Bloomington, Italy. An Interview with Jon Vickers (Indiana University Cinema)

With the partial exceptions of the cities in the East and West Coast, supporting the circulation of European and Italian cinema in United States is no easy task. Nevertheless, several intermediaries are actively engaged in the challenging task of distributing, screening and promoting single films and larger programs. In the Midwest, together with the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, this task is being fulfilled by Indiana University Cinema, an on-campus facility that constantly provides both students and the general public with a rich calendar of screenings, retrospectives and special events. In Spring 2019, it brought Dogman by Matteo Garrone to Bloomington, as well as four films by Wilma Labate. And in previous seasons, Antonioni and Sorrentino, Fellini and Moretti, Pasolini and Virzì were in the programme, too. On March 26th, 2019, Jon Vickers, the founding director of this institution, invited me to his office – on the floor just below the state-of-the-art big screen with large murals and red-coated seats – to discuss how much Italian cinema can be shown in the middle of Indiana, the challenges of the job, and which strategies can be made to further improve this presence.

When was IU Cinema founded, and what were its goals?

In 2011. It was an initiative of the President of Indiana University. He had several goals. He wanted to build a cinema that could potentially gain a national and international reputation for its facility as well as for its programming. He wanted to build something grand, and make a big splash in the community. We were also trying to become Bloomington’s art-house cinema: the last one closed in the early 2000s, and there was really nothing else than showing art film in classrooms, without a proper space for it. So, we tried to bring that kind of cinema back to life for the whole community. Here on campus there is a long-lasting, well-respected film studies program, and it was a crime not to have a place where films could be screened. IU Cinema is now here to service the students, for their entertainment but to showcase student work and promote their creative efforts, in film and in music. We’re also trying to bring a “film festival feeling” to our program, showing films that are just being released or are not on general release yet, coming directly from the film festival circuit, or bringing filmmakers here to engage with our audience. We bring here what we feel are the best aspects of film festivals, on a regular basis.

What are the tasks of an on-campus cinema? How does the relationship with faculty work?

IU Cinema is designed after a model I already used in another college cinema I opened, in 2004, at the University of Notre Dame: a very collaborative model for a portion of the program. Indiana University liked this, when I interviewed for the position. We dedicate up to 40 to 50 per cent of our program to collaborative programming. I report directly to the provost, not to any school or college in campus, so we have the ability to serve all of them. We formed a program advisory board made up of faculty from each one of the schools, and we take submissions every semester for the following one. Any faculty unit can request a series, or three films to address a topic, or six films to support their research, their coursework. The board gets together and determines what fits, what are the good proposals, what makes them academically relevant, and worth supporting. Each semester we support from 30 to 50 different courses around campus, and that adds diversity to our program and links us deep into the university. That’s how we do a big portion of our program, to balance what we program by ourselves. We try to bring the best in world cinema, the masters, repertory films, kids programs. We’re trying to do a lot with a portion of the screening program. And for the most part I think we accomplished it.

What is your role in promoting and distributing art cinema?

It’s essential that this kind of cinema doesn’t die and doesn’t get relegated to Netflix and Amazon. It’s important to have communal experiences that go beyond our own bubbles. I started, with my wife, a small cinema in a small town in Michigan in the early ’90s, really with the sole purpose of bringing the world to our community. Film can build empathy towards other cultures and other people that you may not get to see on mainstream media, so it’s great to show Arabian films, Lebanese films, things like that, in a small town where the media don’t cover those areas in a compassionate, empathetic way.

Jon Vickers, founder and director of Indiana University Cinema

What is the space for Italy, and Italian cinema, in that range, from your perspective?

It’s an interesting issue. Many of the masters of European cinema were Italian filmmakers. So Italian cinema has still a big prominence in world cinema as a repertory, as a classic standpoint. However, it’s unfortunate that there is less Italian cinema distributed in the US than there used to be. I don’t know what the reasons are, but it just doesn’t seem like new Italian cinema gets as much attention as it did in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. That’s a shame, there are still so many great films being made. But it’s harder for art cinema programmers, it’s very difficult for us to reach and find undistributed films, then going to Italian producers and trying to secure rights and get materials over. I mean, it’s a little easier now with DCPs that it was with film prints, but if it’s not in distribution in the US it’s still quite hard. At IU Cinema we’re a little different, because we do reach into undistributed materials often, and some of that is faculty driven, or by our interest and the things that we might see at some festivals. But most art cinemas don’t have the luxury of spending that kind of time, energy, and cost as well.

