Theater Renovation Leads to ‘Made in Iowa’
Silicon Valley bigwigs don’t visit Webster City very often. But it happened in June when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey attended the premiere of “Made in Iowa,” a 12-minute documentary about how the town responded to the 2011 closure of the Electrolux washer and dryer manufacturing plant.
Dorsey also is the founding CEO of the online payment processor Square, which lets small business owners swipe their customers’ credit cards on smartphones and tablets.
After Square went public in 2015, it launched a film series called “For Every Kind of Dream” to highlight small-business success stories. “Made in Iowa” was the second film in the series, and it focuses on how the town rallied in the post-Electrolux slump.
When the plant closed, businesses that supplied it with parts, warehousing and distribution downsized or disappeared and unemployment skyrocketed. Families lost their homes and cars, and lives were changed forever.
It was a difficult time for the community, but the low point for many came when the downtown Webster Theater closed in 2013, about two weeks after Deb Brown signed on as head of the local chamber of commerce.
“We got together and talked and talked and talked,” she said. “I told them this is a great town and a wonderful community to live in and encouraged people to try things. It was time for people to make a choice; ‘are we going to survive or is this town going to die?’ We decided not to just survive, but to thrive.”
With a small army of new friends and neighbors, she took on the daunting task of renovating and re-opening the theater. The town of about 8,000 people raised nearly $250,000 — mostly in $5 and $10 and $20 donations — to buy new projectors and seats and to make other capital improvements to the theater.
When it re-opened in 2014, the movie theater became a communal space and gave the residents a sense of pride to propel them forward. It became ground zero for the renaissance of Webster City that led to other small businesses sprouting up, and soon the community boasted the highest per capita usage of Square in the country.
In January 2016, however, the New York Times published a series of photographs taken in the years immediately after Electrolux closed that painted a bleak picture of Webster City. The headline said, “After Factory Closing, Iowans Live Realities of Global Economy.”
That didn’t sit well with Brown.
“(The photographer had come) to town and took a bunch of photos and submitted them to the New York Times but they depicted only one side of Webster City,” she said. “I saw the photos and had a fit and wrote a rebuttal to it.”
Brown’s letter touted Hamilton County’s low unemployment rate and a list of small, locally owned businesses that were created or expanded since Electrolux closed.
Square officials saw Brown’s letter and called her, knowing Webster City has the highest per capita usage of its payment processor than any other place in the United States, she said.
“I told them we refer people to them all the time,” she said. “And they said, ‘Yeah, we noticed that.’ So they came out a couple of times to do some research and decided they wanted to do the film.”
A San Francisco-based director then emailed Liz Gilman of the Produce Iowa office and she connected them to local resources to begin production. Two crews simultaneously shot the documentary in north central Iowa in a week.
Released this summer, “Made in Iowa” explains how folks raised money to refurbish the movie theater — the same theater that screened the documentary’s red-carpet premiere.
As Brown put it, “It’s amazing what a town can do when it sets its mind to it.”
“What I really liked about the project is how film created community, which then led to economic development,” Gilman adds. “And then this success came full circle by creating a home-grown Iowa film that shares our cultural story with the world.”
— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs