When the June 2001 issue of Westchester Magazine hit newsstands, touting the debut of the Jacob Burns Film Center — christening founder Stephen Apkon as “The King of Pleasantville” — no one was binge-watching Netflix or obsessing over Hulu or Amazon Prime. Movie theaters still reigned supreme, yet indie/arthouse cinema was still outside the mainstream, and many questioned the idea of putting a film center in the sleepy downtowns of Westchester.
“I looked all over Westchester to find a place for the film center, but communities were not open to it; they didn’t understand it,” recalls cinema buff Apkon, whose vision for the Jacob Burns Film Center was inspired by his desire to “bring community together through the shared cultural experience of film.” When exploring the idea with village boards and town councils, “they were fearful of everything from parking issues to how [a film center] would change the downtown landscape,” Apkon notes.
His pitch to transform the old Rome Theater in Pleasantville was turned down initially by its owners, but through a stroke of serendipity, the building came up for sale a short while later. Though a major retail chain was also interested in the space, Apkon’s approach of using the film center as an opportunity to revitalize the struggling downtown area won out, and the Jacob Burns Film Center officially opened its doors in Pleasantville in June 2001.
Nearly 20 years later, the success of “the Burns” is still a beautiful surprise to Apkon, who led the organization for its first 15 years. “We so far exceeded anyone’s expectations,” he says of the five-screen cinema complex, which today welcomes some 225,000 visitors and screens more than 400 films annually. “I’m so proud that it has continued to be a living thing and continued to reflect the community that it is in and the times it exists in.”
The experiential aspect at the heart of the Burns’ programming is one of its most enduring draws, notes current interim director Janet Benton. “Coming here is about more than just catching a movie,” she says. The center’s wide slate of lectures, film discussions, receptions, and Q&As with industry notables “is powerful and has been a huge key to our success.”
“It was never about just showing films. It was about community and the connections between filmmakers and the audience, engaging in authentic, art-based conversations about life.”
—Stephen Apkon, Founder, Jacob Burns Film Center
There has been no shortage of star power orbiting the Burns: Board members have included such Hollywood luminaries as Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Jonathan Demme, while film events held at the JBFC have hosted the likes of Meryl Streep, Richard Gere, Jodie Foster, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Billy Crystal, and countless others. Yet, for Apkon, the biggest thrills have been the quieter moments. “We had so many events during last 20 years when I would think to myself: If only for this, it would have all been worth it,” he says.
The Burns has always had a dual mission of film and education, and Apkon takes great pride in the success of the center’s expansive educational programs. Launched down the street from the theater in 2009, its 27,000 sq. ft. Media Arts Lab (which includes a soundstage, 60-seat screening room, animation studio, editing suites, and classroom studios) serves as the hub of its educational offerings, which are aimed at molding students and teachers into inspired creators, critical thinkers, and effective communicators.
Over the years, adds Benton, there’s been a strong emphasis on bringing educational programs into schools throughout Westchester. “We have developed a curriculum that spans pre-K through high school,” she explains. The organization also created an online educational platform that has become especially powerful with the advent of the COVID-19 crisis. “We have an outpouring of teachers using it remotely, at home,” Benton explains.
Not surprisingly, the impact of the coronavirus outbreak looms large for the JBFC. Closed by mandate since mid-March, there is, confirms Benton, “Great uncertainty about what comes next. We’re not sure how eager audiences will be about coming back to theaters. We are working to figure out how we can reopen in a safe way.” Likely approaches, Benton explains, include selling drastically fewer seats per theater, so patrons can safely maintain social distance, as well as “increasing time between screenings, so there aren’t large groups of people in the lobby.”
Benton is still optimistic, she says, given the Burns’ large and loyal customer base and the enduring power of the cinematic experience. “We’re expecting a careful, cautious, slow ramp-up,” she says.
For Apkon, the center’s future means coming full circle, to its original mission. “It was never about just showing films,” he says. “It was about community and the connections between filmmakers and the audience, engaging in authentic, art-based conversations about life.”