Arts & EntertainmentBusinessThe Examiner

New Burns Director Confident Film Center Will Continue to Flourish

We are part of The Trust Project
Jacob Burns Film Center Executive Director Mary Jo Ziesel, who came aboard in September to lead the Pleasantville arthouse theater, is excited for the upcoming year and the future of the venue.

Mary Jo Ziesel was admittedly uneasy when she started about three months ago as the new executive director of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville.

She may have had extensive experience in nonprofit arts administration, having worked for the American Ballet Theatre for the past 22 years, but it was anyone’s guess whether the film center’s dedicated patrons would immediately return to the Jacob Burns for its ambitious and entertaining schedule of films, programs and classes.

As its 20th anniversary year draws to a close, the Burns has been steadily resuming much of its film and educational programming, and that will continue into 2022 despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic.

If last week was any indication, with the opening of the Romanian Film Festival, which included a Q&A with one of Romania’s top actors, a reception and pre-screening of seven short films produced during the spring and summer by the participants of the Creative Culture Fellowship Program and screenings of the new “West Side Story,”, the film center is already hopping.

“Things are really heating up,” Ziesel said. “People are starting to return, and when I first started in September, I was a little nervous. But slowly, I think, we’ve had all of these events and it’s incredible to see the same people return. When people would tell me about the membership, I didn’t quite get it.”

That would be a core membership that has been exceedingly loyal and supportive, not only with the frequency of their visits over the years, but with their pocketbooks. For a venue that had been shuttered for more than a year, like much of the industry, the Jacob Burns has been remarkably resilient in the face of COVID-19.

“There’s been wonderful support from the community, and I really feel that our members, and I would say unlike other places, are special,” she said.

Ziesel said that the experience of seeing a film on the big screen, especially in the presence of other knowledgeable moviegoers cannot be replicated at home.

It has also helped that the decision was made to mandate all patrons be vaccinated to gain entry and for everyone to wear masks except if a guest is seated and is eating or drinking, Ziesel said. As a result, there are no capacity limits.

Denise Treco, the director of marketing and communications for the Jacob Burns, said film lovers felt confident that staff was doing everything to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

“I think after being in quarantine and being home, I feel like more than ever you miss it, like there was something missing, and what we find is that now people are starting to come back and have set that muscle memory for that experience,” Treco said. “They’re coming back again, and coming back again is just great.”

For members and other patrons to return, the film center also has to make sure the quality is at least equal to what it had been pre-pandemic. Aside from returning to a full schedule of movies, there has been or will be in the weeks ahead a continuation of the programming that makes the Burns popular.

The theater shows about 400 films a year in its five theaters, ranging in size from 31 to 249 seats. There were also about 150 special events scheduled each year.

Last week’s Creative Culture Fellowship Program celebrates new up-and-coming filmmakers. Ziesel said it continues to build on the legacy of Burns co-founder Stephen Apkon whose mission was to build visual literacy and encourage dialogue on a wide range of topics.

“It’s really gotten to the point where a lot of these fellows have been accepted to Sundance and have been really making their mark in the film industry,” Zeisel said.

Many of the educational programs at the media arts center will return for students and members of the community to learn. The film center recently hosted its first book event since the start of the pandemic, about the 25th anniversary of the release of “Fargo.”

Starting in January, there will also be the return of the Jacob Burns film club, a monthly gathering of people who view screenings selected by staff followed by discussions about what they’ve watched.

Ziesel said the Burns is able to deliver to the public year after year because its staff is passionate about what it does and cares about making a trip to the film center a unique outing.

“I do believe that the film experience at the Burns is unparalleled in a way because of our house staff,” she said. “The house staff, the theater staff are just incredible.”

We'd love for you to support our work by joining as a free, partial access subscriber, or by registering as a full access member. Members get full access to all of our content, and receive a variety of bonus perks like free show tickets. Learn more here.