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Omaha’s Film Reckoning Arrives in the Form of Film Streams, the City’s First Full-Fledged Art Cinema

November 27, 2011 11 comments

The much-ballyhooed rise of Omaha’s culture scene got a major boost with the addition of the city’s first full-fledged art cinema, Film Streams, in 2007.  I wrote the following cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the eve of Film Stream’s much anticipated opening. It’s an analytical piece that examines the viability of the enterprise in this market and the various things that this art cinema’s founder and director, Rachel Jacobson, put in place to give it sustainability. Because I was a film programmer myself for several years in Omaha I have a certain informed perspective on what the art cinema scene looked like before and after Film Streams.

Five years later, there’s no doubting that Film Streams is a runaway success and that Jacobson is the main reason why.  She’s cannily secured both a strong endowment and membership base from Omaha’s movers and shakers, along with steady grant support, as backing for the world-class programming she and her staff have presented right from the start.  She’s also cultivated two star advisory board members in Alexander Payne and Kurt Andersen who help give the venue cachet and credibility well beyond Omaha.  If you’re a local and you haven’t been to Film Streams yet, shame on you.  If you plan to visit, be sure to make it one of your stops.  Payne has been instrumental in the theater hosting some high profile film names at special fundraising events, including Laura Dern, Debra Winger, and Steven Soderbergh.  My stories on the Dern, Winger, and Soderbergh events can be found on this blog.

The theater’s next special guest, for a spring-summer event, is a genuine cinema legend.  More on that in a few months.  Check out everything Film Streams at http://www.filmstreams.org.

And if you’re so inclined, check out my deep store of film stories on this blog.

Rachel Jacobson outside Film Streams

Omaha‘s Film Reckoning Arrives in the Form of Film Streams, the City’s First Full-Fledged Art Cinema

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeard in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Rachel Jacobson’s Film Streams dream turns reality this weekend. That’s when the non-profit art cinema she’s synonymous with opens in North Downtown. The Ruth Sokolof Theatre at 14th and Webster joins Slowdown, the Saddle Creek Records live music bar that shares the same shell, as the next-big-thing in Omaha culture.

In truth, her dream is one many area cinephiles harbored over time, but she’s the first with the means and the moxie to have gone after it. Audaciously, she’s not hitched the theater to an entrenched cultural institution, such as a university or museum. Instead, Film Streams is an “autonomous nonprofit.” While Saddle Creek doesn’t have an active business interest in it, as the building’s builder, owner, landlord and neighbor, Saddle Creek Records is an institutional partner in spirit.

In some respects, it’s a case of good karma, as Jacobson articulated her vision just as Omaha’s much-discussed synergy of ambitious new art-cultural endeavors took off. Since 2000 the city’s seen come to fruition: various public arts projects; Qwest Center Omaha; the Riverfront Jazz and Blues Festival; the Holland Performing Arts Center; the downtown Omaha Lit Fest; the Great Plains Theatre Conference; the Omaha Film Festival and the Blue Barn Music Festival. Slowdown and Film Streams only add to the growing mix of can-do, cosmo, entertainment projects.

With an urban industrial look, from the clean, simple lines of its red brick and black steel exterior to the airy, open, many-windowed loft-style lobby-offices, the building plays off the retro-gentrified face of its eclectic environs. The interior’s exposed precast concrete and steel infrastructure and metal panel-encased windows lend a vaguely 19th century factory vibe. The pastel walls, natural finished Maple woods, Omer Arbel decorative lighting and Bludot furniture, plus a neoclassic Dineresque concessions stand, add a post-modern touch. A huge lithograph on one wall is of iconic Robert Mitchum from Night of the Hunter (a Jacobson favorite), adding a splash of drama and color to the light, Pop-style lobby.

The two auditoriums, one seating 206, the other 96, are intimate spaces with such requisite creature comforts as high-back, cup-holder chairs, and with such techno features as ample sound panels and multiple projection systems.

Surrounding the building is a mix of manufacturers, warehouses, divey boarding houses, pawn shops, bars, a homeless shelter and a day care center. To the west and north is trendy residential living in Creighton University dorms and Tip Top loft apartments, respectively. Hotels along the emerging Cuming Street Corridor to the north are going up fast. Bohemian spots like the Hot Shops, a few blocks north, are few and far between. The InPlay sports bar and Rick’s Cafe Boatyard are the nearest nice eateries. A couple blocks east is the whole riverfront scene. Traffic to and from the Qwest Center and Civic Auditorium may generate some walk-ins.

The building, set off by its striking black and white marquee and a wide, tree-lined curb, is the subject of much buzz. On a recent afternoon, as workers streamed in and out installing auditorium seats and unpacking assorted boxes in the lobby, passersby on foot and in cars rubbernecked for a glimpse inside.

Film Streams is situated in the projected hub of NoDo, the North Downtown redevelopment district the city’s pinning high hopes on. It could blow up into a destination place or just stagnate. Directly west is a vacant lot overgrown by weeds, a speculative site for a baseball stadium that some consider the missing anchor piece of this puzzle. For now though NoDo has a solid toe-hold and Film Streams is well-positioned as a cool modern throwback — a downtown neighborhood theater attached to the Saddle Creek-Slowdown star.

“Yeah, it couldn’t be a better location, really,” the lithe, long-haired Jacobson said from the Film Streams conference room, with its great view of the cityscape. “I mean, it’s amazing timing…it’s right place, right time, right people involved.”

It’s been a three-year love-fest for Jacobson. With her Cameron Diaz good looks, expatriate return from New York to her hometown, Saddle Creek hook up, Alexander Payne endorsement and philanthropic connections, she’s wrapped her fingers around the Big O!. Per her Revlon-smiling presence in those First National Bank television spots, she’s viewed as a poster girl for the Cool Young Urban Entrepreneurial set that local movers-and-shakers covet.

