If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. This is the deflating conventional wisdom among art-house and repertory theater owners today. Which is why the success of Film Streams, at the Ruth Sokolof Theater in Omaha, Nebraska, is such a thrill for its director, Rachel Jacobson. When Jacobson opened this nonprofit organization in July 2007, a dream of hers realized with money raised from the community, she envisioned an art-cinema oasis—a place where she could share her passion for such cinematic titans as Werner Herzog, John Cassavetes, and Jean-Luc Godard. Of course, in today’s shifting landscape of cinephilia, it’s sometimes difficult to bring people into the theater, especially for older films.
“Educating people about the benefits of seeing classics on the big screen has been challenging,” says Jacobson, an Omaha native who spent four years in Champaign, Illinois, and five in New York, studying and working (in radio, film distribution, and theater) before returning to Omaha in 2005. But the movie house’s audience has been steadily building in the four years since it opened, and now the theater stands as one of Omaha’s cultural touchstones, alongside the indie rock label Saddle Creek Records (home to acts like Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley). An English and political science major in college, Jacobson also took a lot of film history and documentary courses, and she ultimately decided she wanted a career promoting film as an art form; she also knew that she wanted to eventually move back to her hometown. These two goals were met with Film Streams, which after two years of construction blossomed into a two-screen movie house with a mission.
Jacobson knew she wasn’t going to be able to rely on any preexisting community of cinephiles and would have to be strategic about kindling local audiences’ interest in serious film. The key was outreach and partnerships with other organizations in the arts-centered community, as well as help from an illustrious Omaha-born board member, Alexander Payne, who hosts annual fund-raisers for Film Streams with special guests (this year, Steven Soderbergh showed up). At first, Jacobson envisioned an establishment like New York’s Film Forum, “a theater with robust repertory programs all the time—but in order to play those, you have to focus more strongly on first-run films.”
Still, she has ensured that there’s now always a space in Omaha for classic art cinema. Alongside the latest independent sensations, such as Win-Win and Meek’s Cutoff, Jacobson books as many classic titles as is financially feasible. “Many generations in town never had art-house cinema at all, so this is like Repertory 101 for a lot of people,” she says. Some big successes have included Breathless, Metropolis, and Seven Samurai, as well as the Fellini series going on now. Other selections, like a Herzog–Klaus Kinski series, have proven less popular; “No one came . . . They’re not exactly household names in Nebraska,” Jacobson says. But she is not to be dettered in her efforts to expand the local cinematic vocabulary: “Part of our mission is getting people to know who these artists are.” She’d especially love to program some of cinema’s trickier artists, past and present; among her dream series are retrospectives of the work of Guy Maddin, Lars von Trier, and Andy Warhol.