A new wave of independent Midwest cinemas goes way beyond four walls and a film.

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Iowa City’s FilmScene
Iowa City's FilmScene just installed a permanent 48-foot-wide screen for free outdoor shows—all with closed-captioning to be more universally accessible.
| Credit: COURTESY OF THE CITY OF IOWA CITY

A hush settles as the lights fade to black. There's a moment of charged silence as the audience sits at attention, suspended between two worlds. Then the music swells, the opening sequence rolls, and a group of strangers hurtles headlong into a story.

"Watching a movie is like riding a roller coaster," says Holly Crane, co-owner of Bookhouse Cinema in Joplin, Missouri. "You're all feeling the highs, the lows, the emotions. My favorite thing is to sit by the door and hear everybody laughing together. Seeing movies is important, but it's even more important to look at someone's face and see that they're affected by the same thing I am."

That shared experience of taking an immersive silverscreen journey with other people feels extra magical—even healing—after a year of watching films alone. "It's about human connection," says Lara Sfire, who owns The Film Lab in Hamtramck, Michigan. "It's a kind of intimacy that you don't get when we're all secluded in our houses watching on our laptops. People are starving for it." And that's to say nothing of the pleasure of sharing (or not) a jumbo bucket of movie-theater popcorn again.

You can definitely score all of that in a suburban multiplex. But a resurgence of independent cinemas in cities large and small is giving many Midwesterners an alternative. These places offer unique settings, special events, fresh food and neighborhood feels. At The Film Lab, for instance, movies flicker above firepits. Bookhouse's pub dishes vegan sandwiches. And most importantly, they're locally owned, so your night at the movies builds community, too—and that's a winning ticket.

The Nightlight Cinema in Akron, Ohio
The Nightlight Cinema in Akron, Ohio, often hosts themed events in collaboration with film showings.
| Credit: Josh Land

Site-specific experiences power The Nightlight, a 48-seat theater in Akron's Historic Arts District. Patrons take their seats with locally made treats in one hand and a themed cocktail or Ohio beer in the other. The lineup includes new releases, art house films and obscure Westerns. An outdoor pop-up called The Nightlight Under the Stars connects film, audience and setting. For example, when an agricultural documentary was screened on a farm, a real-life moonrise turned all eyes to the sky. "That can't happen inside," says Artistic Director Brittany Dobish. "That moment showed how connected we all are. And that's crucial after last year."

FILMSCENE, Iowa City

FilmScene always had a distinctly college-town vibe, with audiences watching flicks on couches. Recently though, this Iowa City nonprofit has tripled its footprint to three downtown venues—a restored 1850s storefront; a sleek cinema in a glass-sheathed, mixed-use condo tower; and an alfresco screen in a city park, complete with top-notch projector and sound system. "Going to the movies is a magical experience," says Executive Director Andrew Sherburne. "Those larger-than-life images. Sound that truly does seep into your bones. That vulnerable state where you allow an artist to take you on a journey. There's a different electricity that exists in that space. You can't replicate it."

BOOKHOUSE CINEMA, Joplin, Missouri

An eclectic space furnished largely with secondhand finds and DIY touches, Bookhouse sits in a historically Black neighborhood in Joplin, along old Route 66 in southwest Missouri. Co-owner Holly Crane selects new releases, international films, classic movies and documentaries that mirror the area's diversity. Bookhouse oozes community in both its indoor and outdoor screening spaces—friends and families even gather to play boardgames and linger over tacos and tofu banh mi from the on-site pub before shows.

In March 2020, the pandemic halted this three-screen art house cinema's opening festivities just a day before its scheduled start. So Kan-Kan pivoted outdoors—and created a new Near Eastside neighborhood tradition. Now, the indoor theaters are open. Enjoy bistro fare from James Beard Award semifinalist Abbi Merriss before (or after) four daily showings. Free memberships for neighbors, $10 tickets, and a mix of free and paid programming aim to increase access. "We are a not-for-profit with a mission to use film as a vehicle to start conversations and broaden people's perspectives," explains Louise Henderson, executive director of the Indianapolis Film Project, which powers Kan-Kan.

THE FILM LAB, Hamtramck, Michigan

The Film Lab
The Film Lab, Hamtramck, Michigan
| Credit: ADAM CAMPAU

Owner Lara Sfire calls her Detroit-area venue a filmmakers' clubhouse—equal parts microcinema, cocktail bar and artistic hub. An indoor theater and 50-seat patio cinema host workshops and screenings, including Open Projector Nights, when filmmakers can share their work, like an open mic. Creative types network at Filmmaker Happy Hour, watch rough cuts or collaborate on projects. And a cheeky craft drink menu complements the lineup of art house movies, '90s cult classics, horror flicks and international films, screened outdoors Thursday through Sunday, weather permitting.

Hit a Festival

Take a deep dive into indie cinema from around the world atone of these upcoming film festivals.

HEARTLAND FILM FESTIVAL, October 7–17, Indianapolis

Celebrate 30 years with hundreds of independent films at in-person and virtual screenings.

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, October 13–24, Chicago

Founded in 1964, this event is the longest running competitive film festival in North America.

BELOIT INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, February 25–March 6, Beloit, Wisconsin

Walk to eight downtown venues or watch online. Specialties include state showcases and a new emphasis on horror and sci-fi.