She’s also an example of the reverse brain drain this state needs; namely, she’s among the long line of Nebraska’s best and brightest to leave, only she’s the exception by coming back to realize her dream here. It’s a Chamber-made PR story.

 

 

All the attention has her a little queasy.

“This has been so tied to my personality the past two years because so much of it was in my head,” she said, “but now there’s a building, there’s people invested in it, it’s an organization. So I’m hoping it won’t be so synonymous with my name and my identity because that’s a little bit awkward and it also doesn’t bode well for the future…You want it to take on a life of its own and I hope it does.

“I think it’s important it have its own specific voice and personality just like any interesting small business.”

Rare for any start-up, much less a non-profit arts group venturing into unknown territory, i.e. a full-fledged art house in a burg that’s never really seen one, she’s gotten donors to pony up big time. Shaping Omaha’s cool quotient is a seductive thing and may help explain why Film Streams has attracted such widespread support.

“I think a lot people’s motivation for giving and being engaged with this organization is to have an affiliation with everything that’s going on in the arts scene in Omaha and to feel a part of it,” she said.

Her first home run was getting the Saddle Creek Boys, Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel, to build the theater as part of their new NoDo headquarters complex, which includes Slowdown. The Saddle Creek-Film Streams relationship is a case of young urban professionals who share like-minded visions getting together. She lived and worked in New York when she ran into Nansel in 2002 and they laid out their dreams.

“Initially we were talking to Rachel as a friend and trying to help her figure out a place that would work for a theater in Omaha,” Kulbel said. “We had already been on some real estate searches for a similar sized space so we knew what was out there — nearly nothing, unfortunately. There was a fair amount of time that passed between first talking  with her about it and approaching her about the idea of doing it downtown. I was personally very into the idea before we were involved on a business level. I have always seen it as something that would really help out the culture of Omaha, so I have really been into supporting the idea any way I could.”

Kulbel and Nansel serve on the Film Streams advisory board.

Then, with the help of her dad, Kutak Rock chair David Jacobson, she launched a capital campaign. It’s raised $1.7 million for theater operations and an endowment.

“You can’t underestimate the connection thing,” she said in reference to her father and the fact he heads a well-heeled law firm with a history of arts philanthropy. Her family’s standing in the Jewish community has also paid big dividends, including the Sokolof family gift recognized by the theater’s name. Even so, getting old farts to fork over serious dough for an art cinema took some doing in a town unused to thinking of film the way it does music or fine art. 

“It’s not a new concept obviously, but it’s a new concept for Omaha,” she said. “There were definitely people in the beginning who gave me quizzical looks and with whom I had to use examples of older art forms, like theater or opera or symphony, and how these things have had to become nonprofit and how film is the great art form of the 20th century. So it just makes sense to have an organization devoted to celebrating film in that sort of reverential way.”

She feels her New York experience, including stints at Miramax and WNYC, gave her a foundation for thinking and speaking about film as a legit art form.

“In New York film is seen in the kind of light I’m talking about,” she said. “Werner Herzog is a household name. Even more obscure directors are known, not only by people who consider themselves to be film buffs, but just by anyone engaged in the cultural environment of the city. So I knew what needed to be articulated here. I don’t know if I could have done this without having lived there…”

New York’s vital arts community also instilled in her an “attitude that anything’s possible” asdding,”My friends there have been so supportive of this project — they all got it in like two seconds.” She’s found enough cinema sophisticates here to move forward.

Snagging an Oscar-winning filmmaker in Payne and a best-selling author and national public radio personality in Kurt Andersen for her board helped seal the deal.

The Payne name adds sizzle and legitimacy. It opens doors and check books. “I never imagined he would be involved to this degree,” said Jacobson, referring to his curating the inaugural repertory series. “His involvement is so significant.”

 

 

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Alexander Payne has lent his support to Rachel Jacobson and Film Streams

Any skeptics left soon drank the Kool Aid when she secured mucho bucks from such community stalwarts as the Peter Kiewit Foundation and Dick Holland.

Besides getting heavyweights to embrace and fund her project, she’s done her homework, asked all the right questions and put in place a fundraising-membership structure that holds hope this experiment might bear fruit and have a future.

Experiment is the operative word, as no one knows whether Omaha can support an art cinema. Why? Start with there not having been one here before. Sure, there’s the Dundee Theatre, but it often shows titles that also play the cineplexes, it has no education component and its single screen, mid-town location and loyal fan base make comparisons difficult. 

Then ask yourself, what size of an audience really exists for new indie American and first-run foreign pics that outside a few crossover titles a year do little business anywhere? Or for classics now readily accessible via NetFlix or cable?

If anyone knows it’s Danny Lee Ladely, director of the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln, one of the nation’s longest-lived art cinemas.

“There’s a good reason why there aren’t more art theaters in Lincoln and Omaha,” he said, “and that’s because the markets here really aren’t large enough to sustain them. The only way the Ross has been able to survive over all these years is by having lots and lots of subsidies through grants, donations, memberships.”

Ladely also serves on the Film Streams advisory board.

Just how tough it is to get butts in the seats for art films is revealed by a recent study Ladely’s business manager did. “For every two-week run of a film we show we lose $3,500,” he said. It’s only the occasional art house darling, like The Piano or  Fahrenheit 9/11 that makes a profit, much less a killing. Most lose money. He’s curious to see how the Film Streams repertory program, which features classics, does. He long ago stopped showing older titles as they drew fewer and fewer moviegoers.

If Omaha history is any gauge then there’s a limited pool to be sure. Many alternative film efforts have come and gone. As recently as six years ago the Brandeis Art Cinema tried and failed to be a Dundee Theatre at the Southroads Mall. Nontheatrical causalities in the ’90s included student-sponsored film programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Creighton University, various  series at the Joslyn Art Museum and a short-lived series at the Blue Barn Theatre. The New Cinema Coop., a part-time presenting group, had a long run in the ’70s-’80s. The Old Market Puppet Theatre and Edison Exchange preceded it. 

