Theater Director Jon Vickers Lures Legends to Indiana University Venue

Jon Vickers Indiana University Theater
Rabi Abonour

When theater director Jon Vickers hopped on the phone with Variety, his single-screen cinema was in the middle of a typically diverse run. The night before, it had screened a brand new restoration of Luchino Visconti’s “Sandra.” That night, the program included a trio of docs about the Rwandan genocide. Later on in the week, he was preparing to welcome actor Edward James Olmos and Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami for special programs.

For an arthouse theater in New York or Los Angeles, this would count as a particularly strong week of programming. Yet the theater in question here is the Indiana University Cinema, located in a Midwestern city of 80,000, and established by a university that doesn’t even have a film school.

Since he joined the Bloomington-based institution in 2011, Vickers’ cinema has become an unlikely destination for renowned auteurs, scholars and actors. Werner Herzog, Glenn Close, Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Meryl Streep and Walter Salles are among the guest lecturers the Cinema has attracted. This year, in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, the Cinema attracted nationwide attention by holding a 24-hour marathon retrospective of the actor’s work.

“The IU Cinema is one of the finest projection houses I have ever seen: state of the art sight and sound facilities enclosed in a beautiful building which has been painstakingly restored and updated,” says Streep. “Thomas Hart Benton murals of a quality that would normally be showcased in the art museum adorn the walls of this magnificent screening theatre. I was honored to be invited to screen films there.”

In its first year of operation, the 260-seat cinema attracted 50,000 attendees. (Remember: city population of 80,000.)

“When I started teaching at Indiana in 2005, you’d be able to see a Michael Moore documentary at one of the theaters here, or the most popular indies and European imports,” says Joshua Malitsky, director of the university’s Film & Media Studies program. “But that was pretty much it. There wasn’t a real functional art theater in Bloomington. Over the past few years, what Jon has done has really exceeded our wildest dreams.”

Capable of projecting in just about any format — 16mm, 35mm, digital (both 2k and 4k) and 3D — the cinema was designed with some of the most elite facilities in the world in mind. Before opening, Vickers toured the inhouse projection booths at Pixar, Dolby and Skywalker Ranch to figure out exactly what he’d need and, thanks to what Vickers calls “a cinephile president” in Michael McRobbie, he was able to secure the technology.

“It was important to be well equipped in the beginning,” says Vickers, a former civil-engineering major who opened his first arthouse theater as a sort of hobby business with his wife in the tiny town of Three Oaks, Mich., back in the 1990s. (Roger Ebert was a repeat visitor.) In 2004, the nearby U. of Notre Dame tapped him as managing director of its DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, where he oversaw its renovation into the only THX-certified theater in the entire state.

The IU Cinema presents an intriguing model of the ways a theater can become a key hub for a variety of academic disciplines. As Malitsky notes with a laugh: “It’s become very competitive. There are hordes of (programming) proposals from all over the university.”

“All the programming funnels through me, so I have the final say on everything,” Vickers says. “We decided to offer about half of our programming up to partnerships throughout the university because, No. 1, we get partial funding from the university and want to be relevant, and also because it diversifies our program.”

Of course, while Indiana’s film studies program dates back to the 1960s — the theater itself was first built in the ’30s — it’s hardly mentioned in the same breath as the critical studies and film production programs at UCLA, USC and NYU. But with the film program scheduled to merge into a new-media department alongside the journalism school in July, the Cinema certainly stands to gain additional importance as the program grows.

“Indiana had one of the earliest film studies programs in the country, and academically it was always well respected, but I think (the theater) has certainly brought more widespread public attention to it,” Vickers says.

Due to the lack of any competing arthouses in the area, the IU Cinema doesn’t have to deal with any of the pushback from commercial screens that sometimes bedevils university theaters in larger communities, though Vickers’ abilities to attract speakers can oft be limited by his budget.

“The reality is, any successful filmmaker, if they’re doing good work, has a schedule that is really tough to plan. So to ask them to lock in a date months and months in advance is a really difficult thing to do. We still strikeout all the time… We’re trying to convince people to come because we’re going to honor their work and give them time to engage with students and a vibrant film community,” he says. “If that’s enough to convince them, then great. If not, we just don’t have enough money to really be a draw.”

Vickers himself acknowledges the strangeness of his accidental career in academia, a long way from his first gig at Vickers Engineering.

“When I got the job at Notre Dame, I literally felt guilty accepting the payment,” he says. “My brothers, who are still in manufacturing, always give me a hard time, and ask me when I’m going to take a real job again.”