IOWA CITY – Downtown Iowa City could soon have a movie theater once again.
FilmScene, a local nonprofit organization, and Iowa City developer Marc Moen are interested in putting a small theater in the building Moen is renovating at 118 E. College St.
The preliminary goal is to install a “micro-cinema” seating 50 to 75 people in the rear of the first floor, said Andy Brodie, co-founder of FilmScene. This would serve as a temporary home until a permanent location can be found to screen the independent and foreign films the organization wants to bring to the community.
“It would give people a taste of the FilmScene experience and our vision for a long-term home,” said Brodie, 32, of Iowa City.
A downtown cinema is an identified need. In a study commissioned by the city and the University of Iowa last year, survey respondents named a movie theater as the top choice for “specialty merchandise” they want downtown.
The UI bought the only full-time downtown movie theater, in Old Capitol Town Center, several years ago and converted it to office space – a decision that rankled many people.
Before the new theater becomes a reality, the City Council must give its OK to part of the plan, something it will be asked to do at its meeting June 19.
The council last year gave Moen $250,000 for the $2 million project to redevelop the building at 118 E. College St., which had been home to Vito’s bar. As part of the agreement, Moen is prohibited from using the property for an eating or drinking establishment. FilmScene, though, would like to offer catered food and alcohol, which is a common practice at small independent theaters.
City officials have been trying to de-emphasize the popular downtown bar scene. Moen has said he will put high-quality offices in the building’s second floor and seek a national retailer for the first floor.
City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said City Code would allow food and alcohol to be served there, but the agreement with Moen was more restrictive and would need to be amended.
Moen said the responses he’s received so far have all been positive. He also said it would be a place for people to drink responsibility rather than binge drink, as occurs in some bars.
“The focus of this thing is not going to be alcohol,” he said. “The focus is going to be movies.”
Brodie and Moen emphasized that the request from the city is just a first step and they’re waiting for an answer before further evaluating whether the building, which is currently being renovated, would work for a theater.
Moen said the ceiling in the rear of the building pops up to two stories, which would allow for a screen, and a rough estimate is the cinema would use about 1,500 of the main floor’s 6,000 square feet.
Brodie said he and FilmScene co-founder Andrew Sherburne, a fellow filmmaker, want to have a temporary theater operating by the end of the year. It would be mostly a do-it-yourself effort that they hope can be accomplished for between $10,000 and $20,000.
They also want it to be open seven days a week, but FilmScene is an all-volunteer effort, so that depends on staffing, he said. The organization formed last fall and has screened several films at the Englert Theatre.
For a permanent spot, new construction would be needed, they have concluded. That could take up to three years to design and build, Brodie and Moen said. It would cost an undetermined amount of money and would require a fundraising campaign, Brodie said.
FilmScene wants a two-screen, 200-seat theater showing first-run movies 365 days a year, he said.