Indiana Alumni Magazine, January/February 2011
Lights, Camera, Action: IU Cinema
By Brittany D. Friesner
The newest addition to the Fine Arts corridor of Indiana University’s Bloomington campus promises to screen film as it’s never been seen before
Ask most people what comes to mind when they think of Indiana and film, and they will likely respond with Hoosiers, the quintessential heartland classic. Many Indiana University alumni may even mention Breaking Away, the 1970s film that famously captured IU’s flagship hometown of Bloomington, Ind., and one of its most well-known sporting events, the annual Little 500 bicycle race. What might not be so easy to recall for many of these Hoosier film fans, though, is where they watched these films. The Indiana University Cinema looks to change all that.
Enriching IU’s Fine Arts Plaza
Nestled in the fine arts corridor of IU’s Bloomington campus, the University Theatre served as host to the main stage productions of IU’s Department of Theatre and Drama since the 1930s. Since 2002, however, when the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center opened, the University Theatre has sat dark and unused. But now, new life is being breathed into the venue.
In the fall of 2009, the work of renovating the University Theatre began. During his October 2007 inauguration address, IU President Michael A. McRobbie first mentioned plans to repurpose the historic structure. Two years later, on Oct. 17, 2009, he spoke at the ceremony that marked the launch of IU Cinema groundbreaking and Theatre and Drama Building renovation. McRobbie described the project as the culmination of "years of determination, dedication, and intellectual effort all directed toward strengthening and honoring Indiana University’s great traditions in the arts and humanities."
Many credit former IU President and University Chancellor Herman B Wells, BS’24, MA’27, LLD’62, as an early driving force behind IU’s enduring commitment to the arts. Wells, who believed the arts were vital to a well-rounded liberal arts education, envisioned a center for the arts and humanities on campus. His dream began in 1941 with the opening of the IU Auditorium, one of several Works Progress Administration construction projects on the Bloomington campus. Over the next several decades, the university added to the IU Fine Arts Plaza with the dedication of the Lilly Library in 1960; the completion of the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts in 1962; the construction of the IU Art Museum in 1982; and, most recently, the dedication in 2002 of the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center and the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center.
Slated for its public opening on Jan. 13, the IU Cinema, located at the northeast end of the IU Auditorium, will round out this arts-rich sector of campus, offering world-class cinematic exhibition of rare prints from the university’s extensive archives as well as first-run international, documentary, and independent films. The venue will also host academic film symposia and conferences as well as numerous visiting filmmakers and film festivals. Nearly all of the cinema’s programming will be available to the public as well as to IU students and faculty, with most screenings having no admission charge.
Additionally, a portion of the cinema has been purposed as a film museum that will showcase rarely seen objects from IU’s extensive archives, including the David S. Bradley Film Collection; the Black Film Center/Archive; the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction; and the Lilly Library’s John Ford, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovich collections.
If You Build It…
With nearly 300 seats and state-of-the-art projection and sound systems, the cinema will be one of the best university screening rooms in the country. Outfitted with multiple projectors, the cinema will have the capability to screen nearly every format of film, including 16mm, 35mm, and all high-definition digital formats.
Additionally, the IU Cinema is in the process of THX certification, something only five other theaters within a 500-mile radius of Bloomington can claim. Developed by Lucas film Studios, THX is the highest industry standard for sound reproduction. It strives to ensure the output of an audio system matches as closely as possible the manner in which the sound engineer intended a work be heard.
The THX certification process is rigorous and includes analysis of a theater’s architectural and lighting design as well as acoustics and audio-visual technology performance. If granted, the IU Cinema will be the first Big Ten university cinema to receive such certification.
Workers restore the Benton murals in the IU Cinema
In designing the cinema, Philadelphia architecture firm MGA Partners paid homage to the theater’s original modernist lines and WPA feel. In updating the space to accommodate the newest technologies in cinematic exhibition, the theater’s unique features have been maintained, including restoration of several panels of Thomas Hart Benton’s Indiana Murals, painted for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
Designed with the same color scheme Benton used in his murals, the cinema’s interior includes a lighting design that harkens back to the heyday of the theater in the early part of the 20th century. And while all patrons will experience the cinema’s state-of-the-art sound system, they will be hard-pressed to find its powerful speakers, which reside behind cleverly disguised wall panels.
In addition to the cinema exhibition facilities, the renovation project added new rehearsal and performance space for the Department of Theatre and Drama, including a black-box (experimental) theater and movement studio, as well as a new loading area for the IU Auditorium.