Until now, the nearest art cinema has been the Ross, which might as well be Siberia for the few Omahans who trek down I-80 to catch a flick. Distance alone seems to negate head-on competition. Jacobson believes the two venues serve separate markets. Ladely mostly concurs, though he worries about losing the “handful” of Omaha faithful who go there. He sees a bigger conflict between Film Streams and the Dundee, but Jacobson says she’s after different titles than that mid-town theater and is willing to work cooperatively to avoid booking issues.

Danny Lee Ladely, ©photo Lincoln Journal-Star

Likewise, Dundee Manager Matt Brown is willing to consult with Jacobson. It makes sense for them to talk, as each desires exclusive runs. Double bookings at theaters four miles apart would hurt one or both. He said Film Streams is definitely new “competition,” but not one that necessarily “conflicts” with the Dundee. 

He feels the two theaters will largely go after different titles, with Film Streams eying more pure art films and the Dundee art films with more mainstream appeal. Jacobson confirms this. Still, there’s bound to be times when the two vie for the same features. The Dundee’s current attraction, Once, would seem to be an Film Streams fit. Film Stream’s opening first-run attraction, the subtitled French film La Vie en Rose, is not standard Dundee material, but who’s to say future titles won’t be? 

Where things could get dicey for Film Streams, Brown said, is finding enough art material outside what the Dundee and the AMC chain show that boast the kind of strong reviews and word-of-mouth needed to build audiences. Reviews can make or break things, he said, and only a few titles captivate critics and audiences. Brown said AMC may pose a problem, as it shows many art titles as loss leaders. However, Jacobson said studios/distributors tell her they prefer these titles play in an art cinema that nurtures them rather than in a cineplex that buries them. 

It may take time for Film Streams to find its niche. While the Dundee books first-run features months in advance, Film Streams, at least for now, takes a more fluid approach. Jacobson’s eying several titles from the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for her fall/winter schedule. Her upcoming repertory programs after the Payne series include an Adaptations series and a Nebraska series.

Jacobson’s oft-stated belief, one shared by Brown, that the addition of Film Streams can help grow audiences for art fare and therefore benefit everyone sounds good. But the problem gets back to the relatively few folks who go see films that are obscure, subtitled or both or that can be readily viewed at home. Each tells you the city can enjoy a vital art cinema scene with multiple venues. But with two year-round operations here, it stands to reason one or both will be squeezed in the process.

Dundee Theatre

To cover a projected $800,000 annual operating budget Film Streams won’t need the volume of bodies and receipts suburban cineplexes generate. Film Streams expects to offset its smaller attendance/take the same way the Ross does — with grants, donations and membership revenue. Through last week Film Streams had sold 500 memberships, which are $50 for individuals and $35 for students/seniors.

“That’s the whole business plan,” she said. “That’s exactly why we diversified our income streams. We plan to keep every single one of those income streams afloat if we can. Box office and concessions and even rentals of our space will only amount to just over 50 percent of our operating budget. Everything else will have to come from membership contributions, corporate sponsorships, foundation gifts…People in the community have to continue to support this in order for us to exist.”

A small staff will keep overhead low. Besides Jacobson, chief programmer and fundraiser, there’s operations manager Ann Ploeger and communications coordinator Casey Logan. Box-office/concessions workers and union projectionists will be contracted per show.

Whereas the Ross is insulated to a degree from poor attendance by its association with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Film Streams stands alone, on an island.

“The Ross has an advantage that has really been important in the survival and the success of the program and that is that it’s part of the university,” Ladely said.

On the other hand, Film Streams has formed an endowment, something the Ross, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t have. As Ladely noted, it’s true the center’s namesake Mary Riepma Ross donated millions, but all of it went toward building its new center. The Friends of the Ross does have a small endowment.

Just as the Ross is utilized by UNL for classes, Film Streams plans to invite organizations to rent the space for its own or collaborative programs. “We can make it into more than just a movie theater and bring people here who aren’t necessarily cinephiles. That’s going to be a huge part of what we do,” said Jacobson, who envisions partnering with existing events, such as the Omaha Lit Fest or Omaha Film Festival, and with organizations that have a natural cultural connection to Film Streams films/series.

 

 

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©photo by a. matzke

Previous art film efforts in town lacked the cool, state-of-the-art digs and amenities Film Streams delivers. Joslyn’s flirted with cinema but despite its splendor it lacks a bona fide theater space and has never really committed to film. The closest anyone came is when the New Cinema screened alternative fare at the old Center Street Theatre and when the Park IV ran a repertory classics series, but as legit as those venues were their poverty row quarters, budgets and revenues spelled failure.

Jacobson was so intent on doing an art cinema she was at one time prepared to marry it to a Joslyn or do it on the cheap “like squatting in an old warehouse.”

The way things worked out, she’s got the real thing. The Ross in Lincoln is a model for it, as are landmark programs back East, including those at the George Eastman House, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and New York’s Film Forum. “Film Forum was the one I looked at most frequently,” she said. “It’s completely autonomous and it’s devoted to film and that’s the mode I really wanted to emulate. That’s how I felt you could be most true to the mission, because if you’re within someone else’s mission then you just have to make too many compromises. So I’m very happy it turned out the way it did.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t consult people. She bends the ear of veterans like the Ross’ Ladely and her booker, Amherst, Mass.-based Connie White, who programmed the Coolidge Corner and Brattle Theatres in Boston. She also has the advantage of a network of industry contacts, Payne among them, who should help steer major film artists here for lectures, panels, symposiums, retrospectives, et all.

“I’m really excited about the potential for that,” she said.

In terms of anticipation, there hasn’t been anything like this for a new local arts facility since the Holland opened in 2005. A much larger, costlier project, it was the first major new performing venue here in a long time, thus it netted high attention and expectation. Film Streams is not only the first comprehensive art/repertory house here, it’s the first cinema of any kind downtown since the early ‘90s, when the New Cinema converted a storefront at 15th and Davenport.

Unlike Film Streams, the Holland has a built-in fan base as the home to the Omaha Symphony, whose members it markets to. The Holland is also located right in the heart of downtown, not on its northern fringes. Slowdown’s niche indie music model is much closer to Film Streams and its specialized cinema offerings.

The question now is: Will enough people buy memberships and fill seats to keep the theater a viable center that donors want to support? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, Jacobson’s focused on “executing” what till now has been a run-through. The dress rehearsals are over and now the screen lights up for real.

“One thing I’m constantly thinking about is sustainability. That’s really the ultimate goal,” she said. “My biggest fear with this is that it will fizzle out in five years. I mean, I don’t think it’s going to…I think we planned this out and we have enough people invested in it that it won’t, but who knows.

“If everyone who says they’re going to be here all the time is here some of the time, then we’ll do OK.”

Jacobson was reminded of what someone asked her recently — what’s it like to do a job that’s your passion? “It was always my dream to do something I loved, but one thing is you can never, ever escape it. You’re always working, because it is me.”

Jeff Slobotski and Silicon Prairie News Create a Niche by Charting Innovation

August 27, 2011 7 comments

One of the leaders of Omaha’s much ballyhooed creatives and emerging entrepreneurs community is Jeff Slobotski, who has caught the wave with his Silicon Prairie News site and his annuak Big Omaha event.  Jeff not only has lots of great ideas and an abudance of energy and enthusiasm, but he also has the skills to do follow through and to actually make his concepts reality. The following piece I did about Jeff and Silicon Prairie News appeared in Metro Magazine a couple years ago. Since then, Jeff’s endeavors have grown even more. I have a feeling I will be writing about he and his ventures for a long time.  I may even be writing for him one day.

 

Jeff Slobotski

 

 

 

Jeff Slobotski and Silicon Prairie News Create a Niche by Charting Innovation

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine

Omaha-based Silicon Prairie News (SPN) may not be the next big thing on the Web but that’s OK with founder Jeff Slobotski. The Omaha native envisions his less-than-year-old startup as part social mission and part social networking portal. SPN’s public face is www.siliconprairienews.com, a sleek blog, news and events site devoted to nurturing and linking the area’s entrepreneurial-minded creative class.

Site postings include original published stories, video interviews and listings filed by him and partner Dusty Davidson, owner of the boutique software applications firm, Bright Mix, which hosts SPN. “If you’re looking for news and information around the creative innovative class,” Slobotski said, “that’s what we hope we’ll be able to cover and provide to folks.”

Slobotski, 31, came to admire his hometown as an entrepreneurial hot bed working with political campaigns in Nebraska and as a capital consultant with the Steier Group. He’s further staked-out cutting-edge Omaha in his current day job as sales-marketing guru for New York City-based software design firm Truist.

His travels allows him to compare the climate for startups here with that in centers of innovation like Austin, Texas. What he sees is that, yes, things are hopping as you’d expect in these progressive hubs but there’s also no shortage of enterprising intellectual capital and commerce in Omaha.

“I knew we had a lot of that here — a lot of that same creative class, innovative, entrepreneurial spirit,” said Slobotski, who makes it SPN’s business to track and engage this lively community of Generation X-Y-Z go-getters.

He maintained a personal blog that predated SPN, Midwest to Manhattan, where he commented on New York or San Francisco goings-on. “My office was in Manhattan at that time,” he said. After a while though he decided to turn his attention from what was happening elsewhere to what was happening in his own backyard.

“I thought, Nobody wants to read about me traveling around and writing, ‘Look what I’ve seen’ or ‘Look who I met.’ I like to be behind the scenes anyway — I don’t need to be the highlight of the blog. I wanted to turn that around and say, ‘Hey, look at some of guys or women that are doing it right here.”

 

 

 

That’s when he began formulating the SPN model that features individuals living the dream as entrepreneurs, innovators, mavericks, venture capitalists. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m talking about what I’m seeing in New York and bringing that back here,’ and I was like, ‘No wait, we have that here.” Examples are abundant.

“Rachel Jacobson at Film Streams is an innovator to me. She doesn’t clock in at 8 and clock out at 5, yet she’s really pushing the spirit of what we’re doing as a city,” said Slobotski. “Secret Penguin is another example. It’s a Web design shop that does work for MTV and the NFL, and not a lot of people know that.”

On his SPN site Slobotski’s sung the praises of both Jacobson and Secret Penguin owner Dave Nelson, a pro skateboarder whose youth branding business is built around skateboarding, music and youth cultures. Both Film Streams and Secret Penguin, along with bar/live music venue Slowdown, are part of the Saddle Creek Records complex that anchors the NoDo district’s developing cultural-commercial scene and exemplifies the creative class community Slobotski celebrates.

In his self-described role as “citizen reporter” Slobotski, not a trained journalist but a University of Nebraska at Omaha finance and banking graduate, does a form of advocacy journalism through Silicon Prairie News posts. SPN really is his forum to serve as Omaha’s creative class evangelist and facilitator.

“I see the resources, the talent we have here in town, and again it goes back to those connections or those networks,” he said. “But what good is it that you know people but aren’t helping them develop their skill set or their trade? Our goal is to really build that community and highlight those individuals or those businesses or those ideas to show that you’re not alone. If you’re someone who after you clock out of your 8-to-5 job is moonlighting, working on an idea, it’s like, Hey there’s other guys out there like you and here’s some of their stories.”

Slobotski and Davidson moonlight themselves, doing SPN as a “labor of love” around regular careers. They do more than report on entrepreneurs. They also stage events where innovators across a wide spectrum — from techies to artists — meet and share what they do. The idea’s to foster matches, links, collaborations that result in business needs being met or new ventures being sparked. An incubator for entrepreneurial startups is in the works. Anything arising from this mix of social-business engagement adds to the vibrant creative class scene SPN champions.

