At this stage in our nearly year-long exile from cinemas, the text emblazoned on the stairs of the Gene Siskel Film Center now reads like a prophetic asservation: “Just a few more steps to great movies.”
Having stayed closed for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, the Film Center—often referred to as just “the Siskel” by local cinephiles—is no stranger to the dual condition of discouragement and optimism that’s become two sides of the same coin for those in the arts during these trying times. Back in July, 13 of the Film Center’s 19 employees (including longtime associate director of programming Marty Rubin) were unceremoniously let go as part of wide-reaching layoffs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, under which the Film Center is a public program. Then, in November of last year, the organization announced that their director of programming, Barbara Scharres, would retire after 45 years in the job, signaling the end of an era at one of Chicago’s most important exhibition venues.
But with such developments comes a passing of the torch. Earlier this month the Film Center announced that Rebecca Fons would be coming on as the new director of programming (part-time for now) until the much-anticipated reopening of the theater, when it’s intended that she’ll assume the role on a full-time basis.
I spoke with Fons about this new opportunity and learned that one of the first items on her agenda is, as one might expect, to continue honing the Film Center’s virtual cinema offerings. “We’ll be closed for a while,” she says. “We’re not going to reopen, you know, tomorrow. So immediately [we’re] thinking about virtual. Exhibitors across the country pivoted to virtual programming so quickly, and distributors did, too. So [we’re] thinking about how we can utilize that virtual space. It’s essentially another screen.”
We spoke via Zoom after Fons had completed a long day at her current—and soon-to-be concurrent—job as director of programming at FilmScene in Iowa City, where she attended the University of Iowa as an undergraduate; she’ll continue to work at FilmScene until she becomes full-time at the Film Center. She received her masters in Media Management from Columbia College Chicago, during which time she interned with the Chicago International Film Festival. That internship led to a job as the festival’s education director, a position she held from 2007 to 2016.
Her next step would take her back to her movie-going roots. Fons is from the small town of Winterset, Iowa (population 5,190, as of the 2010 census), where in 2015 her local theater, The Iowa Theater, closed. Her mom, who raised Fons and her two siblings as a single mother, had an idea: she suggested they buy it.
“She was like, this is where you saw the world,” Fons says. “This is where you realized your passion, in the seats of this movie theater. Should we buy it? Should we rehab it? Is that a crazy idea? And I did not think that was a crazy idea. Who doesn’t want to rehabilitate a movie theater?”
After establishing a nonprofit organization and raising roughly a million dollars to rehab the space, the new-and-improved Iowa Theater reopened in 2017. That same year, Fons got the job at FilmScene, commuting back and forth among Winterset, Iowa City, and Chicago, where she still had an apartment with her husband, Jack C. Newell, himself a filmmaker and program director at the Harold Ramis Film School.
“The magic of the moving image has kind of always been my north star,” she says. “The arts are where I find myself at home. I’m very, very fortunate to have a career where I can do what I love. Even though it’s been kind of all over the place, it’s been a true pleasure.”
Fons is especially compelled by what drives moviegoers’ viewing habits, as the path from the couch to the theater seat has taken on further significance with exhibitors around the world looking forward to a return to in-person programming. “There’s this huge question of, what do people want to see when they come back to the movie theater for the first time in what will be over a year for most people,” she says.
While the Film Center’s virtual cinema is one of her more immediate concerns, Fons is already thinking long-term. She assures me that much of what makes the Film Center the cultural bastion it is will stay the same. “There are absolutely long-standing partnerships and programs that will continue,” she says. “Black Harvest is a great example . . . certain things like that will not change at all. Long-standing series that are the spine of the Film Center won’t go anywhere.”
But: “I’m also interested . . . [in] looking at programs that in the past haven’t worked, and they’re sort of just limping along, and figuring out if there’s a way to activate them in a new way or move on. This is an interesting time to be able to do that.”
Some of Fons’s ideas include exploring the potential for late-night grindhouse offerings, and on the flip side, a series of films geared toward families. And like many curators, Fons is considering how the Film Center can expand on its already robust programs showcasing films by and about groups that aren’t properly represented in mainstream cinema, such as the aforementioned Black Harvest Film Festival, the Annual Festival of Films from Iran, the Chicago Palestine Film Festival, and the Asian American Showcase, among others. Fons is part of the Alliance for Action, a working group of Arthouse Convergence that brings together programmers, exhibitors, film festival staff, and even some distributors to discuss issues related to equity.
“There are only two screens at the Film Center,” she says. “It’s a limited landscape, it’s a limited canvas, and so thinking about how by programming female filmmakers, filmmakers of color, we become the influencers, the Film Center becomes the influencer and guides Chicago patrons and audience members to an understanding of the film community and storytelling. I think there’s a huge responsibility of the programmer, and I take it on with much reverence.”
Navigating a more-or-less traditional exhibition space during a global pandemic and various occurrences of societal unrest—during a time when many are taking the arts for granted, as is evidenced by a general disregard for those workers displaced by the crisis—Fons, like others in her position, has her work cut out for her. But still, she’s not willing to let click-bait headlines announcing the death of cinema distract her from what she knows to be true about the communal moviegoing experience.
“I truly do feel that when we’re able to come together as an audience in the movie theater, it’ll be like the cloud is lifted and, oh, right, this is the best thing in the whole wide world.” v