Life in the movie business
By Brian Welk
It requires starting from scratch, working long hours, juggling numerous responsibilities and meeting a lot of people. It is an all-consuming endeavor.
But IU Cinema Director Jon Vickers wants to change your life and the lives of others. This is the job for him.
Vickers put out a similar manifesto before selling his privately owned theater, the Vickers Theater, in Three Oaks, Mich. He warned potential buyers that although the theater was profitable, running it meant heavy lifting in service to the community.
For several years, IU lacked an on-campus movie facility. In two years and three seasons, Vickers has worked tirelessly to build a film-loving community in Bloomington.
In the IU Cinema, he’s created something from nothing and done all he can to add to an already thriving arts scene.
“If sometimes my job is all-encompassing, it’s because, plain and simple, I want it to be great,” Vickers said. “I want this to succeed, and I’ll do whatever it takes to reach our goals.”
The IU Cinema is equipped with two digital projectors — a 16mm projector and a 35mm projector running reel to reel — and a total equipment build-out exceeding $2 million, enough to trump any multiplex in the country.
But one of the most important pieces of the IU Cinema is pinned to the wall of Vickers’ office: a list of contacts.
Even before his time at the IU Cinema, Vickers learned that the movie theater business is built on relationships.
Film prints are constantly delivered to the foot of his office door, so Vickers knows his bookers, distributors and FedEx deliveryman.
He knows his audience, too. Vickers’ open door spills right into the cinema’s downstairs lobby, and signed posters of past film series provide a welcoming face for the public.
“If they have enough trust in you, it doesn’t matter what’s playing,” Vickers said. “They’re going to come. I guess that’s as long as you don’t blow it by completely offending them or start showing garbage.”
It’s a mission statement he might have borrowed from his family company, Vickers Engineering: “Quality is something that should be assumed, not applauded.”
Born in Kouts, Ind., and raised in Lakeside, Mich., Vickers developed a love for film watching “Jaws” and other monster movies at the Lee Theater near his home.
“Movies were escapism for me, purely entertainment,” Vickers said. “Kids like myself around the neighborhood just went and had a good time, but it wasn’t an addiction.”
His dream then was not to own a theater but build a community centered around the movies for a new generation. So, when the Lee Theater went up for sale, Vickers and his wife, Jennifer, made an impulsive decision and bought it within five days.
“It was recognizing there was a niche and a need, and there wasn’t an art theater for 60 miles,” Vickers said. “You had to go to Chicago or Grand Rapids to see an art film.”
Renovation for the building took nearly two and a half years, and the newly named Vickers Theater finally opened in 1996. Vickers quickly grew his hobby project into a thriving art house in his small-town community.
“For the first 10 years at the Vickers Theater, you would see no one at the ticket window but a Vickers,” he said. “People got to know us.”
He and his family became household names in Three Oaks, and before long, the Vickers Theater audience was as close to them as anyone. Neighborhood residents gathered outdoors for the annual Sounds of Silents film festival or at their home for a free performance by legendary banjo player Béla Fleck. Their theater became a local staple.
“I liked the idea of working with my family and spending more time with them,” said Vickers’ youngest daughter, 13-year-old Ava. “Even the customers became your family. Our theater was like a big family. We saw each other every day, and it was fun.”
Starting from scratch
When they first purchased the Lee Theater, the Vickers wanted to live a bohemian lifestyle.
Vickers envisioned his theater work as a simple, relaxing change of pace. They could live in the projection booth, show obscure art films by night and display Jennifer’s artwork in a gallery by day.
“At that point in our lives, we were both all for it, not knowing anything about it,” Jennifer said. “Maybe someone giving us advice would have said not to do that.”
Vickers chimed in.
“It was pretty naïve,” he said. “We put our hearts and souls into this project, making it into a romantic and elegant space. When we set up our theater, we set up our entire booth ourselves. We didn’t have equipment three months before we opened and didn’t know anything about it. One thing I’ve learned is that if you’re willing to have patience, common sense and put in the time, you can do anything.”
Living a bohemian lifestyle would be no easier for him at the IU Cinema. Jon Stante, one of the cinema’s house managers, said Vickers simply doesn’t know the 40-hour workweek, as he greets patrons at the door, introduces films on stage and, finally, watches everyone leave.
“Just as anyone who is passionate about anything, Jon likes to have his hands in everything, from the technical aspect to promoting and marketing,” Stante said.
This is on a normal day, too, excluding the weekends when he has filmmakers and other guests in his home or treats them to lunch at FARMbloomington. He juggles their schedules and those of community donors or teachers using the space as a classroom.
Communication and Culture Professor Greg Waller was the chair on the search committee for the IU Cinema director, and he said Vickers knew precisely the complications of building a campus theater.
“Immediately with Jon, it was apparent how enthusiastic he was and how experienced he was,” Waller said. “He had done it. That was crucial. You know, in an interview like that, that they know to ask the right questions. They know the budget they’ll need.
They know the tech support. If they don’t ask those questions, they’re naïve, and they’re going to get swamped when they take the job.”
Vickers gained that knowledge from his work as the head of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, a position he accepted while his wife continued to operate the Vickers Theater.