 

 

 

 

Soon after launching the SPN Web site July 25, Slobotski said it became apparent bringing people together in a virtual environment needed a corollary physical gathering. “We said, ‘Let’s get people together face to face rather than just trading emails or text messages or voice mails back and forth. Let’s meet and learn people’s stories.” Thus, SPN organized Omaha’s inaugural BarCamp and Tweetup and a talk by noted Silicon Valley business author/reporter Sarah Lacy.

He said the free events draw on average 100-plus people. SPN’s next event, the May 7-8 BigOmaha conference at Kaneko, will present forward-thinking creatives, innovators and entrepreneurs telling their national and local success stories, including Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library, a hot wine news, tastings, review site, and Rachel Jacobson of Film Streams. BIGOmaha is by-registration-only event. Slobotski said registrants are signed up from around the Midwest.

As Slobotski and Davidson are entrepreneurs in their own right, they, along with peers profiled online or in person, offer insider perspectives on the startup experience and creative class milieu. Slobotski hopes these stories inspire others to follow their own passion and do what they love. It’s all part of the synergy he aspires to promote, one where people with varied skill sets meet via event and do a service trade/barter or work on a project or buy into a vision. One connection may lead to another, and so on. It’s all about being plugged-in or linked-in.
 

 

 

Cross-mingling groups that don’t ordinarily connect, he said, can mean win-wins. “I think each one can respect what the other’s doing and then help each other out. It’s fun, I love meeting people. But who cares if you know this many people. What do you do with those relationships to help others affect change or get involved?”

Beyond a fondness for social media, there’s a social consciousness aspect to Slobotski, who’s founded a charitable organization, Packs of Promise, that provides new backpacks filled with supplies to the homeless through Siena/Francis House. He’s looking at SPN hosting a blog covering green initiatives and businesses.

SPN’s a-work-in-progress. Slobotski found it tough at first finding subjects outside his small circle of friends and associates. But as the word’s gotten out and SPN’s network has increased, he said, “we’ve now got a slate of folks to interview probably 15 to 20 long. Guys are coming out of the woodwork. We can’t keep up with that. We’re doing about a story or two a day” as opposed to a couple a week before. “We just met a guy who works at CSG Systems by day but he’s launched two or three small startup businesses on the side. We want more stories like that.”

He said the site’s at 10,000 to 12,000 hits a month and increasing. Content drives it, which means expanding beyond the local marketplace to do more regional/national coverage. He reported from Austin’s recent South by Southwest fest. Published stories remain the core but Slobotski said video pieces get the most feedback.

“I still think print is relevant and helpful but to be able to see the face of that guy that owns the bakery or that guy that owns the Web design shop telling his story for 3 to 5 minutes — I just think people connect with that a little more.”

He’s also aware SPN treads a fine line with its advocacy, citizen-level reporting. “We’re definitely tweaking and making changes, figuring ways to keep it not too stuffy but also not too weak, too casual and without enough boundaries,” he said. A niche jobs board may be added. A name change is also being considered, as he fears Silicon Prairie may suggest a tech emphasis that really isn’t so.

His long-term goal “is to turn this into a sustainable business — with the right balance, where it’s not ad heavy, but tactfully set-up and structured.”


Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous

March 6, 2011 21 comments

Holland Performing Arts Center in downtown Omaha

Image via Wikipedia

I was asked by Metro Magazine to write a 20-year retrospective piece on the Omaha arts-culture scene and the story that follows is the result.  The story is my take and the take of a few others on the city’s creative community, which by almost any measure has experienced a maturation and flat-out growth that has drawn attention near and far, including a widely read and circulated piece (“Omaha Culture Club”) by Kurt Andersen in the New York Times a few years ago.  Yeah, Omaha has indeed grown up a lot in the space of a generation and today is much more the cosmopolitan metropolis of its aspirations than it was 20 years ago.  I anticipate that growth to continue too. Omaha is still a city without much of an image outside Nebraska, particularly on the coasts, but it is increasingly getting known for its sophisticated, even world-class arts-cultural offerings among the cognoscente.  If you’re still doubtful and skeptical about that, then simply check out some websites devoted to Omaha or better yet the next time you’re traveling cross country don’t simply fly over or drive over without giving the place a second thought, stop here and stay awhile and see for yourself just what Omaha has to offer.

Omaha Arts-Culture Scene All Grown Up and Looking Fabulous

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

Twenty years ago Omahans grumbled about there not being enough to do here. For a city searching for an image in a flyover state straining to retain its best and brightest and attract new talent, it sounded an alarm.

Seemingly, Omaha arts-culture plateaued. Major players retrenched while smaller, newer ones tried finding their way. It appeared Omaha collectively lacked the vision or confidence to enhance its horizons. The status quo went stale.

Then, whether by design or coincidence, Omaha enjoyed a renaissance in the space of a single generation. This flowering shows no signs of slowing down.

“Over the last 20 years Omaha has grown up a lot and the arts have grown up with it,” said Todd Simon, an Omaha Steaks International executive and a major arts funder. “There’s certainly a lot more variety and a lot more choices for our community. Any night of the week you can open up the newspaper or go on the Web and you can find something of interest to you. Whether it’s music, art, film, live theater, there is something for everyone every night of the week in Omaha now.

“If you’re bored here it’s because you’re not breathing. If you can’t find something to do in Omaha right now, shame on you.”

Saddle Creek Records executive Jason Kulbel was among those bemoaning the lack of options. No more.

“Simply put, there’s more to do now,” he said. “There’s so many different things to pick and choose from. Whatever interests you, whatever your thing is, it’s here now. It’s really cool.”

He champions the live indie music scene now having more venues and he embraces the festivals that have cropped up, from MAHA to Playing with Fire to the newly announced Red Sky Music Festival.

