Film Streams Flows in Downtown Omaha

Film Streams Flows in Downtown Omaha
One Magazine (May 2007)
By Wendy Townley

In the plushy seats of Omaha’s mega movie theaters will sit film fans from across the land while Mother Nature’s summer rays beat down on American-made minivans and blacktop parking lots poured not-so-long ago.

As the summer months creep ever so closely, the adjoining movie season approaches, too. Hollywood prepares to push forth is usual roster of would-be blockbusters overflowing with highly-paid talent.

Those comfy seats will be filled with all walks of life. And Rachel Jacobson, a walking encyclopedia of all things cinema, will be among them.

“I love Hollywood movies some of the time,” she says.

Jacobson isn’t prejudicial when it comes to her entertainment dollar. It’s just that she’d rather spend the majority of her money on films that satisfy.

That’s why her efforts these days are put toward loftier goals: opening Omaha’s first nonprofit, independent film theater.

This summer, Jacobson’s nonprofit organization, Film Streams, will open the Ruth Sokolof Theater in the close-knit community known as “NoDo,” a development north of downtown Omaha that will feature a new music venue and retail space. The theater is named after the Omaha native who taught children with disabilities for much of her life.

“I’d always heard about Ruth as this wonderful, amazing person who taught blind children and was really interested in the arts,” Jacobson says. “I’m really honored to have her name involved.”

Film Streams is a dream of Jacobson’s that has bubbled like a creek for many years. Not until Saddle Creek Records contacted Jacobson about adding the independent film theater to its development at 14th and Webster streets did Film Streams become a fast-moving current of cinematic culture.

Having spent five years living in New York City after graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, Jacobson became immersed in the independent film culture. Such theaters were easily accessible to Jacobson, who worked at a nonprofit art gallery and, later, Miramax. Her yearlong employment with Miramax showed Jacobson another side of the movie business, one that often puts ticket sales above quality films.

“It’s a little disappointing because you figure out that it’s more about the box office,” Jacobson explains. “It’s a cool company that has put out cool films like ‘Pulp Fiction.’ They’ve taken risks, but they make their decisions based on commercial issues.”

After Miramax came a fund-raising and development position with a small, off-Broadway theater in New York’s west village. A small department yielded a sizable education in all aspects of fund-raising, an experience that would certainly prove necessary when Film Streams would surface. Jacobson’s last three years living in New York City were spent working again in fund-raising, this time at WNYC, the city’s public radio station, known for producing programs such as “On the Media” and “Studio 360,” hosted by Omaha native and best-selling author Kurt Andersen.

A Bright Eyes concert in New York City, however, changed everything for Jacobsen. Robb Nansel of Saddle Creek Records was in the Big Apple for the Bright Eyes show. Nansel visited Jacobson, bearing good news. Saddle Creek Records inked a deal to purchase land for Slowdown, its bar/concert hall north of downtown Omaha. In the midst of the new development would be a place just for Jacobson’s dream.

“I was freaking out,” says Jacobson, whose excited smile never really left her face. “I couldn’t believe it. He (Nansel) said the City of Omaha was behind the project. Saddle Creek would pay for the building and I would rent from them. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘I’m coming home.’ I decided right away.”

Much of her support has come from her father, David Jacobson, Kutak Rock’s chairman. David organized earlier meetings between Film Streams and Saddle Creek Records.

As it stands, Film Streams will rent its space from Saddle Creek Records, who owns the development. The two-screen theater will seat 206 and 96 movie patrons, respectively. The lobby will hold up to 175 guests, Jacobson said, which will be ideal for pre-screening cocktail parties and other events. Film Streams’ offices will also be based in the building.

The larger theater will be named after Omaha philanthropist Mary Holland; the smaller theater is yet to be named.

One theater will host new documentaries and foreign films, the titles of which rarely, if ever, are shown on Omaha movie screens.

“There’s room here for (these movies),” Jacobson explains. “It’s part of every strong cultural city’s landscape.”

Ticket prices will be $8 per person, $6 for students and senior citizens. Film Streams will sell annual memberships – between $35 and $50 – which will reduce ticket prices to $4 per person.

(To date, the nonprofit organization has raised close to $1.7 million of the $2 million needed for Film Streams’ capital campaign.)

Rather than merely mindless entertainment, Jacobson views film as an important art form that can unite communities and bring about conversation.

“That’s part of my mission, to view film as an art form,” Jacobson says. “That raises the standard of it as a medium, rather than thinking of it as this entertainment and fluff, sticking names and characters into a template.”

Jacobson said today’s culture seeks meatier movies, those that can communicate different lifestyles.

DVD rentals aren’t often far from Jacobson’s Dundee home, although she’s quick to point out that movies were never intended to be viewed with a pause option within reach.

“There’s something really exciting about sitting with an audience and seeing a movie on a big screen.”

To support the theater, Jacobson created the nonprofit organization. Much of her operating budget has come from grants and donations from individuals and philanthropic groups. Organizing Film Streams as a nonprofit will allow it to remain true to its independent roots.

“You don’t have to make decisions based on box office numbers,” Jacobson explains. “You can make decisions based on the creative integrity of the film. I really feel like that’s important. That has been the whole driving force behind the organization from the beginning.”

Jason Kulbel, label manager of Saddle Creek Records, said his vision for the Omaha development included a certain demand from the community for small films.

“There’s an audience there,” Kulbel says. “We’re not crazy enough to think that’s the same audience who sees ‘Harry Potter.’”

Jacobson, who graduated from Central High School in 1996, hopes the excitement surrounding the development of downtown Omaha will spread to Film Streams when it opens the theater’s doors later this year.

“It’s a really good time for Omaha,” Jacobson explains. “I kind of expected it to be happening this way right now.”

She links the city’s excitement with the success of Saddle Creek Records.

“That can spur a movement of all kinds of cultural activity, like in Seattle or Austin,” Jacobson says.  “It’s all about indie rock, and it grows.”

Film Streams’ outreach, however, won’t stop simply with movie fans. Jacobson hopes to work with Omaha area high school students to discuss independent films and similar media. Her plans include the offering of film history and criticism courses that meet on a semi-regular basis.

“There’s so many things you can learn from film,” Jacobson says. “It’s such an accessible medium. We’re all growing up with it. We have constant access to it, which can make people understand and appreciate it.”