Even with the advent of mega-plexes, capable of showing dozens of movies at once, more people than ever seem to remark that there’s nothing worthwhile in movie theatres any more. One group of central Illinois residents decided to take action and provide more choices to Peoria area movie-goers.

Finding Solid Ground

The Peoria International Film Group first organized in early 2001 under the name of the Apollo International Film Group. “We showed our first film February 2001 at the Apollo Theater in downtown Peoria,” said Film Group Co-founder Jennifer Brady. “Some new Bradley faculty missed being able to see the films—foreign, independent, classic, anything but the typical Hollywood blockbuster—they could see in the larger cities they had come from.”

Brady and her husband had been making regular trips to the Normal Theater in the twin cities for its “Beyond Normal Films” series and wanted to attend similar events a little closer to home. “We began talking with Bob Brandes, then-manager of the Apollo Fine Arts and Entertainment Centre, who was enthusiastic about us using the Apollo to show films. Bob is a big film buff and has a personal collection of 16mm films,” she said. 

The first Apollo International Film Group screening was, in fact, one of Brandes’ own films, Brady said. “It was Sunset Boulevard, the William Holden-Gloria Swanson classic. Bob was of great assistance in helping us get started. Since he had generously donated the film, we didn’t have to pay for film rental, and all of the ticket proceeds gave us a nice start to a bank account, allowing us to rent more films. The Beyond Normal Films group was also of great help. They’ve had a great series going at the Normal Theater for about six years, and they gave us some valuable moral and organizational support while we were getting started.”

The Apollo International Film Group altered its name last summer when a venue change forced a new moniker. “When Andrew Driscoll began his theater enterprise at the Apollo, we were no longer able to show films there, so we moved to Peoria Players Theatre,” Brady said.

No matter the name, the Film Group’s mission remains the same: to bring quality foreign, independent, and classic films to Peoria. “Partly, our mission is educational; we want to show films that are significant in terms of the history of cinema, and also films that can open our eyes to different cultures. For example, in March, we showed the Iranian film The Color of Paradise, and after the film, Dr. Ali Zohoori of the Bradley communications department gave a presentation about Iranian film,” she said.

The Peoria International Film Group shows films once a month, with the exceptions of June and July. “The programs are structured into a spring series, which runs January through May, and a fall series, which runs August through December. We started showing films at Peoria Players in August, and now we run each film only once. At the Apollo, we tried showing a film at 7 and 9 p.m. on the same night a few times, but we found the turnout was low for the second showing and didn’t cover the extra cost associated with showing the film twice,” Brady said.

The Film Group members can’t go to a local video rental store to find the format needed for screenings, so they go through alternate channels. “There are a few large and many small movie distribution companies in the country that deal with renting prints of 16mm and 35mm films,” she said. “We’ve rented most of our films from the big companies—Swank and New Yorker.”

When it comes to choosing the films they’ll rent, Brady said everybody in the Peoria International Film Group has the opportunity to contribute ideas. “Those of us interested in film selection compile a list of possible films to show. Some films on the list we’ve seen; some we’ve just read reviews about. At a film selection meeting, we each vote on five films we would like to show in the upcoming series. The films that get the most votes are the films we select.”

She said the members try to ensure a mix of films, both in terms of country of origin and in the tone of the films. “We aren’t able to show many of the films we’ve wanted to because they’re available only on 35mm, and we have a 16mm projector. It’s expensive for film distribution companies to make copies of the original 35mm into 16mm, so unless they think they can make up the costs from rentals, they don’t bother making 16mm versions of a film.”

Tapping Into a Community Need

Brady said the Film Group’s organization was simply prompted by a lack of access to the variety of films available in larger cities and the desire to bring these offerings closer to home. “The Willow Knolls Theater occasionally shows wider release ‘art films,’ such as Oh Brother Where art Thou, In the Bedroom, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. These are examples of independent films that have made it into the mainstream, and a theater chain can be more assured of larger audiences. This year they even brought the Spanish-language film, Y Tu Mama Tambien. But these art film showings are sporadic and not always well publicized. We wanted to provide something more regularly so Peorians could get their once-a-month fix of a non-Hollywood film.”

She said the Peoria International Film Group allows central Illinois residents to stay current with new cinematic offers. “When movies are released, the media talks about them. Friends in larger cities talk about them. If a non-mainstream film is getting great reviews, I feel left out—like I’m missing out on something the rest of the country is loving. Last year I kept hearing people rave about the French film Amelie, but it never came to Peoria. Well, we’re showing Amelie February 15. Amelie is a young woman who works in a café in Paris and entertains herself by enacting a series of homemade, kindhearted practical jokes. It got across-the-board good reviews as a quirky, sweet film,” she said.