“Anyone who has worked at a university and in the private sector will tell you they are two completely different animals,” IU Cinema Podcast Host Andy Hunsucker said. “He just seemed so capable and so certain that this was something he could accomplish. You never doubted for a second that he was going to create something really
Waller said no one, including Vickers, realized the sheer complexity of constructing the theater, programming a film schedule and dealing with its constituents in such a short amount of time.
“What was a challenge but was an exciting challenge was building something from scratch,” Vickers said. “Building every protocol, policy, every piece of infrastructure that you need to run a business from scratch, with a small staff and not doing it on a minor scale but on a major scale where hopefully we can make an impression and make a reputation. It’s a super exciting challenge, but it is almost all-consuming.”
Making a change
Vickers didn’t take the IU Cinema job out of desperation. He and his family were rooted in their hometown, and his job at Notre Dame was equally overwhelming.
“At this late stage, to build a cinema this good devoted to the movies is really rare,” Waller said. “You want someone who knew that immediately. You do it because you realize certain jobs offer an opportunity to really build something, and we realized how much he knew that.”
In embracing that opportunity to create something special, the Vickers family made some sacrifices upon coming to Bloomington. Jennifer had established a large network of friends and contacts from running the theater, and Vickers’ mother, Doralee, was battling cancer.
“We knew her health wasn’t good,” he said. “I moved at a time when her health was pretty volatile. We had a very close family, and from 1991 until I moved down here, we had a scheduled dinner every Sunday. My kids grew up with their grandma, and that’s tough for families to do these days.”
Doralee passed in October 2010 as Vickers was starting his new job. She never made it to Bloomington.
But IU provided the family a new beginning. Vickers said his children and his wife now have more opportunities and time to be active in the community. What’s more, his kids would rather be Hoosiers than Fightin’ Irish.
“I’ve got a really supportive family that really likes what we do,” Vickers said. “And when I say we, even though they’re not a part of this (IU Cinema), they are a part of this. They’ve come to live with our careers as being more than careers. It in many ways defines who we are.”
Being a daredevil
The one thing 15-year-old Frankie Vickers misses most about Michigan is the sand dunes.
While sitting in the Vickers’ home, Frankie jumps up to get a stark black-and-white photo of his dad, wearing sunglasses and bowling down a mountain of sand on something close to a snowboard.
Sandboarding is one of Vickers’ more radical hobbies. It was inspired by his kids but became a welcome diversion for him all the same. It’s probably the closest he can get to living one of his favorite movies, “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Beyond that, he’s skated on longboards with his oldest son, 17-year-old Max, and traveled through 38 states on a motorcycle.
“There’s really nothing more freeing than getting on a motorcycle and just taking off,” he said. “I’ve always been a bit of a daredevil, but it’s nice to be able to do things with these guys.”
And while this is a side Vickers’ children know all too well, he wonders if those who have come to know him as the friendly and gentle IU Cinema director would scratch their heads.
“I’m a very casual person, and I don’t mind the attention, but if my casualness comes out, different folks in the University administration might think differently of me,” he said. “But that’s fine. That’s who I am. But I also feel I’m a professional, even though I have a casual side.”
Waller assured him this was hardly a problem for anyone in this administration.
“His love of movies, his deep knowledge of the movies, his experience in running different kinds of places and, above all, his ability to talk to everyone he met,” Waller said. “They all responded enthusiastically about his openness and friendliness. That’s crucial in a job like this because he has to deal with so many different people.”
Now Vickers’ goal is to grow the cinema’s national reputation until it is driving enrollment at IU and attracting A-list talent to stay in Bloomington.
As part of accomplishing that dream, Vickers expressed hopes of one day touring each of the 50 states with the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films. He even hopes to make a movie inspired by the ancient Chinese poet Dogen’s thoughts about impermanence.
“Being a couple of years into this, I have the ability to be a little more casual here than I was at Notre Dame,” he said. “I love music, love the arts, love seeing plays, love seeing the opera and I love being outside sitting with nothing to do. I just like enjoying what’s around us, and Bloomington’s a great place to do that.”
Changing your world
“A line that I repeat often is from a song from the ’80s by a band called The The. ‘If you can’t change the world, change your world.’ I’ve repeated that often,” Vickers said.
Vickers started by changing his job in Michigan and ended up changing his neighborhood. At Notre Dame, he changed his perspective and found a new direction for the entire arts scene there.
In the last two years, his change has been a radical relocation, a completely fresh position and a new family of people.
His effect can be seen in those who work most closely with him.
“This has been a life journey for him,” Stante said. “His goal is to encourage the discovery of life through film.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone in the world that I have more respect for than Jon,” Hunsucker said. “He’s just so dedicated to everything he does. He’s so serious about the cinema, but at the same time, he’s certain to make time for his family and make time for himself. He is literally one of the best people I’ve ever met.”
Vickers loves his audience, his staff, his colleagues and, most importantly, the cinema.
As Vickers tries to change the lives of others, his job has changed his life to the point that it’s hardly work anymore.
“Putting together and inspecting films at 4 a.m.,” he said about operating his theater in Three Oaks. “That’s the level of commitment to running this hobby business. But it was also fun to be there. It was fun to meet people, and it was fun to impose your tastes of music and films on people. Turning people on to new music, books or films — it’s fun to do that. It was easy to be committed, and it still is. Even though it is a heck of a lot of work, it’s fun, and it’s something that’s really enjoyable. If it weren’t, I don’t think I could be this committed.”
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