I admire and am kind of obsessed with Rebecca Fons. She makes things happen, and when it comes to the Chicago film community, she is opening doors for filmmakers and film lovers alike. In 2021, she stepped into the “45 tenure” shoes of Barbara Scharres as Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center. At a time when the film industry’s future and really the future of our world was unclear, Rebecca Fons was the perfect person to take over. She sees the value of the Siskel Film Center’s 50-year history, and she sees the possibility and opportunity to make the theater a hub for people of all ages, races, genders, and sexual orientations. Fons is broadening what the “art house” crowd looks like, and is making sure there is programming for everyone.
Along with being the Siskel’s programmer, she also programs for her hometown movie theater in Winterset, Iowa, which she bought with her mom in 2015. Rebecca is very passionate about the art of film and the filmgoing experience. Along with her filmmaker husband, Jack C. Newell, she started the Destroy Your Art Film Festival, which had its fourth year this past summer at the Music Box Theatre. The festival asks Chicago-based filmmakers to make a five-minute video, show it once in front of an audience, and then destroy it. It seems like a cruel ask initially, but it’s also a revolutionary way of capturing that collective experience that we thought we might have lost.
I spoke with Rebecca about all of these exciting things she is doing, as well as some coming attractions for the Siskel Center in 2023. She spoke about having more auteur-focused programming next year, such as Dario Argento films from the 1970s and 1980s in February, and filmmaker Lynne Sachs presenting a retrospective on her films. Also, the Annual Festival of Films from Iran will be returning this February with some potential thought-provoking panels with all of the horrific injustices endured over there towards women. But something Fons talked about that excited me the most was the venue’s “Settle In” series in January and February, which will show only films with a minimum running time of nine hours. All-day bottomless coffee and popcorn will be provided, and the venue will partner with Goddess and Grocer for sandwiches. I’m sold. This will be taking place during weekends in the small theater with films like “Dekalog” and “War and Peace.”
Let’s start with talking about stepping into Barbara Scharres’ shoes as programmer at the Siskel Film Center. Can you talk about that experience?
It was at first daunting stepping into Barbara’s shoes because they were 45 tenure shoes. We turned 50 this year, and she had been at the Film Center in every capacity. She worked as a projectionist and was a programmer. It was daunting because she was somebody I had always known and seen as a pretty critical voice in Chicago film. That was huge and it was such an honor too. I had been on the community council at the Film Center, so I had always defined myself the most as just a patron of the Film Center and a fan. Becoming the venue’s programmer was like crossing a border, like I’m here, and now I’m here.
Also, the circumstances around my hiring were unique. I was hired in January of 2021. Barbara had left just a month before. Her retirement was announced right around Thanksgiving, two years ago. So the Film Center was still closed and COVID was still raging. I think Delta was the new flavor of the month.
I feel like if the circumstances had been different and I had stepped into the role when the theater was open and there had been no COVID, I don’t know if that would have been harder or easier, or different. But it was daunting because I knew what was happening in the film industry, so there was this fear of the future of our industry. I actually feel like I benefited from the timing of it a little bit because we weren’t open, so it gave me a runway to get to know my colleagues and my patrons and learn how to program things virtually. And if anyone tells you their virtual programming was a success, they are lying, because it was like a tiny drop in the ocean of what we normally do. But it did give me that opportunity to settle in a bit. We didn’t open again until August of 2021, and we didn’t find that out until June. We had a two-month on ramp for programming, and that included operations too.
It was both terrifying and then it also felt like a hand going into a glove. It felt so natural because I knew the space, I knew Chicago, and I had been programming film for so long in all capacities, at festivals, in education spaces, rural cinemas, and more urban cinemas. So it was like driving a boat, but on new waters. Like I know this boat, but it is a new sea, and I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be like.
My biggest consideration as programmer was the 50-year history of the Film Center. I would just be in a casual conversation with someone, like I was talking with an SAIC professor, Bruce Jenkins, and he was like, “What’s your favorite film?” And I said, “I think ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,’” which is a Chantal Akerman film. And he said, “I remember when she came in with that. She just came to a class in the ‘70s at SAIC, and showed the film. She was very short, very funny, and she didn’t think anyone was going to like the film.” I was like, “Oh cool, that’s an interesting tidbit.” [laughs] And it was part of the Film Center.