Other films scheduled for the upcoming spring series include Unbearable Lightness of Being, January 18; The Celebration, March 29; The Closet, April 26; and The Third Man, May 31.

Brady said the Film Group members aren’t disparaging Hollywood fare; they simply seek diversity. “Many of the mainstream films are good. It’s just that there’s a sameness to Hollywood films: same actors, same stories, same themes. It’s hard to explain, but independent films or films from other countries are just different. They’re refreshing to watch and make you think beyond your own small world.”

Attendance at the Film Group’s screenings varies, but Brady said the crowd they draw is a good start. “The only poorly attended films were the ones we showed the first summer after we formed, leading us to believe time of year is more of a factor in attendance than the type of film. We did have a larger audience for The Bicycle Thief and The Seven Samurai than for some of the more obscure and recent foreign films we’ve shown, and I think that has to do with name recognition. I’m hoping we’re building enough of a reputation that if people know it’s a Peoria International Film Group film, they’ll come—even if they haven’t heard about it—because they know it’ll be a good film.”

Videos—and even DVDs—of most of these films are available, but Brady said there’s a method behind the Film Group’s madness for showing them in a theater setting. “Eventually the film may come to a local video store, but video isn’t the same. Watching the film Gadjo Dilo on our 14-inch TV screen doesn’t transport me to Romania the way watching it on a movie theater’s big screen does. And when a film draws you in, watching it on a big screen is definitely part of that experience. It’s easy to keep up with new books and new authors; you read a review, you order or borrow the book, and you’re up on the latest in the literature scene. And you don’t have to travel to Chicago to do it. With movies it’s trickier. We, in Peoria, shouldn’t have to miss out on a big part of the world culture scene just because we don’t live in a major city.”

In addition to finding the films they’re interested in on 16mm, Brady said there are distinct challenges the Film Group faces. “When we were at the Apollo, our biggest challenge was keeping the 25-year-old projector running smoothly. We had a fundraiser in 2001 to purchase a more reliable 16mm projector. The fundraiser was a success, and we were able to purchase a newer projector, but after much trial and tribulation, we weren’t able to get it to work properly. None of us is experienced in the mechanics of 16mm projectors, and since it’s a fading technology, it’s difficult to find people to help troubleshoot when something isn’t working properly.”

Finding enough time to devote to their pet project while holding down full-time jobs is another difficulty, she said. “There are a small number of us who work quite hard, and there are certain things we just don’t have time for. For example, we used to provide written information about the film at each movie, but we found that’s one thing we can’t keep up with. We’ve recently lost some active members, and we could really use volunteers willing to help with some of the organizational tasks of the group.”

One of the rewards of her labors, however, is showing a film she knows people are going to remember long after they’ve left the theater. “In late September of 2001, we showed the Lebanese film West Beirut, which takes place in Beirut in 1975, when the city was divided into West (Muslim) and East (Christian). Given the events of September 11, this was a very timely movie and explored the themes of this religious conflict from the point of view of two 13-year-old Muslim boys. We invited people to stay after the film for a discussion. More than half of the audience of 120 stayed, and we had a great discussion. One movie-goer thanked us for showing the film, saying he had lived in Beirut during this time, and watching the film was like watching his life.”

Brady said future plans for the Peoria International Film Group include boosting membership. “Our success over the past two years has been due to the great support we’ve received from the community, which has proven to us people in Peoria are interested in seeing the types of films we’re showing. We have around 150 members, without whose support we wouldn’t be able to continue showing films.”

The cost of joining the group is $10 for students, $15 for individuals, and $25 for families. Members receive two newsletters with film schedules, and the group hosts an annual member event, which Brady said last year was a free screening of the film Shop Around the Corner.

Increasing attendance is another goal. “Now that we’re showing films at Peoria Players, which seats more than 400, we don’t have to worry about selling out. At the Apollo, with only 160 seats, we did have a few overflow crowds. For now, I think we’re content showing one film per month; we haven’t received feedback that people would like more. We’d like to put together some festivals, such as an Illinois Filmmaker’s Festival and a documentary film festival. I think eventually we’ll also need to address the limitations of 16mm format and find a way to show a greater range of films—possibly using video projection or 35mm,” she said.

For more information on the Peoria International Film Group, call 672-2203 or visit www.artspartners.net/PIFG. AA!