Kulbel and SCR colleague Robb Nansel have added to the mix with their block-long North Downtown complex. It includes their company headquarters, the Slowdown bar-live music showplace and the Film Streams art cinema. Together with the new TD Ameritrade ballpark, Qwest Center Omaha, the Hot Shops Art Center and the Mastercraft art studios, anchors are in place for a dynamic arts-culture magnet akin to the Old Market.

From the opening of the downtown riverfront as a scenic cultural public space to the addition of major new venues like the Qwest and the Holland Performing Arts Center to the launching of new music, film and lit feasts to the opening of new presenting organizations, Omaha’s experienced a boon. Major concerts, athletic events and exhibits that bypassed Omaha now come here.

Artists like world-renowned Jun Kaneko put Omaha on the map as never before. The indie music scene broke big thanks to artists recording on the Saddle Creek label. Alexander Payne immortalized his hometown by filming three critically acclaimed feature films here. The Great Plains Theatre Conference brought Broadway luminaries in force.

The Old Market solidified itself as a destination thanks to an array of restaurants, shops, galleries, theaters and creative spaces. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the Blue Barn Theatre and the Omaha Farmers Market became anchors there. Omaha Fashion Week and the Kaneko added new depth.

Omaha Performing Arts president Joan Squires said she’s seen “a huge change” since arriving eight-plus years ago from Phoenix to head the organization, which programs the Holland and the Orpheum Theater.

“The first time I drove in from the airport the Qwest Center didn’t exist, the Holland wasn’t here, a lot of the small groups weren’t around. If you were looking for things to do and it wasn’t the Orpheum or a few other places, it was limited. Now on any given night the breadth of what you can do is exciting. There’s a synergy about it that’s reaching all segments of the audience.”

Omaha native Rachel Jacobson left New York to launch Film Streams, one of several attractions that’s taken things to a new level.

Growing up here, she said, “there was a lot of good stuff to do but nothing really bringing people to town or being talked about in the national and international press, other than Chip Davis. Today, the Omaha arts community is strong, it’s alive, it’s visceral, it’s something we’re known for worldwide. Musicians continue to move here from other cities to make their home here because of Saddle Creek Records. Visual artists move here because of the Bemis and Jun and Ree Kaneko. New galleries are opening up all the time.

“It has really blown up in the best way.”

Established organizations have shown new life. Joslyn Art Museum built a huge addition designed by noted architect Sir Norman Foster. It’s since added a pair of sculpture gardens. The Durham Museum underwent a refurbishment and gained Smithsonian affiliation. The Omaha Children’s Museum found a new home and completed extensive renovations. The Omaha Community Playhouse redid its theater and lobby spaces. The Henry Doorly Zoo built the Lied Jungle, the Desert Dome, the Lozier IMAX Theater and other new attractions.

The Bemis expanded its gallery exhibition schedule and educational programming as well as added the Underground and the Okada. Now it’s poised for new growth.

Old venues received serious makeovers. An Orpheum renovation allowed the largest touring Broadway shows to come. The city spent millions in renovating Rosenblatt Stadium, in turn helping it become a national icon.

Existing organizations found new digs.The Omaha Symphony made the Holland its home. The Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater moved into the old Astro (Paramount) movie house, renamed The Rose, and became the Omaha Theater Company.

Popular events drew ever larger crowds, such as Jazz on the Green, the Cathedral Flower Festival, the Summer Arts Festival and the CWS.

Even with all the new options, it didn’t appear as if Omaha reached a saturation point. Using the Holland and Orpheum as examples, Joan Squires said the presence of these two venues has only increased patronage.

“When you open a major facility and you bring in new arts offerings the community continues to lift up,” she said. “It broadens and really makes more things possible. In the last five years we’ve reached 1.7 million people. We’ve seen nights where both buildings sold out and there’s a lot of arts going on at other facilities all at the same time, and there’s an audience for everybody.

“We’ve got a growing and thriving arts community. I think it’s very encouraging.”

Funder Dick Holland describes the arts as “an economic engine” and “a big part of the community.”

Great Plains Theatre Conference artistic director Kevin Lawler, a Blue Barn founder, has seen a more adventurous scene develop.

“There are several new generations of artists making work in all genres and receiving support and interest from their peers and others,” he said. “This heralds the beginning of a new, vibrant era for arts and culture here. That small group of philanthropic leaders who have been supporting the arts in Omaha for years have enabled enough fertilization for this new blossoming to begin.

“When we began the Blue Barn there were almost no theaters willing to take on new, challenging work as a regular part of their seasons. Now, there are a number of groups that follow this path.”

Lawler notes there “is a new generation of artists staying in Omaha to make work because they feel there is enough energy in the community to support and respond to their work. I feel this trend reflected not only in theater, but all the arts.

“There are stages to the cultural life of a city. Omaha is in a blossoming stage. It is a rare and exciting time to be here.”

The linchpin behind this growth is private support. “Omaha has an exceptionally generous philanthropic community that understands the value of investing in its cultural institutions,” said Bemis director Mark Masuoka, adding that funders here appreciate the fact the arts “improve quality of life.”

He said the Bemis is close to reaching its $2.5 million capital building campaign goal “thanks to several generous gifts from local foundations and individuals.”

What losses there were sparked new opportunities. After years of struggle the Great Plains Black History Museum rebounded. When Ballet Omaha folded Omaha Performing Arts brought in top dance troupes and Ballet Nebraska soon formed. The Omaha Magic Theatre closed only to birth new ventures. The Indian Hills Theater was razed but Omaha movie houses multiplied. The Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts arose after its namesake’s tragic death.

The recession impacted large and small organizations alike.

Todd Simon said, “Many not-for-profits have struggled and I think they’ll continue to struggle in these economic times, but I also think there is a dedicated group of supporters in our community who will step up to fill the gaps.” These lean times, he said, encouraged “many organizations to get smarter in how they use resources and how they collaborate with each other, where they leverage the talent and the resources they have. I think that trend will continue.”

Dick Holland said few cities can boast Omaha’s philanthropic might. He favors a public-private coalition to undergird and concentrate arts funding.

