Living the Dream: Cinema Maven Rachel Jacobson – the Woman Behind Film Streams
Since its late 2007 start Film Streams has given Omaha a much-needed and celebrated infusion of art cinema. This still young nonprofit theater already enjoys a strong following and a national reputation. Film Streams is the vision of founder and director Rachel Jacobson, an Omaha native who left here only to come back with a mission of giving her hometown its first full-fledged art cinema. Until she came back from New York City with her dream of forming a center devoted to film as art this metro area of more than 800,000 never had a theater dedicated to screening the best of old and new cinema and to presenting educational programs around the films. Thanks to her, Omaha finally has a film home befitting its large population. She’s not only made her dream a reality but she’s made this Midwest theater nationally known thanks to first-rate screenings and programming and the involvement of board member Alexander Payne, whose clout has allowed Film Streams to nab some major guests, including Laura Dern, Debra Winger, and Steven Soderberg. 2012 will make the biggest splash yet when this year’s special guest is revealed. A true film icon. My short profile of Rachel is the cover story in the new issue of Metro Magazine.
Living the Dream: Cinema Maven Rachel Jacobson – the Woman Behind Film Streams
©by Leo Adam Biga
The cover story in the February 2012 Metro Magazine (http://issuu.com/metmago/docs/metromagazine-february-2012)
Film Streams is coming off its fourth and most successful year yet, capped by the record-breaking, exclusive run of Alexander Payne‘s The Descendants. With the art cinema riding high, it’s easy overlooking the determination founder-director Rachel Jacobson, 33, showed in turning her dream into reality.
Film buff in the making
The success has made her a respected leader among the young creatives and professionals set that’s helping transform Omaha’s once amorphous culture into an identifiably cool scene.
The Omaha Central High graduate left here to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and to get her professional start but her plan always included coming back to her hometown. When she returned in 2005 the then-20something set about selling philanthropists on the idea of a film center in the barrens of North Downtown.
Most embraced her vision. Some expressed reservations. But anyone who dealt with her soon fell under the sway of her informed passion to support the project.
Before coming back to pursue her dream, she laid the groundwork for it back East. She immersed herself in an intensive arts administration course at New York University and made a study of art cinemas, all to formulate the nonprofit public film model Film Streams follows. She strategically worked at a SoHo art gallery, Miramax Films and WNYC public radio to learn lessons for making her Omaha cinematheque sustainable.
“It was sort of grad school without having to pay for it,” she says.
She never intended going to New York City. Chicago was her choice out of college. But once there, she says, “I just fell in love with the city.”
She often describes an epiphany she had in college as the defining moment when she abandoned law school plans to pursue being a film curator-exhibitor. Her cinephile leanings began long before that, as a girl, when she accompanied her parents to see movies at the Indian Hills Theatre. “It was such a beautiful theater. It felt like this grand experience,” she says. The Dundee Theatre and then-AMC Westroads 8 became frequent haunts. As a college English and political science major she fell ever more under cinema’s spell via film studies courses and art movie house screenings.
A public film theater model
Her film education continued in New York, where she devised the core principals behind her Omaha cinema. True to her vision she’s made it “a mission-based” showcase for film as art. With support from memberships, grants, donations and other contributed revenue almost equal to box office-concession revenue, she’s freed Film Streams from commercial pressure and compromise.
“A big part of why I wanted to work in film is I wanted to figure out ways to get beyond the fact that film is seen as a product. Yyou need to have a way to fight against that commodity perspective,” she says.
Her serving on a National Endowment for the Arts grants panel has helped Film Streams win NEA and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences funding.
Not having to turn a profit or pack the house means Jacobson can schedule the kind of limited appeal movies cineplexes rarely play: first-run American independent and foreign features, repertory classics, documentaries and shorts. Unlike mainstream theaters, Film Streams presents panel discussions, educational programs and extras, often in partnership with community organizations.
She strives for a schedule reflecting world cinema. “An important part of our mission is to be a platform for those under-heard voices,” she says.
