else to say yes.

Writing history

A playbill may not be the most cost-effective way to advertise a season’s slate. Vickers knows this, but each season the IU Cinema prints 11,000 programs, in paper, in color ink. This year’s “President’s Choice” series features the Italian cinema director, Luchino Visconti. “Death in Venice” plays April 14.

But the playbill serves as more than an item in a guest’s hand, certifying the experience like one from Broadway; the playbill is the building of the cinema’s history, capturing the names that have visited in an effort to compel those who haven’t yet step foot in the IU Auditorium’s east end.

Filling up the playbill year to year is a balance, Vickers said, from attracting the names everyone will know, Scorsese, to the artists filmmakers will most appreciate, such as Kiarostami, Corman and Refn. The playbill, which is part of the package sent to prospective guests, has to strike a tone that says IU cares about the art -- but that the biggest personalities see a visit to Bloomington as worth their time.

“It’s a mix of the popular and true artists,” said Vickers, who wants the cinema to represent Bloomington’s “true arthouse.”

“What we are going for are the most talented people at their craft.”

“Dear Martin Scorsese,” “Dear Steven Soderbergh,” “Dear Francis Ford Coppola.” Today’s answer might be no, but Vickers isn’t deterred. More and more, the names in the playbill make one wonder why they wouldn’t say yes.

“Hopefully,” Vickers said, “we’ll see those folks here.”

 Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.