By any measure, it’s been an era of net growth for the creative community and leaders see more progress ahead thanks to a spirit of innovation and support.

“A strong legacy of investing in the arts here has been established and I believe it will continue to proliferate,” said Rachel Jacobson. “We’ll see new initiatives develop, especially arts in education and social-community development arts projects. There are a lot of high-energy, incredibly innovative people who have a huge heart for this city and will make a strong commitment.

“Just in the last month I’ve heard about wonderful projects in the works. I’m excited for the next 20 years.”

Nik Fackler, the Film Dude Establishes Himself a Major New Cinema Figure with ‘Lovely, Still’


My most recent article on emerging filmmaker Nik Fackler makes no bones about his establishing himself a major cinema figure on the strength of his first feature, Lovely, Still, an Omaha-shot indie feature starring Oscar winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. The pic is finally getting a general national release after having picked up a slew of admirers and awards at select screenings, most recently at the California Independent Film Festival.  Watch for this film when it comes to a theater near you or plays on cable or wherever else you can find it, because it’s the work of an artist who will make his presence felt.  As he prepares to make his next projects, I feel the same way about Fackler that I did about Alexander Payne when I saw his debut feature Citizen Ruth – that this is an important artist we will all be hearing much more from in the future.  I look forward to charting his journey wherever it takes him.

Don’t be surprised if Landau and/or Burstyn net Oscar nominations for their superb performances. This piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com). Omaha is home to some serious filmmaking talent.  Payne and Fackler are at the leading edge of a homegrown cinema movement here, and more figures are sure to emerge.

Ellen Burstyn and Nik Fackler discussing a Christmas prop on the set of Lovely, Still 

 

 

Nik Fackler, the Film Dude Establishes Himself  a Major New Cinema Figure with His ‘Lovely, Still’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

After what must seem an eternity, Omaha’s resident Film Dude, writer-director Nik Fackler, finally has the satisfaction of his first feature being theatrically screened. An advance one-week Omaha engagement of his Lovely, Still opens the new Marcus Midtown Cinema, Nov. 6-12.

The film’s box office legs won’t be known until its 2010 national release. Screenings for New York, L.A. and foreign press will give Lovely the qualifying runs it needs for Academy Awards consideration next year. It’d be a stretch for such a small film to net any nominations but the lead performances by Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn are so full and finely honed they’re Oscar-worthy by any standard.

Both artists strip themselves emotionally bare in scenes utilizing all their Method gifts. Their work is: dynamic, never dull; natural, unforced. Their behaviors appropriate for the romantic, comedic, dramatic or just Being There moments.

Nods for writing, direction, cinematography, editing and music would be unlikely but not out-of-line for this gorgeous-looking, powerfully-rendered, well-modulated movie that hits few false notes. The film pops with energy and emotion despite a precious storyline of senior citizens rediscovering first love.

The local creative class is well represented by Tim Kasher’s “additional writing,” James Devney’s strong portrayal of Buck, a lush score by composers Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott and dreamy tunes by Conor Oberst and other Saddle Creek artists.

It’s at least as impressive a feature debut as Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth.

An indication of how much Landau believes in Lovely and how proud he is of his gutsy star-turn in what Fackler calls “a showcase role that’s very challenging” is the actor’s appearances at select screenings. That includes this Friday in Omaha, when he and Fackler do Q & As following the 6:15 and 9:15 p.m. shows at Midtown.

Fackler’s at ease with the film that’s emerged. “I am very content, although it has changed a lot,” he said, “but I welcome all changes. Film is an ever changing beast. You must embrace the artistic transformation. To not allow it, is to limit it.” Much hype attended the making of the 25-year-old’s debut feature, shot in his hometown in late 2007. It was the first movie-movie with a real budget and name stars made entirely in Nebraska since Payne’s About Schmidt in 2001.

 

 

Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau

 

Circumstances caused the film that generated serious buzz a couple years ago and then again at the Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery Program in 2008 to fall off the radar. Lovely producers turned down a distribution offer. They continue negotiations seeking the right release strategy-deal. Self-release is an option.

It’s been a long wait for Fackler to see his vision on screen – six years since writing it, five years since almost first making it in 2005, two years since completing principal photography and one year since reshoots and reediting.

“This has been the longest I’ve like worked on a single project for forever,” he said. “It’s really been a marathon.”

Anticipation is great, not just among the Nebraska film community that worked the pic. Whenever stars the caliber of Landau and Burstyn throw their weight behind a project as they’ve done with Lovely the industry takes note. That a 20-something self-taught filmmaker with only micro-budget shorts and music videos to his name landed Oscar-winning icons certainly got people’s attention. As did hanging his script’s sentimental story about two old people falling in love at Christmas on a subversive hook that turns this idyll into something dark, real, sad and bittersweet. Throw in some magic realism and you have a Tim Burtonesque holiday fable.

The two stars would never have gotten involved with a newcomer on an obscure indie project unless they believed in the script and its author-director. At the time Fackler lacked a single credit on his IMDB page. Who was this kid? In separate meetings with the artists he realized he was being sized up.

“It was really intimidating,” Fackler said of meeting Landau in a Studio City, Calif. cafe. “I was just super freaked out. I don’t know why. I’m usually never that way. But it was like I was about to meet with this legend actor to talk about the script and for him to kind of like feel me out — to see it he can trust me as a director, because I’m a young guy. We’re from such different generations.”

The two hit it off. Lovely producer Lars Knudson of New York said Fackler “aced” a similar test with Burstyn in Manhattan: “It’s a lot of pressure for a (then) 23-year-old to meet with someone like Ellen, who’s worked with the biggest and best directors in the world, but Nik blew her away. I think she called him a Renaissance Man.” Knudson said “it’s really impressive” Fackler won over two artists known for being ultra-selective. “They’re very critical. They’ve done this for so many years that they will only do something if they really believe it’s going to be good.”

