The 2013 Art House Convergence celebrated its 6th incarnation with the largest number of attendees ever, along with the theme of The Brave New American Art House. Through the three jam-packed days of panels, roundtable discussions, demonstrations, and keynote speeches, it became clear that independent arthouse theatres are dealing with a myriad of issues new and old, and the vast majority of these issues are affecting everyone, whether they are in New York City, Nevada City or Tampa. As the conference progressed, it also became clear to me that many these issues aren’t even unique to theatres in the United States. While there were great discussions about race and diversity, the culture of movie-going, and higher resolution, the emphasis for most is on the rise of digital technology and the cultivation of new audiences while maintaining existing audiences.
The need for arthouse theatres to embrace race and diversity is an important discussion for all exhibitors. This panel discussion included the director of 2012 Sundance film, Middle of Nowhere, Ava Duvernay, Andy Smith of the Nickelodeon Theater in Columbia, South Carolina, and Diarah N’Dah-Spech, Co-director and General Manager of ArtMattan Productions.N’Dah-Spech made several important points about how programming is inherently skewed away from diverse stories. Part of the reason for this is because by and large, films are programmed by men, who often can’t relate to stories of women, and a Eurocentric ideology drives programming, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. This creates a powerful and subversive form of censorship that pushes minority stories back into the shadows while continuing to exhibit films that are largely of a white, male, Eurocentric point of view.
Because of the often-unintentional nature of this kind of programming, it is crucial that programmers make an effort to step outside of their comfort zone to interact with films of another culture. These films are often films of indigenous people, including those of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia, as well as films directed by women or people of colour. N’Dah-Spech believes that when programmers are able to seek out films of underrepresented groups, everybody wins. Not only does the filmmaking community end up with a richer group and larger library of films, but audiences become more diverse, with increased cultural values.
AAFFRM (African American Film Festival Releasing Movement), founded by Ava DuVernay, is an organisation dedicated to diverse cinematic images. DuVernay’s aim is to help empower people of colour within the organisation, which consists of roughly twenty organisations and film festivals that specifically cater to black films. She stresses the importance of consistency and sincerity of connections within the community and believes this level of engagement is necessary to gain the additional audiences’ loyalty and trust, meaning that screening films of the African American experience needs to be a regular event, rather than only screening during Black History Month as a marketing ploy. She also discussed the important of education programs to assist with the acceptance of films outside the mainstream. This kind of authenticity was echoed by Andy Smith, who provided the case of his theatre struggling with films of the African American experience until community outreach became regular, with a sincere effort to connect, rather than relying on half-hearted marketing plans.
Ultimately, screening films outside the mainstream requires a certain amount of fortitude from exhibitors to stand by a more diverse selection of films, both in festival programming, and in regular theatrical programming. DuVernay added that not every film will be a blockbuster, and exhibitors should be willing to take chances with their film bookings, which met with some pushback from some of the delegates who recalled poor showings from critically acclaimed films such as Pariah. DuVernay was not to be swayed, however, with the assertion that much of the lacklustre performance of such films are most likely the result of ineffective, inefficient or insincere marketing. It is often difficult to pinpoint why certain movies fail to perform, but these points are worth pondering. The closing remarks of the panel included the concept that in order to attract more diverse audiences, it is also crucial to make the theatre itself a welcoming space, where people feel welcome because the theatre is staffed by people who are like them, look like them, or are like-minded. All the panellists acknowledged that as arthouse programmers, we are clearly intellectually diverse, but there is a need to become more functionally diverse.
Creating a sense of community is a topic that nearly every exhibitor at the Convergence was concerned with. Picturehouse Cinemas of the United Kingdom presented an alternative approach to the mainstream multiplex. Picturehouse is a network of twenty-one cinemas, with programming contracts in forty-six more theatres. One of the ways that Picturehouse creates a sense of place is by having bars or restaurants on site. Therefore, the theatres are seen as a destination, rather than merely a place to see a film. They also have a robust membership program, with over 130,000 members countrywide. While it seems like a monstrously large organisation, Picturehouse preserves local identity in the community by running each cinema separately. Managers are empowered to run things locally through social media, printed materials, special screenings, and so on. Many bookings are done specific to each theatre, which creates a network style identity of theatres rather than a cookie cutter chain.
Picturehouse has also been able to build themselves as a sort of authority on film, through their magazine publication Picturehouse Recommends. This publication is sponsored by The Guardian, and is mailed directly to members. Picturehouse also hosts film festivals, and began a series called Discover Tuesdays showcasing lesser-known films. In their business model, growth comes from loyal repeat visitors. These visitors come to Picturehouse for more than just a film; they come to the theatre for a certain kind of experience that is unique to their own community.
As has been the hot topic of late, digital conversion is still at the forefront of many discussions between exhibitors and distributors. The challenges of conversion differ between European and American theatres, mostly due to funding models for each. Dr. Sophie De Vinck, Ula Sniegowska, Fatima Djourner and Ann Overbergh held a panel discussing lessons and experiences from Europe surrounding the digital arthouse. The information presented was truly dizzying, but highlighted the fact that digital conversion is a single crisis involving many stakeholders. CICAE (The International Confederation of Art Cinemas) is an organisation that spans 31 countries and nine national networks, with over 1600 members and over 3000 screens. CICAE’s purpose is to encourage arthouse cinemas to come together under a common umbrella at the national level and help obtain support for arthouse films through governmental bodies. In this way, CICAE helps forward cultural initiatives and increase audiences. Through this merging of resources and information, theatres are able to consolidate power and influence to secure funding. This is the essential difference between European and American theatres, since American exhibitors receive significantly less financial support than their European counterparts. Most American theatres have engaged in capital campaigns that implore private donors to fund their conversion, and very often their survival.
