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In the Director’s Chair
Cinema Center’s new Executive Director Jonah Crismore on movies, movie-making and moving Cinema Center into the future
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Here at FWR, we enjoy the latest Hollywood blockbuster as much as anyone — some of our favorite movies feature dinosaurs and spaceships. But the world of movies is a big one, with lots to offer, and it’s no secret that often, the most interesting, innovative, and moving films don’t make it to the local cineplex.
For those movies — the indie “buzz” flicks, the talked about foreign films, the insightful documentaries — we’ve relied on Cinema Center, Fort Wayne’s non-profit theater that specializes in bringing to town those movies you’ve heard about, read about, and thought-looked-interesting-but-figured-they’d-never-make-it-here. Originally formed in 1976, Cinema Center moved to its current digs at the corner of West Berry and Clay Street in 1991, and has established itself as the alternative for people who really love movies, and were looking for something different.
So last summer, when Cinema Center announced they were looking for a new Executive Director, it conjured images of hordes of local movie-lovers clutching fresh resumes and crying “pick me! pick me!” like five-year-olds volunteering at a birthday party magic show.
And why not? Executive Director of Cinema Center is a dream job for hard-core cinephiles. While everyone says they love movies, for the committed cinephile there’s a passion for the medium that goes far beyond being amused and entertained for 90 minutes or so; there’s a deep respect for the art, craft, and dedication behind making a film.
Jonah Crismore calls his affection for the medium an “appreciation” of film, though the word “appreciation” seems a little too dry and academic to be accurate in his case. Because Crismore, who was named the new Executive Director of Cinema Center in August, really is one of those people with a deep love, understanding and knowledge of movies of all kinds. “We wanted a film guy, for sure, and Jonah is definitely that,” says Denise Douville, the incoming president of Cinema Center’s Board of Directors and a member of the search committee. “He has such a passion for the job and seemed like a perfect fit for us.”
Indeed, when Crismore is asked for films that served as “eureka” moments for him — movies that started him really thinking about movies — his answers are pretty different.
The first: Kevin’s Smith’s Clerks, which Crismore saw while he was in high school. Crismore liked movies, of course — his father used to take him to see many of the blockbusters of the 80s — but it was Clerks that started him really thinking about movies, though the appeal was not necessarily the profanity ridden dialogue and humor. “Something clicked in me,” he says. “I thought ‘there’s a process behind this, and it seems like it’s obtainable’.”
Ironically, he says that it was Clerks seeming lack of film-making technique that made him discover… well, film-making technique. “Clerks is a very static film; you’re conscious of the fact that the camera never moves,” he says. “Because it was so non-Hollywood, so ‘not slick’ in many ways, it made me realize how much technique goes into film-making.”
He adds: “And that took me down this path where I wanted to learn about how movies are made. The more I learned how difficult it is to make movies, everything that goes into them, the more appreciation I started to have for what you see on screen.”
The second: In the Mood For Love by Hong Kong-based director Kar Wai Wong. “It’s a movie that, on paper, I wouldn’t be interested in at 18 years old, but it totally opened my eyes,” he says. “I thought ‘wow, other countries have their own film industry!’ I was completely ignorant of that. Also, it was shot so beautifully, with an elegance to everything — acting, writing, camera work — that I had never seen before; it’s one of those films that I wish I could go back and have that experience of seeing it for the first time again.”
Crismore earned a Bachelor of Arts in Film & Video from Columbia College in Chicago (he graduated Cum Laude). While there, he took advantage of the school’s “Semester in LA” program, and after graduating landed internships in a number of production companies in Los Angeles. One of his last gigs before moving back to Indiana — and the one he gets asked about most frequently — was a stint in the writer’s room of The Walking Dead as the show was first going into production. “What the intern does in the writer’s room of a TV show is stand up at those white boards on the walls and scribble down ideas that the writers throw out,” he laughs. “(TV is) the medium a lot of the writers tend to gravitate towards these days, because it’s sort of controlled by the writers. But what’s really interesting about it is that it’s so collaborative, all these people trying to come up with different solutions.”
Crismore’s appointment comes at a time when Cinema Center is trying to address some changes in the film industry. The entire landscape of how films are distributed and seen has changed dramatically from what it was just half-a-decade ago. Cinema Center’s mission is to show independent, foreign, and documentary films, and these days, many of those films can hop right on to Netflix or video-on-demand after their short theater run is over. “But most filmmakers still craft their film to be shown in a theater,” Crismore says. “We’re still giving them the experience that was intended, showing it in a theater. But how do you market that?”
One of the ways is by building appreciation, they believe, and to that end, Cinema Center hopes to expand their educational outreach. That is something that has always been a facet of the organization’s mission, but with the recent acquisition of the space formerly occupied by Artlink, Douville sees an opportunity to offer even more. “We’re looking at what we can do in that space in terms of programming,” says Douville, adding that she foresees the space becoming an alternative screening room, and a venue for classes, perhaps working with local universities and high schools.
It’s an idea that seems near to Crismore’s heart. He taught film and screen writing at Huntington University and made his own films and videos, and knows that fledgling film makers and hobbyists are eager to learn some of the art behind the craft. Filmmaking is very accessible these days — anyone with iMovie can put together something that looks “pretty good” — but Crismore says he often hears from people who are looking for better than pretty good. “There’s this accessibility to technology, this ability to create things, but often when I talk to people, they’ll say ‘you know, I did this, but something is off’,” he says. “It could be something simple, like the shots are too long or the ‘rule of threes’ — just these simple things that would make the film more aesthetically pleasing. So classes, seminars, workshops… those are some of the things I’d like to be able to use the new space for.”
Crismore also has to contend with the daily, daily of booking movies. We just used the word “contend,” but it’s not necessarily a difficult task; Cinema Center has been around long enough that it’s built relationships with many distributors, and in general most smaller distribution companies are happy to work with whoever wants to show the film. But if you’ve ever wondered why sometimes that “buzz” movie you read about five months ago doesn’t make it to Cinema Center until three weeks ahead of its DVD release… “It all depends on the distributor,” Crismore says. “For example, we’re showing Red Hook Summer, the new Spike Lee movie. This time around, that film is using a smaller distribution company, and there happened to be a print available. But if the company is someone like Fox Searchlight, which is just one tentacle of this big octopus that is 20th Century Fox… they work very well with us, but we’ll probably be on a waiting list.”
Crismore says he’d like to be more pro-active with booking films in advance, since that helps to market them and get the word out. That said, opportunities arise, the unexpected happens, and Cinema Center has to be able to make changes quickly. A film they’ve penciled in for several weeks down the line might suddenly have a print available if it ends another run earlier than expected.
And the other side of that is that a small film could suddenly “blow up” and become more in demand. There is competition, even for some of the smaller films Cinema Center shows, and the organization occasionally finds itself up against some well known names. “I can show distributors that we have the audience for these movies, and that we can actually outperform a chain like Carmike when it comes to these movies, but… yeah, there’s a national name recognition that’s hard to get around sometimes.”
Still, scheduling and booking is one of the aspects of the job that Crismore enjoys. “I imagine it’s sort of like curating,” he says, laughing. “You know, you try to stagger the comedies, the dramas… you don’t want two heavy documentaries playing next to each other.”
As we speak, Crismore is wrapping up the final details on the Rock n’ Reel music documentary film festival on October 6, his first “big event” since taking the helm at Cinema Center and one of the organization’s first all day festivals. One of the challenges Crismore seems tasked with is raising awareness of what Cinema Center is and what it does during a time when viewing habits are changing, and hopefully help nurture a new generation of cinephiles looking for something beyond the cineplex.