Film Streams, the metro area's only nonprofit arthouse film center, has made a series of moves to cement its role as a north downtown Omaha anchor, expand its audiences and focus on having a lasting impact on the city's cultural life.
• Film Streams this winter purchased its formerly leased building at 1340 Mike Fahey St. for $1.9 million.
• Rachel Jacobson, founder and director, recently signed her first contract with the board of directors. While she has no plans to leave, the contract signals to donors her intent to stay at the helm for at least five more years.
• The board's founding chairman, David Jacobson, Rachel Jacobson's father, concluded his term in that role, and new board chairwoman Katie Weitz White has led Film Streams' first formal strategic planning process, charting a three-year course of building the theater's audience through expanded marketing and education efforts.
Looking back after five years of consistent growth at the Film Streams cinema she founded, it's hard to imagine that any project tackled by the self-possessed and passionate Jacobson would not be a success.
But she was just 26, a liberal arts major with a business plan, when she moved home to Omaha eight years ago and set about trying to persuade some of Omaha's wealthiest philanthropists and most ardent arts supporters to buy into her dream. At the time, it was not a certainty that a theater playing foreign and independent films in what had been a blighted area of north downtown could attract enough of an audience to pay its bills.
“I said, 'Have you considered how challenging this is going to be?'” said Suzanne Wise, executive director of the Nebraska Arts Council, which contributed funding to Film Streams. “Omaha, for a number of years, tried to get a not-for-profit film house going and it never seemed to have traction. 'How are you going to succeed when all others have failed?'”
Jacobson believed in her business plan and in her dream, but still, “It was really intimidating,” she recalls, remembering buying her first suit and asking for help from people like investment banker Mike Yanney and former advertising executive Dick Holland, who uses his Berkshire Hathaway investment fortune to support the arts and anti-poverty initiatives.
Now into its sixth year, Film Streams' finances appear to be in good shape, with growing revenue and a healthy operating reserve.
The group raised money to buy its building housing the Ruth Sokolof Theater's two auditoriums by issuing 25-year bonds in multiples of $100,000 at 5 percent interest to investors, including some current board members. Jacobson expects to repay the debt much sooner, cutting a major line item from her expense sheet.
The space was built for Film Streams, and selling to the nonprofit made sense, said Robb Nansel, a developer of the larger north downtown mixed-use block that's home to the Sokolof Theater and a member of Film Streams' advisory board. Converting the space to anything else would be expensive, he said. “It didn't make sense for us to think about what it could be without them.”
Film Streams' income comes about half from contributions, such as donors and grants, and half from sales, including tickets, popcorn and memberships. In 2012, Film Streams sold 57,000 tickets to a total of 168 films. That might not sound like a lot, and it means a lot of people in the metro haven't visited. But it was the third year of increased ticket sales and now is nearly double the 30,000 called for in Jacobson's initial business plan.
The organization started with 500 paid memberships; today it has 2,000 memberships representing about 2,500 individuals.
With White as president, the board has adopted more formal operations, with term lengths, an executive committee and a planned rotation for members to serve in key positions.
White, 39, is the daughter of Weitz Funds founder Wally and Barbara Weitz. Married to the artist Watie White, she left her role with Susie Buffett's Sherwood Foundation last fall to raise her children.
White said she “fell in love” with Film Streams after being introduced to Jacobson through the Omaha Community Foundation.
“It's a great American story of having a dream and making it real,” White said.
She and Jacobson said the recipe for future growth involves not only attracting new visitors, but also turning current visitors into members, and turning members into donors.
Jacobson expects to hire an education coordinator to further expand Film Streams' outreach to students from elementary school through college. She also hopes to expand Film Streams' lineup of talks and special events surrounding films, including inviting more “visiting filmmakers” to curate film series and speak about their work.
In addition, Jacobson plans to step up group sales and create more targeted marketing campaigns for films that might appeal to specific audiences. New software will help with that. Called Altru, it is designed for museums but will help the theater with the same “patron management” tasks. It will help Film Streams identify its patrons and donors and increase the number of times they attend showings and make donations.
It's all happening at the same time Jacobson's family life is expanding as well. Now 34 and married to Stephen Osberg, an urban planner, Jacobson is expecting twins in July. With the help of a nanny, she intends to return to work. “People talk about work-life balance, but for me, work and life are so intertwined it's impossible to think about 'balancing' it.”
Something Jacobson had not envisioned was the theater's role connecting with community groups that sponsor films as a way to engage supporters in their work.
Jacobson said Film Streams found many nonprofits and social service organizations “coming and saying, 'There's this film and it relates to our mission.' That really made it an important part of who we are and what we do.”
One connection was a 2011 screening of “The Interrupters,” about efforts to stop gang violence in Chicago. It was accompanied by discussions led by local groups that seek to mentor youth and stop violence in Omaha.
Today, Film Streams has a community development committee and a formal selection process for working with groups that want to use the theater.
Film Streams' bottom lines
2008: Contributed income: $544,288; earned income: $348,438; total: $892,726
2009: Contributed: $410,823; earned: $449,164; total: $920,341*
2010: Contributed: $414,500; earned: $565,000; total: $976,000*
2011 : Contributed: $559,500; earned: $622,500; total: $1,050,000*
2012: Contributed: $658,000; earned: $584,500; total: $1,160,500*
* Totals reflect movement in and out of the unrestricted assets fund, which Film Streams uses as a sort of emergency savings account, aiming to have on hand at least six months of operating expenses.
Allowing outside groups to participate in programming “goes full circle,” said Lyn Ziegenbein, executive director emeritus of the Kiewit Foundation, which has given Film Streams a total of $424,000 toward construction, the building purchase and programming.
“Then the community supports it, the community is comfortable with it, knows it, and they've had a part in its creation,” she said.
Community support is part of the complex formula of running a successful independent theater, said Russ Collins, the director of a similar theater in Michigan and the founder of the Art House Convergence Film Theaters Conference. He said Film Streams is a success story in the growing world of cinemas that are community cultural centers instead of only commercial operations.
Film Streams “really fills a need that Omaha has had for a long time,” said Danny Lee Ladely, director of the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center on campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Ladely admits to being skeptical about Jacobson's plans when she first came to him for advice. That doubt is gone now.
Yanney, who contributed financially and with time on the board of directors, talks about Film Streams in the same breath as he mentions the Joslyn Art Museum, Orpheum Theater and Holland Performing Arts Center — arts institutions that also serve an economic development role, helping attract new residents and businesses to the city.
With a $1.2 million budget, Film Streams is a fraction of the size of those operations, but Yanney said, “It looks to me like they've got their goals and objectives in focus and they're going to make a significant difference.”
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