Another goal of CICAE is to increase diversity and circulation of films outside their countries of production, which is tangentially related to the discussion of race and diversity in programming. The foreign perspective of the American arthouse market is largely the idea that a film might play in Los Angeles and New York City, but then is relegated to DVD release, without playing in any other markets in the United States. Part of the dilemma is that films can be difficult for Americans to find, unless they play at a large festival. There is an identified need to find a way to improve communication between offices and film companies outside the United States in order to increase the number and diversity of foreign films playing in markets other than Los Angeles and New York. There are numerous opportunities for film offices to partner with exhibitors through touring film programs and similar projects, but many of these openings are overlooked or ignored by both sides. Clearly there is a need to forge closer relationships in order to achieve diversity in programming arthouse cinemas.
It cannot be ignored that digital projection is here to stay, and is quickly advancing. Sony demonstrated their new 4K projector, complete with footage from their newest 4K camera. While some delegates and exhibitors are still lamenting the gradual demise of celluloid, ignoring digital options would most likely spell disaster for an exhibitor. The 4K demonstration was truly stunning. As expected, the resolution is amazingly clear, with vivid, larger than life colour. The imagery of multicoloured creatures and natural vistas seemed to include every colour of the spectrum, with razor sharp clarity and a wide latitude of light and shadow. This could sound like a commercial, but the 4K film (Upstream Color) that was shown after the promo clip was without such vivid imagery. The desaturated colour palate of the feature film seemed less impressive, making me wonder what kind of film would actually warrant the kaleidoscope of the promo. Still, it’s worth paying attention to where all this goes. Many exhibitors’ concerns lie in the rapidity of new digital products, since the costs of installing DCP compliant projectors make it nearly impossible to replace and upgrade as quickly as technology advances. While these concerns are widely addressed, it seems that there is still no distinct solution as to how independent arthouse cinemas will be able to remain financially solvent as they try to keep up with the larger exhibitors of more mainstream cinema.
The culture of movie-going was nicely described by film scholar and researcher David Bordwell, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in his keynote speech. Changes in technology and taste have been shaping viewing habits since the inception of public film exhibition, and continue to do so at a rapid pace. Bordwell outlined four basic concepts that affect exhibition, including vertically integrated models, new technology such as 3D, the ability to view immediately, and the concept of vaudevillian events that include film presentation.
With the transition to digital, vertically integrated models continue to have a wide-ranging effect on exhibition. As of 2012, 83% of screens at 66% of sites are digital. This transition is similar to the transition from nitrate to acetate film. Through these advances in technology, standardisation pushes theatres to evolve in order to keep up and coordinate technological innovation with studios in order to continue to have product to exhibit for their audiences. The primary ability for technology to be able to move forward is that it has to show something different that audiences will appreciate.
Bordwell compares advances like 3D to “the killer app”, where audiences are looking to experience something new and novel. According to Bordwell, 52% of theatres now have 3D. Avatar is the prime example of “the killer app”, as 80% of revenue from the film came from 3D screenings, and it was screened on 82,500 screens worldwide. Today, “the killer app” could be considered the ability to watch movies instantly on a variety of devices, without ever setting foot inside a movie theatre. This has created an on demand media culture, where viewers can see nearly anything they want at any time. The challenge with this kind of viewing is how to monetise it. In 2005 and 2006, platforms for viewing increased dramatically, with the rise of YouTube, Video iPods, Netflix, Amazon, and so on. However, for 60 years, exhibitors sold movies as an experience at an appointed time. With the rise of retail, rental and copying, an alternative to appointment viewing, the current debate is whether or not VOD cannibalises theatrical viewing, where some exhibitors feel it is a definitive negative, while others feel the damage is minimal. One plus of DCP is that it is able to provide access to some cult and classic films that would otherwise not be available, adding to exhibitors’ ability to screen alternative content. On demand concepts have also been applied to theatres through companies like Tugg and Gathr that act as a sort of crowdsourcing method of purchasing tickets, minimising the risks exhibitors have to take booking unknown or unproven films. Through the ready availability of material, creators are also able to have new possibilities and change the theatrical experience through re-watching, collecting and archiving, and creating mash-ups and appropriating existing work.
Lastly, Bordwell discussed the continuing influence of vaudeville models. This type of exhibition present film as a mixed media event, wherein movie houses present many programs, including theatre, revues, films and so on, much like they did in the 1920s. Today there are theatres creating new types of experiences that engage audiences in novel ways, including hecklevision, trivia quizzes with games on screen, and the wildly popular Secret Cinema, which began in London and is now spreading to New York and Athens. This interactive and immersive experience is a sort of ambulatory theatre, incorporating art and theatre, as well as film. In these new forms of cinema exhibition, the film becomes the secondary attraction, therefore reviving mixed-media presentations.
Through the continued engagement of arthouse exhibitors at the Convergence, it appears that independent theatres are beginning to band together and share strategies in meaningful ways. The 2013 Art House Convergence covered wide-ranging topics that are integral to the movie-going community, and newcomers find the sort of camaraderie that is difficult to find elsewhere. The Convergence also creates an encouraging environment that stresses the idea that exhibitors are dealing with similar issues, including the daunting transition to digital, while also working towards ever-innovative programming methods.
Art House Convergence Conference
14-17 January 2013
Festival website: http://www.arthouseconvergence.org