December 28, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Before former Dundee Theater owner Denny Moran decided to sell the iconic Dodge Street structure, before the Sherwood Foundation purchased it, and before Film Streams was chosen to keep it alive, Rachel Jacobson had thought about how adding another screen or two would help the art house better meet the needs of its public.

Responses from Film Streams’ annual survey indicated moviegoers wanted the nonprofit to hold films longer, and also bring more foreign films and documentaries to Omaha.

“We couldn’t address both of those issues without having additional screens,” says Jacobson, Film Streams founder and executive director. “So we felt like we needed a third and potentially fourth screen to do this.”

Jacobson had thought about it. She had researched it. Board members had articulated the need for additional screens in a 2013 strategic plan. They had even mused over the thought of the Dundee Theater located at 50th and Dodge streets becoming that additional screen. But not until Moran articulated his decision to sell in fall of 2015 did that possibility become real.

“I felt like it would be our responsibility to run it,” Jacobson says. “We had built an organization and institution that would make it possible for us to operate it. We had relationships with distributors, a donor base, and a member base. Everyone in the community told us, ‘you guys are the ones.’”
This year, the year of Film Streams 10th anniversary, it has become evident to everyone that they are indeed ‘the ones.’

dundeetheater1The Sherwood Foundation, which has had ownership of the theater and surrounding properties since early 2016, will transfer the theater and Old Dundee Bar to Film Streams as soon as the renovations begin, which Jacobson hopes will be as early as late January or early February of 2017. Meanwhile, the nonprofit is working with Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture on the design, interviewing contractors, and is in the midst of a private, multi-million dollar capital campaign with major donors to raise support for the renovations. If all goes according to plan, the new Film Streams at the Dundee Theater will open later this year.

“Alexander [Payne] has a new movie coming out in fall of [2017], and we would love to open it in conjunction with that,” says Jacobson.

The renovated Dundee Theater and everything it will offer will not replace anything that Film Streams is doing at the Ruth Sokolof Theater downtown. Rather, it will complement and expand upon everything the organization is doing, in an effort to further its mission.

It’s merely a sequel to everything Jacobson and the Film Streams staff, supporters, and board members have accomplished so far.

In its first 10 years, Jacobson says the Ruth Sokolof Theater has welcomed more than 500,000 visitors, including an average of 5,000 students per year to its educational programs. Its budget has grown from $890,000 when the organization opened in 2007 to $1.9 million in 2017 (with an estimated $2.4 million budget for 2018 when the Dundee will have been open for a full year). The administrative staff doubled in 2016 to nine full-time staff members and two part-time staff members in anticipation of additional operating and educational responsibilities.

The numbers speak for themselves, but it’s not just about the numbers, says Jacobson. What she’s the most proud of is not necessarily one specific event over the past 10 years but the collective experiences the organization has provided for Omahans.

She is proud of the First-Run Films program, which offers American independents, documentaries, and foreign films making their theatrical premieres in Omaha and the surrounding region, for the diversity of voices it has brought to the city. “This program is so important to our mission because film is such a great window into other people’s experiences,” Jacobson says.

She is proud of the classic films the organization has brought to the big screen because of the special experiences it has offered to families, children, and local “cinephiles.” And she is especially proud of the organization’s community development program, which involves working collaboratively with other local nonprofits to bring in national or international films followed by a discussion led by leaders from the partnering nonprofits.

“We talk to people in Omaha who are working on these issues, allowing people to walk away with knowledge of their own community beyond what they’ve learned from the film itself,” Jacobson says.
The past 10 years have not been completely without challenges. The College World Series was one Film Streams didn’t see coming when it established itself as a 365-day operation. The organization quickly found out one wants to be indoors during that time, and regular patrons don’t want to deal with the crowded parking. So now, Film Streams closes for at least a week during the annual event. And while the organization has very faithful donors, busy schedules and family activities sometimes prevent even the most dedicated patrons from seeing a movie in the theater as often as they would like.

Jacobson is hoping the location of the Dundee Theater will help with some of that, especially for people who live a little farther west. Renovations are also designed to make the Dundee more of a community gathering place, with a book store, café, and event space designed to coax people out of the house even if they aren’t coming for a movie.

And the theater itself—which will include a main screen with about 300 seats and a 25-seat micro theater—will enhance what Film Streams is already doing, allowing the organization to bring at least “50 percent more” titles to the area, building on the 180 titles per year the nonprofit averages now.
The end goal is to create more unique experiences around film and influence more and more people in our city to make time to go to the movies.

“I just want to see more and more people know who we are, care about us, and care about film as a result of us,” Jacobson says. “I just want us to continue to be a vibrant and important part of the cultural life of our city.”

Visit filmstreams.org for more information.

*Correction: Errors in the spelling of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture and Film Stream’s budget growth figures have been corrected from the January/February 2017 print edition.