Jon Forman is the owner of Cleveland Cinemas—the 46-screen, seven-location collection of movie theatres screening everything from big-budget blockbusters to niche foreign films. Fun fact: He's also the creator of the Cleveland International Film Festival.
By Lexi Hotchkiss and Noah Toumert
Sure, you can head over to the Cedar Lee Theatre on Cleveland’s east side to catch a box-office smash.
But, then again, you can also go there to check out screenings of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet perform “Swan Lake,” a documentary deconstructing The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,” a late-night "Grease" sing-a-along and, of course, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
Needless to say, the Cedar Lee, which has been showing flicks continuously since 1925, is a treasure among film buffs and novices alike. So, it goes without saying that whoever operates this under-the-radar gem must have an eye for the artform.
Such is the case with Jon Forman, owner of Cleveland Cinemas—the 46-screen, seven-location collection of movie theaters screening everything from big-budget blockbusters to niche foreign films.
And, fun fact, Forman also is the founder of the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF), which in 2017 is expecting more than 100,000 attendees.
Forman, who started the festival on a whim back in 1977, describes himself simply: “I'm not a filmmaker; I'm just somebody who enjoys watching movies.”
As we approach the 41st anniversary of the CIFF March 29-April 9, we sat down with Forman to talk films, festivals and, of course, Cleveland.
You’re originally from NYC. What brought you to Cleveland and got you interested in movies?
I attended Case Western Reserve University as an undergraduate student. I had an opportunity when I was there to run the college film society, as well as to take classes that included a course taught by a professor, Louis Giannetti, who really inspired me to find out more about movies.
Giannetti saw something in me. He recognized my passion and interest not only in films like Star Wars, but the weird stuff that he would show for his classes—be it film noir, classic American or foreign language films (which, unfortunately, we don't see that much of anymore).
What inspired you to create the Cleveland Film Festival?
When I graduated from [Case Western Reserve University], I had what I always refer to as ‘real jobs.’ But after work, I'd come back to Strosacker Auditorium on the Case campus where others were running the film society. I would just hang out; I couldn't get it out of my system.
Then, I had a friend who encouraged me to take that passion and do something with it. He pointed me in the right direction—to start the first Cleveland International Film Festival, which I did in 1977.
And, it was a qualified success because it was successful enough to pay all the legitimate bills we had.
Did you ever imagine the CIFF would be such a success?
I'd be lying if I said I knew this would happen.
We optimistically referred to the festival as the "First Annual" Cleveland Film Festival, never realizing or thinking that there might be a second, third or fourth—only hoping that would be that case.
In the early years, I had gone to the San Francisco Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, which were really big-deal events in each of those cities.
I kept saying, "This will never happen in Cleveland. We're not that kind of city."
So, when I see what happens now with hundreds and hundreds of people lining up in the hallway outside of Tower City Cinemas, I keep thinking, “Never—in my wildest dreams—did I think something like this would happen where there'd be a standby line for tickets. It’s really amazing.”
You could have moved back to NYC. Why stick around in CLE?
Well, I like Cleveland.
I guess if I didn't like the city I would consider selling and moving on. But, I raised my family here. I like the east side of Cleveland where I've lived, although I know the west side well. I'm really happy here.
I grew up in a suburb of New York out in Long Island and I had a very nice middle-class upbringing. After I left, I'd go back and watch how it got built up and how expensive it got.
I could never live in New York City now as an adult. It's much more competitive and much more congested. And, frankly, the lifestyle is much more intense and the competition is a lot fiercer.
I know a lot of people like to beat up on Cleveland but I've always been a champion for the city.
What’s the biggest challenge your industry faces today?
Growing our audience is one of the greatest frustrations and challenges we have. We know the aging baby boomers are coming to see some of these strange films. But, we want their kids and their grandkids to discover us, as well. We need to keep growing the audience.
I love "House of Cards" like the next person, but I also like going out to movies and seeing things like Moonlight, which you can't sit in your home and watch by yourself. Just going to a movie requires you to be seeing it with other people and reacting with other people. That kind of social experience is only something you can get in a theater.
And, that's what I see at the Cleveland International Film Festival.
Why did you decided to buy a movie theater back in the late 1970s?
The initial purchase of the Cedar Lee Theatre was just a wonderful coincidence for me, as well as a fortunate one for the owner.
The owner of the Cedar Lee Theatre—a very decent, honorable and successful businessman named Bert Lefkowich—owned a bunch of theaters in Cleveland. He was in the process of getting out of the business and was selling all his theaters.
He made an offer to me that basically allowed me to pay him over a period of time in a form of rent-to-buy. He protected himself fully, so that if I missed a payment, everything would revert back to him. But, he could not have been more supportive.
Why did you buy the Cedar Lee Theatre specifically?
There are not a lot of theaters that can boast that they’ve been operating continuously.
The Cedar Lee Theatre has meant a lot to a lot of people who like coming to the Cedar Lee business district. They eat and then come to movies, or eat and go to a bar—whatever. It's a really nice neighborhood and I'm glad to be a part of it.