Speaking of the US distributors of Italian cinema, what are your main contacts and connections? Who is actually bringing the films that you’re programming here?

We deal with almost all the distributors. A few of the major studios, like Warner Brothers and Sony, make us go through as nontheatrical venue because we are a university campus. But we deal directly with almost every other distributor, including the ones that distribute European and Italian cinema: Sony Classics, Cinema Guild, Magnolia Pictures, Kino Lorber, IFC, the smaller boutique distributors. And if it’s a bigger film also with Fox Searchlight and distributors like that. We have relationships and agreements with them all, and we have the ability to program anything that is in US distribution. If we want to get something that’s not in distribution, it just takes a lot more work and research.

Is that kind of effort mainly devoted to preparing retrospectives or special events?

We are doing this for things that we really are anxious to show, that maybe we have seen at a festival. There’s a couple of new arthouse films we secured the rights for this spring before they had a US distribution, and now they’re getting one we feel we were a little ahead of the curve. We like to be cutting-edge, we like to think that we’re trying to bring the best films here. It’s not uncommon for us to do this. We have some Mexican films that aren’t distributed this semester, and we had to contact the producers. And also for the Wilma Labate retrospective we had to contact Cinecittà – Istituto Luce.

Poster of the Wilma Labate Retrospective (2019)

How are your relationships with Italian companies or distributors?

It’s a bit of a challenge, because of the communication gap. It works better when a faculty member is willing to get involved and be a go-between. Similarly, if you have the director involved it is easier, but we still have to work through the production company or the local distribution. I communicate that we need to show things on DCP, but sometimes filmmakers just send the DVD, and think we’re just doing a university showing in the classroom, while we’re actually in this beautiful state-of-the-art cinema. We pride ourselves on presentation, yet sometimes this communication gets lost. With US distributors, if we already have a relationship, you can get responses within a day. Otherwise it’s a waiting game, with multiple emails, trying to contact a studio, since, you know, there is not a lot of benefit in giving a single screening to Indiana University when they’re also trying to sell it to some US distributor. We have to pay the studio, sometimes, and then the archive for the print, and then the round-trip shipping, so costs add up when you’re trying to get things distributed. And we cannot always pay so much. Some other countries support this kind of things: the French embassy is always willing to help us bring copies here via diplomatic pouch, so this costs less, or is even free, and they are often willing to help us with promotion, or with getting some filmmakers here. But there’s nothing like that from Italy, as far as I know.

How does that process work with US distributors of European and Italian cinema?

It varies per company. Some are very proactive: they send out a list of their Fall slate, or Summer slate, all the things for which they know they have a release schedule. IFC or Magnolia Pictures do that. Other companies are less formal, and send an email announcing the things coming up. Only the big ones, like Sony Classics and Fox Searchlight, just make the assumption that we know what they have. And they all have websites, so you can check what they have acquired and what might be coming soon. If they do not have the dates, we will contact them. If there is something we are interested in, we’ll contact them and try to have it. Most of it is driven by programmers: they need to be savvy, know what’s out there and look at the release schedules. If you rely solely on distributors they will drive you in your booking and will be kind of curating your program. But that’s not what you want. We need to control the budgets, but also to shape a diverse schedule. We do not want too much French cinema, but to try and find a balance, and that’s all part of a curation process, made by me and my associate curator. Doing a deal, then, is not as expensive as you might think. They usually ask for either a guarantee (some hundreds of dollars) or a fixed percentage of the revenues from your box office, and we pay the one that’s higher.

In your Spring program, there is a handful of Italian films. One is Dogman, Garrone’s movie…

I selected that. No one brought it to us, and there has been no promotion and no constraints. I’ve been following Matteo Garrone’s work for a while. He’s an Italian director that gets US distribution (Magnolia Films distributed his last films, including Dogman). I tried to watch it at the North American premiere in Toronto, but I didn’t get in because it was a very popular choice. So I asked for a screener, got one and watched it. That’s a pretty good Garrone film, I liked it. It was a personal choice. I’m familiar with his work. If I were introduced to more Italian films, I might find something that could be more interesting, or better films, maybe, but I also have to weigh what the audience is expecting. I do not consider Garrone necessarily a master, but he has a following here, people know his work.

The other presence in the program is Wilma Labate…

Yes, this is faculty-driven. These screenings are a part of an ongoing conference, now in its tenth year, which is one of the most respected Italian film studies meetings in the US. Prof. Antonio Vitti brings a filmmaker every year. I wasn’t familiar with her work, I’ve started watching it, and I like what she’s doing but this is all new to me. We are showing four films, with the director always there to introduce. In the past years, with a similar schedule, we had Francesco Rosi, who was confirmed but passed away some months before he was due to travel here, as well as Carlo Verdone, Guido Chiesa, Roberta Torre, Vincenzo Marra, Roberto Andò, Franco Maresco, all of them with three or four films in a single week.

