Rebecca Fons: Not a lot of pretense there. “Lively. Friendly. To the point!” is how she prefers her film screening introductions. And that’s her all over.
“I’m a pretty approachable person,” she says, approachably. “Pretty much an open book. People can talk to me, email me, send me suggestions, complaints, whatever.”
That’s her approach with the moviegoing public at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Now 40, Fons (pronounced like Henry Winkler’s Fonz) has been Film Center programming director since the public program of the School of the Art Institute hired her as a part-timer in January 2021. She spent many years prior as the Chicago International Film Festival educational director.
Early 2021 was not a great time for any movie theater, anywhere. COVID had shut things down and the vaccinations hadn’t happened and things were no fun.
Things are better now. Fons went full time later that year. And now, Fons is making her mark at the Film Center, which operates on a $1.5 million annual budget.
A native of Winterset, Iowa, Fons and her mother bought the town’s movie theater, The Iowa, raised a tick over $1 million to renovate and reopen it and turned it into a nonprofit, and now keeps a four-nights-weekly mix of new films and classics humming.
At the Film Center, Fons has implemented strategic shifts in its programming mix, loosening up the screening calendar to allow for more flexibility and some late additions and — crucially — attracting visible engagement of younger audiences.
“I’m programming for anyone, of any age, who’s discerning,” Fons says. “And curious.”
The conspicuous uptick in college and post-college-age attendance, she says, isn’t confined to SAIC students.
“In general young people are the ones getting out and doing stuff,” she says, sitting in her third-floor office overlooking State Street. Posters for Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” and Vincente Minnelli’s “The Band Wagon” dominated the southern wall. “It’s not unique to Chicago; all my fellow art-house programmers, we’re on a Slack channel together, and everyone’s saying it: The young people are back!”
Pause. Then: “Young people being 20 to 45.”
The older audience segment remains elusive, though for some programming, including the National Theater Live weekend matinee screenings, they’re there. It’s not easy to read the tea leaves about what will work, at the Film Center or anywhere with screens, he says. But she’s heartened by the turnout for such recent retrospectives as the late 2022 celebration of avant-garde documentarian Jonas Mekas.
Fons has a populist curatorial knock for challenging gatherings or unexpected titles in disarm packages. The January-to-February 2023 Film Center calendar boasts a weirdly alluring five-film mini-festival called “Settle In.” The shortest of the films, Bela Tarr’s hypnotic post-apocalyptic reverie “Satantango,” runs a little over seven hours; at roughly 13.5 hours, the longest, “La Flor,” starts at 10 am and, including intermission breaks, lets out shortly before midnight.
“I’ve wanted to do this series for a long time,” she said, brightly. Presales already look promising. Fons and crew are making it a slow-cinema event: bottomless coffee courtesy of Dolop Coffee Co.; box lunches offered by the Film Center’s downtown pals and neighbors Goddess and the Baker. Fons is working on getting a yoga instructor to lead whoever wants to be led in stretching exercises in the lobby.
“I quit Twitter,” Fons says, “but apparently on Twitter there’s some talk about the series, and they’re all saying it’s awesome, and more theaters should be doing this.” It’s enough, she says, to make a film programmer “feel as if the future is bright.”
The challenges remain. More than 70% of the Film Center staff was let go near the beginning of the pandemic, and Fons said “we’ll never rebuild to its former size.” As such, she says, she finds herself “having to measure both my enthusiasm and my frustration,” especially when it comes to building audiences for the work. But so far, so good.
Fons is aware of the “pretty chilly” (her description) vibe in the lobby area of the Film Center emanates. On the other hand, “I actually think a little of that austerity offers something you certainly don’t get at the Music Box. The Music Box is a party: crackin’ beers, uncomfortable seats, that’s the vibe, and I love that, too.”
To her, something about the sleek, slightly intimidating physical aura of the Film Center invites a sense of commitment. “It has a personality, even if it’s on the formal side,” she says. “And once you get inside, I mean, we have the best projection and sound quality in the city. I’ve heard it from too many different people to argue.”
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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