Directing the IU Cinema
Selected to head the IU Cinema as its first director, Jon Vickers previously served as managing director for the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame, which comprises five performance venues, including the THX-certified Browning Cinema. In 1996 he and his wife founded the independent art-house cinema Vickers Theatre in Three Oaks, Mich., where he curated film programming for more than a decade.
"The wealth of operational experience that Jon Vickers brings to this position will help to ensure that this new enterprise thrives," says IU Bloomington Provost and Executive Vice President Karen Hanson.
Vickers was also engaged in the foundation of several community arts organizations — including a radio station, music series and festivals, and a nationally recognized silent film festival. Some have wondered how he could leave all that in order to join the IU Cinema project, and he admits he’s been asked that question many times.
"People thought we were leaving paradise and the perfect job," says Vickers. But he explains that the commitment and enthusiasm at Indiana University to build one of the best screening rooms in the country was nearly irresistible.
"The level of commitment to the project from all levels of the university, including the president and the provost, emphasized the priority being put on this, which is amazing," says Vickers.
With that commitment, he explains, came a dedication to building with the highest standards for the facility and its equipment.
"It truly has the makings of being one of the best screening rooms in the country," says Vickers.
And as with many film productions, location played a vital role in his decision as well. Vickers admits, "As much as we loved our small town, my family really, really enjoyed their introduction to Bloomington."
While there is an extensive list of initiatives and programs Vickers looks to implement, his priorities for the first year of the IU Cinema are to successfully open the facility and fulfill the vision set by the university administration, establish the groundwork that allows the venue and program to become sustainable, and build relationships with all campus and community stakeholders.
IU Cinema screen
"The faculty I met upon my first visit to campus — not only the faculty who teach cinema studies, but all of the faculty I met — were very passionate about this project and passionate about what they do," explains Vickers. "It seemed like this would be a really wonderful place to collaborate."
Collaboration is the touchstone of Vickers’ strategic plan for the cinema. He envisions the venue will be a connecting entity on campus for myriad programs, offering ways to enhance and uplift campus film series programs like City Lights Underground or the Union Board Film program while also supporting film and other department studies on campus as well as the university’s film archives.
"I really look forward to working with faculty who are already presenting film and filmmakers here on campus," says Vickers.
While he admits it would be difficult to support all of the film programming taking place on the Bloomington campus, Vickers hopes to support each campus film program in one way or another, whether through hosting occasional screenings or collaborating on special projects.
One obvious collaborator is the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Communication and Culture, home to film and media studies on the Bloomington campus. Communication and Culture Department Chairman and Professor Gregory A. Waller says the IU Cinema will be an excellent teaching tool for departments throughout the university by providing access to an array of films that would be otherwise unavailable. Furthermore, he sees it playing a vital role in enhancing the education of film and media studies students.
"It is particularly important that undergraduates and graduates studying film have the chance to see a variety of movies in a world-class theater with the highest quality audio and visual presentation — no distractions, no multitasking, no pausing or fast forwarding, no out-of-focus projection or poor sound," he explains.
Waller also envisions the opportunity to attract new students through the myriad academic film symposia and conferences the cinema will host.
Vickers agrees the cinema will provide an excellent selling point for attracting new students.
"As prospective students tour campus, hopefully they will see this truly amazing facility and have the opportunity to see a film in this cinema," says Vickers. "I think there is a great possibility that could sway their decision whether to come to IU for cinema studies."
Furthermore, Vickers explains that with the ability to present cinematic works in a facility presenting truest to form, all IU faculty will have a remarkable teaching tool that allows them to present archival films as they were originally presented or even potentially better than when they were made.
Other cinema initiatives in Vickers’ strategic plan include silent film screenings with orchestral accompaniment from Jacobs School of Music students, a "Made in Indiana" film series highlighting homegrown talent from on- and off-campus, and the establishment of an international children’s film festival. He cites the latter as an outreach effort aimed at engaging Bloomington citizens outside of the university, as Vickers plans to extend the reach of the IU Cinema well beyond campus.
"We need to build great relationships with the community," he explains. "We want to make sure we’re offering things to Bloomington that they may not be getting already or enhancing what is in place."
Other off-campus initiatives Vickers hopes to pursue include the possibility of additional outdoor film screenings in the community and inviting visiting filmmakers into area schools.
Regardless of where patrons come from, Vickers has found, throughout his cinema experience, the best way to engage filmgoers is through the development of personal relationships, something he intends to do from the moment the cinema opens by including personal introductions to films and providing the highest quality in guest services to each and every visitor.
"We want to make sure that we’re not only showing films in the best environment, with the best exhibition standards, but we also want to engage filmgoers personally," says Vickers. "We want the overall IU Cinema experience to be wonderful