Early 2012 season highlights reflect this diversity. There’s a 10-film repertory series of international masterworks on restored 35 millimeter prints. Partnership screenings-panels are scheduled around documentaries about urban planning, education, women’s self-image and developmental disabilities. First-run narrative features include Pariah and We Need to Talk About Kevin, both by women directors on tough subjects.
There’s also the annual Oscar-winning shorts series.
As for the remainder of the year, she’s working on bringing prominent filmmakers and eying a possible film noir series. Ingmar Bergman may be the focus of the next Great Directors series. The biennial Cinemateca of Spanish-language films is slated for September. The 2012 gala promises a film-pop culture icon in August. Past guests of honor have been Laura Dern, Debra Winger and Steven Soderbergh. Board member Alexander Payne gives Film Streams pull in attracting major names.
Growing a film community
Just as Jacobson’s cultivated a close relationship with Payne and other celebs, she’s nurtured a growing audience at Film Streams, where ticket sales climbed to 54,000 last year. Memberships have held steady at nearly 2,000.
“I feel really great about where we are as far as audience. Hopefully it indicates more people are seeing the kinds of films we’re showing than would have if we didn’t exist.
“The interesting thing about what we’ve become that I didn’t imagine is that I feel like people perceive us as not just a place for cinephiles but also as a community space because of the discussions and the partnerships we do. I feel like that’s what makes us distinctive because that helps us reach new, wider audiences that may not otherwise come. Those connections help us serve the entire community.”
She strikes a balance serving both hardcore film buffs and casual movie fans. Along the way, she hopes general audiences sample more challenging fare.
Film Streams has also expanded its administrative staff and budget. “It’s over a million dollars now,” she says. “We’ve just kind of grown incrementally every year.”
She’s perhaps most pleased by how Omaha has gotten behind Film Streams. There’s a sense of ownership in it, and that’s precisely what she wants.
“We’re all sort of stakeholders in it – Omaha, our members, the board.”
A creative life and career
The island that Film Streams, Slowdown and Saddle Creek Records anchors is gaining a foothold in North Downtown along with Creighton University, Tip Top, Hot Shops, the Mastercraft and TD Ameritrade Park. She sees development there as a mixed-bag but the entrepreneurial spirit and energy on display make her optimistic.
She feels young creative class professionals like herself and her friends are more and more being heard. She likes the vibrant Omaha that emerged while she was away and that continues spinning off creative new ventures. She’s a big advocate of Omaha’s indie music scene.
“There’s something distinctive about what people are creating and there’s a strong community around it,” she says.
Film Streams gives her a little slice of the Big Apple in Omaha, where her life and work revolve around art, beauty, creativity, rock music, friends, donors and social entrepreneurs. “This job is that,” she says. Best of all, she gets to share her film passion. “I love that experience so much. It’s a way to connect with people. It feels really great to show someone something they appreciate. Man, I love that.”
- Omaha’s Film Reckoning Arrives in the Form of Film Streams, the City’s First Full-Fledged Art Cinema (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Alexander Payne – Portrait of a Young Filmmaker (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: About ‘About Schmidt’: The Shoot, Editing, Working with Jack and the Film After the Cutting Room Floor (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- About Payne: Alexander Payne on ‘About Schmidt,’ Jack Nicholson and the Comedy of Deep Focus (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Conquering Cannes, Alexander Payne’s Triumphant Cannes Film Festival Debut with ‘About Schmidt’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Alexander Payne Discusses His New Feature ‘About Schmidt’ Starring Jack Nicholson, Working with the Star, Past Projects and Future Plans (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Alexander Payne, an Exclusive Interview Following the Success of ‘Sideways’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- When Laura Met Alex: Laura Dern & Alexander Payne Get Deep About Collaborating on ‘Citizen Ruth’ and Their Shared Cinema Sensibilities (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alexander Payne Achieves New Heights in ‘The Descendants’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the Symbiosis Behind His Film and Her Novel ‘The Descendants’ and Her Role in Helping Him Get Hawaii Right (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Film Festival Celebrates Seven Years of Growing the Local Film Culture (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Bringing Back Classic Movies and the Old-Time Ballyhoo, Bruce Crawford Shows ‘King Kong’ the Red Carpet Treatment (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)