So all of these all talents and programmers have come through the space, including SAIC graduates such as Hong Sang-soo and Chung Mong-hong. B. Ruby Rich was a programmer here as was Richard Peña. B. Ruby Rich coined the term “queer cinema”. They call it “queer cinema” because she coined it. These are heroes of mine, so I just felt like I don’t want to let the past down. I want to be able to elevate and highlight and embrace the history of all of these amazing people and all of this amazing programming, but also we’ve got to make some changes. We have to in order to survive.
It was a little bit of that, like how do I evolve without abandoning the past and how do I introduce new ideas without shaking the foundation more than it had already been shaken by 17 months of closure, and by COVID? How do I deal with things like an Indiewire article saying, “Cinema is dead. Watch everything from your couch.”
I wasn’t afraid, but I was just very conscious of all of those factors. The past, the present, and the future were very much in the forefront of my mind as I took the job and when we opened. Now that we’ve been open for more than a year, I’m just thinking about that all of the time.
Could you talk about the movie theater that your family owns in Iowa? I read an article about that in the Chicago Reader. I think it’s fascinating and would love to hear more.
It’s called the Iowa theater and it’s in Winterset, Iowa. I grew up in Winterset, which is a small town. It had a population of about 5,000 people when I was growing up, maybe even smaller. Winterset is the birthplace of John Wayne and it’s in Madison County, so the film “The Bridges of Madison County” was filmed in my home town. A good family friend played Meryl Streep’s teenage daughter.
I grew up really close to the town square, and imagine back then it was like “Back to the Future”, an idyllic small town complete with a clock tower, the very definition of small town Americana. I grew up very near to the movie theater, like two blocks away. I was the youngest of three to a single mom, and I spent a ton of time going to that theater. It was a crappy theater then, with terrible popcorn and 35 mm prints. My first kiss was in this movie theater during “Toy Story.” It was just a place I would go and I’d see everything, and in many cases, I’d see things multiple times. It wasn’t like they were showing art house titles, they were showing films like “Toy Story” and “Jurassic Park,” but it was a place I was raised. It continued to operate and it didn’t switch to digital, so that was a huge issue. They were playing films off of Blu-ray that I don’t even think they were getting screening rights. The popcorn got worse, the floors got stickier, and they never upgraded it.
Then in 2015, the weekend of my wedding was memorial day weekend which is the John Wayne birthday weekend. Every year they would show John Wayne films. Someone came up to me and was like, “Oh my gosh, I just saw on Facebook that the Iowa Street Theater closed. All the programming was cancelled and there was just a piece of paper on their doors saying they were closed forever.”
At that point, I had been working at the Chicago International Film Festival for eight years and I felt like it was time to move on. My mom and I looked at each other and were like, “Oh my god, should we buy it?” I was literally in my wedding dress, and I was like, “Should we buy it?” And she said, “Maybe.” I went on my honeymoon to Iceland and when I got back, I took this small plane to Des Moines, Iowa, to meet the realtor. We also met this contractor, an older guy that my mom had worked with. The contractor was like, “The bones of this building are amazing.” The theater is a late 1800s/early 1900s building, and it was made into a movie theater in the early 1930s. The price was right, it was dirt cheap and it was as is. My mom and I took out a loan, and we bought it. We spent two years fundraising and raised over a million dollars to get digital projection, basically making a gut rehab using local contractors. We incorporated it into a non-profit. So we don’t technically own it, it’s a non-profit, but we are the ones who spear-headed it. I sit on the board along with my mom and three other people in the community. I still do all of the programming.
It’s “easy” because it’s classics every Wednesday night. “Rocky” was last week, and “Lethal Weapon” is tomorrow night. And it’s like second-run films. I think “Ticket to Paradise” is playing and then we’ll do “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”, so second-run new releases. And we also decided to make it a multi-purpose space because it was originally a theater, like a LIVE theater. The screen retracts, like it’s on a crank, and there is a stage behind it. The local community theater does two shows every year and the local student ballet performs. It’s a small stage but somehow they do “The Nutcracker”.