Lovely producer Dana Altman of Omaha said the respect Fackler gave the actors earned him theirs.

Anyone reading the screenplay could see its potential. Besides A-list stars other top-notch pros signed on: director of photography Sean Kirby (Police Beat), production designer Stephen Altman (Gosford Park Oscar nominee) and editor Douglas Crise (Babel Oscar nominee).

But the history of films long on promise and short on execution is long. As Dana Altman said, any film is the collective effort of a team and Lovely’s team melded. On location Fackler expressed pleasure with how the crew  - a mix from L.A. and Omaha – meshed. “Everyone’s on the same wavelength,” he said. Still, it was his first feature. DP Sean Kirby said, “Anytime you do something for the first time, like direct a feature film, there’s a learning curve, but I think he’s learned very quickly.” Fackler admitted to making “a bunch of mistakes” he “won’t make again.”

The subject matter made the film rife with traps. Take its tone. Handled badly, it could play as treacle or maudlin. Instead, it reads poignant and tragic, and that’s to everyone’s credit who worked on the film.

Then there’s Fackler’s penchant for going on fantastical jags in his work, routine in videos but risky in features. His loose approach, such as ditching the shot list to improvise, combined with the total creative freedom producers granted, meant he could play to his heart’s content, within reason. That can lead to self-indulgent filmmaking. Indeed, he fought and won the right to shoot trippy dream sequences that ended up on the cutting room floor. But some experimental lighting techniques to express tangled memories do make an effective motif in the final cut.

Following the mostly positive Toronto showing, the team reassembled for Omaha reshoots and New York pick ups. His leads supported the fixes and coverage.

 

 

 

 

“Martin and Ellen were behind it, they weren’t annoyed by it, they thought all the reshoots were going to make the film better,” said Fackler. “It wasn’t something that felt forced or anything like that. Everyone was on the same page.”

The young artist and his venerable stars established an early rapport built on trust. “We became friends,” he said. He readily accepted ideas from them that helped ripen the script and gave its young creator deeper insights into their characters.

“What’s great about Nik, especially at his age, is he’s willing to collaborate with people. It’s still his vision, but if it makes it better he’ll change it, he’s not afraid,” said Knudson, who said the script owes much to the input of Landau and Burstyn. “He’s very sort of ego-less.”

It’s all in line with Fackler’s predilection for creating a relaxed set where spot-on discipline coexists amid a way-cool, laidback sensibility that invites suggestions. On location for Lovely he exhibited the same playful, informal vibe he does on his videos: whether going “yeah, yeah” to indicate he likes something or pulling on a can of Moen between takes or doing a private, Joe Cocker dance watching scenes or saying to his DP setting up a shot, “Feelin’ good then? Then let’s kick ass!”

Fackler’s totally of his Generation Y culture, just don’t mistake his nonchalance for slacker mentality. He’s all about the work. He carved a career out-of-thin-air directing videos for Saddle Creek recording artists. His shorts netted the attention and backing of Altman. He cobbled together casts, crews and sets, often doing every job himself, before Lovely. He hung in there six years waiting for this moment, working at his family’s business, Shirley’s Diner, to pay the bills.

“If there’s ever a roadblock you can always get around it. It’s just a matter of taking the time…and not giving up. I wanted the roadblocks. I was like, Bring ‘em on, because I had a lot of ambition and I still do. I  guess it’s just something that I always thought anything is possible. It’s like the naive child in me never left me. I love it. I try to get everyone else around me to feel the same way.”

It was in an L.A. editing room where the jumble of material he shot for Lovely finally came into focus.

“The film from script to screen went through a lot,” he said. “I tried every possible edit. That’s why we ended up editing two months more than we thought we were. But luckily, you know, everyone — producers and investors – were supportive of that process, They didn’t put that much pressure on me because they saw that the film was pretty good, they liked it, and so they allowed us to do it. I ended up throwing the dreams out all together because they weren’t working, and using the experimental lighting scenes because they ended up looking so good.

“I have no regret cutting things I shot. I love the film I have. I love cutting stuff. My philosophy while editing was to not be attached to anything. Once I lived by that rule, everything came free. What matters is making the best film possible, always.”

That mature-beyond-his-years attitude drew Altman to be his mentor. Altman, whose North Sea Films produced Lovely with Knudson and Jay Van Hoy’s Parts and Labor, credits Fackler for hanging in there and doing what’s best for the project, saying: “it’s taken a great deal of patience. Poor Nik, he really does want to see this get released.” Whatever happens, Fackler’s satisfied with what he’s wrought.

“I like to take children’s themes that anyone from any age can understand and then put them in these like really harsh realities of what life can be like. Lovely, Still is very much written to evoke some kind of feeling. It takes place during Christmas time and it deals with family and love. It’s multi-layered. For some people that may be a happy feeling and for others it may be depressing. Art is trying to create a new feeling you’ve never felt before. You watch a film and you leave the film feeling a new way. You may not have a name for the feeling, but it’s new.

“That’s all I can hope for.”

He recently collaborated with cult comic strip-graphic novel artist Tony Millionaire on a script adaptation of Millionaire’s Uncle Gabby. “I can’t wait to bring existentialism and poetry to the children’s film genre,” said Fackler. ”I’m also excited to work with puppetry. It will be like playing with toys! ALL DAY LONG!”

Altman, Knudson and Co. have informal first-look rights on Fackler projects.The same producers who’ve had his back on Lovely look forward to a long association. “Like Dana (Altman), we want to continue working with Nik and we want to create a family sort of, so he feels protected, so he can make the movies he wants to make for the rest of his career,” said Knudson. Radical, man.

Meanwhile, the Film Dude returns from the Sao Palo (Brazil) Film Festival in time for this weekend’s Lovely events. Then it’s back to imagining and waiting tables. Tickets for Friday’s event are $10 and available at www.marcustheatres.com or the cinema’s box office, 3201 Farnam St.

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