Outside of this yearly conference, what other Italian films have you picked?

Not many. A few years ago, The Great Beauty. The Human Capital. Probably some more.

Have you ever organized retrospectives on classic Italian films, directors or actors?

We had two retrospectives on Michelangelo Antonioni, with L’avventura, La notte, The Eclipse and Red Desert in 2011, and then later films as Blow-up, Zabriskie Point and The Passenger in 2018. We did a small retrospective on Luchino Visconti, we showed some Federico Fellini. We don’t have a proper room in our schedules to do full retrospectives, but we try to have some classic Italian films scattered across our programme. We’ve shown also De Sica, Rossellini, Pasolini. There’s a great history. It was richer in the past than today. We’ve shown only one Moretti film, that’s a shame. These films are getting less and less distribution in the US, in the ’90s and early 2000s there seemed to be more attention…

Poster of the Late Antonioni Retrospective (2018)

On average, how many Italian films you show any year? With what attendance?

I would say eight to ten, if we include the four of the festival every Spring. Attendance depends. If it’s a classic we usually get more spectators than with contemporary films, while the current ones bring more or less the same kind of viewers than most European films. It is not an issue, though. People come for the programme, working as a guarantee, or the description, which is small but can be intriguing enough.

What are you doing to promote the films, or to somehow enrich the audience experience?

We write these small introductions to the films we screen. Sometimes we use the texts that have already been written by distributors, or modify them slightly, otherwise, we write them ourselves. Along with the booklet, there’s the website, and social media. Every series gets a poster, with images. And we’re trying to package the program into cycles. Other than an arthouse general series, everything is packaged into a special series, and also those series get posters and special promotion.

Do you think digital streaming platforms have affected the way you work and program?

Digital streaming makes things much more accessible and much faster. It’s challenging, because it is more convenient, and cheaper, than going to the movies. So we need to think about what makes us different, and we champion the theatrical experience with a presentation, hopefully some context, an introduction, making it personal. Fortunately we do not have the usual challenges of an art cinema, because we have some funding from the university, and we are able to show what we do want to show, not necessarily basing our decisions on audience tastes. There is so much content now, and hopefully audiences will ask for selection and curation. You trust your programmers to guide you through a lot of films, avoiding the garbage. Maybe not everyone looks for that, but I hope someone is.

Indiana University Cinema Theatre

In some other interviews made by our research group, it has been said that, with the usual exception of both East and West Coast, the most relevant places in the US for European arthouse theatrical distribution are Columbus, Ohio, and Bloomington, Indiana. Do you agree? What is your role as an outpost in the Midwest? Do you feel any responsibility?

It’s interesting. We have been trying to build a reputation, but we do not know what that actually means! [laughs] Nick Pinkerton, a critic in New York I admire, was talking in a FilmComment podcast about a possible Midwest circuit: Indiana University, the Wexner Centre, a new cinema in Louisville, Kentucky. We’re building some sort of circuit for films and filmmakers to survive in the Midwest, I do think there is some truth in that. Now we’re bringing a Mexican filmmaker here, Carlos Reygadas, that stays with for two days and then I’m driving him up to Wexner. On occasion we share filmmakers. I kind of dream to bring here collectively some artists, and do a four or five universities tour. Notre Dame, University of Chicago, University of Wisconsin-Madison all have good programs, so we could do a circuit, and we’re trying this for the first time with Korean director Hong Sang Soo in Spring 2020.

Do you also exchange ideas on programming, or specific titles?

If there’s already a distribution in the States, there’s no need to do that. But if we are bringing a film print from overseas, then it is useful to share some costs, or to take advantage of this material being in the US. We tried to do that on occasion. We are part of two ListServs of programmers, so if someone is bringing something in there could be also a survey, to see if someone else is interested. We are trying to work together. We’re acting as cultural intermediaries, and doing that together makes us stronger.

Last question. What is the general perception of Italian cinema, here in the Midwest?

It still has the same perception of any other European cinema, I think. Italian cinema is tied in its brand as a part of European cinema. Of course, French is the biggest, it’s different. And people do not categorize it as Italian cinema but as a part of a larger category. Yet, even if it has lost some of its prominence on the world stage recently, I think it is still received well, like any other European cinema.