So I left the Chicago International Film Festival. I gave them nine-months notice and was like, “Hey, I bought this movie theater. I think I’m going to have to leave.” Then I traveled back and forth from Iowa to Chicago for two years raising money, picking out carpets, learning the point of sales system, and learning about digital projection. Then I taught not only digital projection and the point of sales system but literally how to pop popcorn. It was amazing. It closed during COVID, of course, but Iowa was a little bit like the wild west out there. It opened up by fall 2020, and I was applying for grants and government support and all of that. It’s really the thing that I’m most proud of. And I did it with my mom too. We had so much fun. She is still living in Winterset, so she goes to the theater all of the time. It was the most fun project. The paint was literally drying when we opened. We opened two years to the day it closed, so we opened Memorial Day 2017. It’s been open now for five years.
That is amazing, and it’s so in line with what you are doing now at the Siskel.
And it’s beautiful, it’s like an art deco marquee. It’s LED, but it still looks like neon, and it says “Iowa” across the top of the marquee. It’s a single screen, but it’s two stories with a balcony and a lower level. So we busted the concession stand back a little bit and lost some seats in the lower level, but we gained them in the balcony. It’s just gorgeous.
Whenever the caucuses come up in politics, all of the reporters stand beneath our marquee, because we’re in “Iowa”. And what’s so funny is, before the 2020 election, CNN was there in Iowa for the caucuses and they were standing underneath our marquee. We were playing “Blazing Saddles,” and it said on the marquee, “‘Blazing Saddles’ playing on Wednesday.” And the anchor in DC was like, “Hold on a second, can we pull the camera back? Is this theater in Iowa playing ‘Blazing Saddles’?” And the reporter said, “It appears that they are.” It was great.
So yes, it was a joy and I love it so much.
Can you talk about the Destroy Your Art film fest?
Destroy Your Art is something my husband Jack C. Newell, who is a filmmaker in Chicago, thought of. This was the fourth year because we had three years, and then COVID happened. I’ve always worked in film exhibition in some capacity, like film fests or film theaters, or art house spaces. When you go to a festival or talk to a filmmaker–I’m sure you have experience with this–you ask, “Has your film sold? What happens next? What festival are you going to?” It’s like the life of the film becomes a business conversation. It’s fine because film is a business, it’s an industry, but I find conversations with the filmmakers are less often about the work, and more about the business. That might be just because I’m in exhibition where those of you who write about film may think more about the craft. I certainly do too, but it tends to be more about the business. I’m negotiating with distributors all of the time, like yelling at them, and they are yelling at me, and trying to get better terms and stuff.
So that’s what often dominates my day. And with Jack, as a filmmaker, it’s the same thing. It’s like, ‘How are we going to sell this? How are we going to make our budget back? Let’s get this investor, it’s going to cost this much…’ So we were kind of struck by those two things that tend to weigh down the art of film.
Also, I go to the movies and I’m not like a tyrant about it, but I put my phone away. It pains me so much when I see people, literally the moment the film begins, taking their phone out. And they just don’t give a shit. It’s like, ‘why are you here? You don’t have to be here, you can just leave.’ Sometimes when I’m at a festival, I do check the time on my phone, and the light is dimmed, but for the most part, the phone is put away.
We wanted to create something that spoke in contrast to the permanence of film, the ephemeral, or the impermanent experience of watching a film. So we created Destroy Your Art, which invites Chicago-based filmmakers or Chicagoland filmmakers to make original short films, five minutes or less, and not show them to anyone except the audience that is there for the event. And then destroy these films in their entirety. They’re not adding it to their demo reel, they’re not trying to get it into festivals, no one’s asking them what’s next for the film. It’s just that moment together as an audience. It invites the filmmaker to make something that has no consequence or no risk or no life, and to ask the audience to really be present, really just give yourself over to the moment. Literally a blink or a bathroom trip or a look at your phone, and you can miss a moment. For the last two installments of Destroy Your Art, the artist burns their film. It’s just an SD card, or a film drive we provide them, and then they blow torch them. In the past, we’ve shredded them with a metal shredder or a vice with a crank.
