With help from a flock of parrots, a 13-year-old girl who wants to have a baby, and a mysterious steam ball from Victorian England, the University’s longstanding independent movie house, the Bijou, recently offered moviegoers a little midsummer relief from Hollywood superheroes and supersized mall theaters.
Known for its range and variety of films, the Bijou, a student-run theater since 1972, was as busy as ever this summer. It screened eight new releases, including foreign films, short films, and even controversial films like Downfall, a movie about Adolph Hitler that some critics complain is too sympathetic to its subject.
No stranger to controversy, the Bijou in the late 1970s showed Deep Throat to more than 5,000 people who filled the ballroom in the Iowa Memorial Union (IMU) to view the Linda Lovelace porn classic. Many young students still might go to movies for escapist entertainment, but Andy Brodie, the Bijou’s programming director, believes today’s Bijou reaches an audience that loves film and appreciates filmmaking as a legitimate art form.
“We’re proud to offer a venue for thoughtful films and the audiences who enjoy them,” says Brodie, a cinema studies senior who shares management of the Bijou with Emily Light, executive director of the Bijou this year and likewise a cinema studies senior. “Our goal is to offer our patrons an interesting and diverse mix.”
A successful, long run
The Bijou first opened in the fall of 1972. Administrative control of the Bijou falls to the UI Office of Student Life, where Jennifer Richman, coordinator of campus programs and student groups, monitors the Bijou’s finances and compliance with UI policy. But students mostly have run the show since the Bijou’s earliest incarnation as a student film society.
With a long history of diverse programming, the Bijou runs more like a metropolitan art-house movie theater than other university film societies, according to Rosalind Galt, professor of cinema and comparative literature in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. National distributors like New Yorker Films have high regard for the Bijou’s wide-ranging foreign and repertory programming, she says.
“There are few student-run cinemas the size and scope of the Bijou left at American universities,” Brodie says. “An example similar to us is the Cornell Cinema at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.—although they do what a number of other university theaters do, which is to show a mix of art-house and foreign films with major Hollywood studio releases. We are completely dedicated to those films that don’t screen at multiplexes.”
Film societies have dried up on many campuses. One of the reasons for the continuing success of the Bijou is the University’s renowned film studies program, whose students and professors provide a knowledgeable audience for many of the Bijou’s selections. The Bijou occasionally schedules a film series in conjunction with a class offered in the cinema and comparative literature department, and instructors from departments as disparate as social science and rhetoric regularly send their students to screenings. Last year, the Spanish and Portuguese department helped cover the rental of two high-profile films from Spain, The Sea Inside and Bad Education, because instructors wanted to give students the chance to experience the films in a theater.
The Bijou serves more than students and scholars, though, Brodie adds.
“We attract a nice mix of people from the University and surrounding communities,” he says.
Behind the scenes
Before anyone can sit down and enjoy the movie, a lot of groundwork takes place. Running the show with Light and Brodie is the Bijou Film Board, a group of 15 undergraduate and graduate student volunteers from all disciplines. Five times a year, board members meet to compile a list of potential films for the next schedule, with each board member pitching suggested titles to keep the Bijou’s lineup diverse and representative of a cross-section of film tastes and interests. The programming director is responsible for booking films from distributors and setting the schedule, as well as preparing promotional material.
The executive and programming directors receive a modest stipend for the year they manage the Bijou. On top of other responsibilities, Bijou board members take tickets and work as ushers. While many of them put in a full week’s work, the only regular Bijou wage earners are the student-worker projectionists.
“For everyone involved in the Bijou, it’s not a job—it’s a labor of love,” Light says. “And it’s a commitment to doing something for the community.”
The Bijou schedules about 33 weeks of regular programming, with two films shown every night, including weekends, in the Illinois Room on the IMU’s third floor. It also schedules several free screenings and special events.
The Bijou was even busier in the late 1970s, when it screened about 400 films a year and attracted nearly 70,000 patrons. But those were the days before video stores, cable television, and well-stocked public library DVD collections.
The Bijou shows 70 to 100 films each year to diverse audiences.
“Fortunately, our patrons appreciate the experience of seeing movies on 35mm film prints in a theater, but it’s still a challenge to get people into our seats,” Brodie says. “We’re up to it, though, because it’s extremely satisfying to see crowds of patrons show up excited for our films. One of my most memorable movie-going experiences was seeing Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times in the Bijou with a fairly full house, including whole families. The response and laughter at the film was incredibly touching.”
The next couple of years will see big changes at the Bijou. Thanks to planned IMU renovations, the Bijou’s new home will be a refurbished Terrace Room dedicated to the theater. It will sit right next to the IMU Box Office, where Brodie and Light believe the Bijou will receive much more notice. Brodie and Light also are excited about possible equipment upgrades arriving about the same time, including digital sound.
“Emily and I and much of the current board of directors will be gone by the time the Bijou opens in the new space, but it’s our job to keep the theater going strong,” Brodie says. “I look forward to coming back as an alum some day and seeing the Bijou live on in a new space.”
For the most up-to-date Bijou movie listings, visit www.bijoutheater.org.
by Gary Kuhlmann