The idea is that in this moment, we are all experiencing this very singular experience together. But the idea is that we hope that it infuses with audience members and they will continue to be present in their movie watching experiences. It encourages filmmakers to take risks and not give a shit about what is going to happen to the film or take ownership of their art in however they define a risk. And it’s so much fun. For the filmmakers, it’s so cathartic. Some of them make something funny, not necessarily a throw away, but they are playing with the brief and the assignment. And some of them are doing incredibly emotional things. I remember one year, a filmmaker had her friend’s voice memo secrets that she gave to her, and she put the audio tracks to this beautiful experimental imagery of flora and fauna. But she didn’t listen to the secrets until she played it for the audience. So she was listening to these disembodied voices for the first time, and then these secrets were destroyed. People were crying, and it was really intense. So it’s really fun. If the filmmakers want to make that film again, they own the IP. It’s just that version of it that is gone for good. It’s really fun, and there’s also fire, which is really cool.
I get it now, because when I first heard about this festival, I was like, ‘How can they do this? How can they destroy their art?’ But I realize now it’s more about the communal experience which I feel is so important with some of those experiences being lost during the pandemic.
And we have invited filmmakers who’ve basically said, “Fuck you, no. Why would I make something and destroy it?” We’re always like, “We totally get it.” We invite them and we say, “It’s a ride, and you can come along for it.” But some of the filmmakers are like, “I’d never destroy something I create.” And I’m like, “That is totally fine.”
When we asked one of our filmmakers from this past summer beforehand, “Are you ready destroy your art?”, she was like, “Yes, I’ve never been more ready for anything.” She was so excited to “kill her darlings,” basically, and just completely let go. But we’ve had a filmmaker cry the first year. What he did was so good, I was like, ‘Oh shoot, this is like his best work.’ [laughs] But I honestly think it’s cleansing. With fire comes a cleanse.
And it could make them a better filmmaker later on.
It unclogs a block too.
What do you hope people see in your work, and what kind of impact do you hope to make within the Chicago film community, or the film community in general?
This is a question I should ask myself every day. It’s a good grounding question. For me, the word “community” is often at the forefront of my mind because as the Education Director at the Chicago Film Festival, I was always working with community groups and young people. So I think that’s my kind of comfort and my driving force.
I’m sure there are people who are die-hard Film Center fans who are like, “Uuuuh” to everything I’m doing, which is fine, but you can’t please everybody all the time. For me, the most important thing is opening our doors. I define that by welcoming new people, new audience members and new partners. We have some long-standing partners like the Chicago Palestine Film Festival and the Asian Film Showcase. I’ve added the Chicago International Film Festival. The two organizations had never worked together before, which is crazy. In 58 years, respectively, they had never worked together. I was like, “Let’s open our doors to the film festival.” We welcomed Doc 10 for a couple screenings. We did this WBEZ Full Spectrum Features Storytellers event last week. We did a Docs Chicago screening here last week. I can’t (A) program 365 days on two screens, and (B) I shouldn’t. So it’s all about those partners who bring new voices, new visions and new programming, and with them, new staff and enthusiasm. We can combine our forces.
I do think, now more than ever, that it is really hard to get people out of their houses to see films. There are so many decisions to make to go see a movie, like what movie, where, what time, do you have to park, or are you taking a train, are you planning on going to concessions, where are you going to be sitting? Is there someone behind you talking, are you moving to a different seat? There are all of these decisions that we make, and I think we’re living in a time where it’s easier not to make those decisions. It’s easier to stay home, and I’m not immune to it either.
So I think if we can find some partnerships that are substantial and intentional and robust, that is what we should be doing, not close our doors and be this isolated or siloed place. We should be a hub where everyone feels welcome and everyone feels seen.
We can achieve this through those partnerships and also with young people. Some of it is the programming, and some of it is happening organically because I feel young people are really hungry for in-person experiences. When I say young people, it’s us in the 25 to 45 age range. That young professional audience, college age and grad school, was forever elusive to art house cinemas, because it was the older, affluent, white moviegoers who were the generic art house audience. In some ways, that’s true. It’s a bit of a misnomer, but they were the bulk. Now they are coming back at a slower pace, and the younger audiences are coming back with energy. So I’m trying to figure out how to welcome that younger audience to match their energy while also not abandoning that older audience. It’s a really delicate balance. I feel like, just because of my age and the cinema I grew up with and the cinema that I studied in school, I’m programming for a younger audience more than I’m programming for an older audience. I’m always trying to strike that balance and making sure that no one, regardless of their age or their background, or their race or their gender or their sexual orientation, looks at the Film Center’s Gazette and says, “There’s nothing for me here.”