Art House Convergence Kicks Off: Here’s Why Art Houses Need to Be Advocates

Art House Convergence Kicks Off: Here's Why Art Houses Need to Be Advocates

Managing Partner of Emerging Pictures, a New York-based digital
exhibition company, Ira Deutchman is also a Professor of Professional Practice in
the Graduate Film Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia
University, where he is the Chair of the Film Program. He has worked as a movie producer, distributor and exhibitor.

Today he presented his kickoff speech at the 2014 Edition of the Art House
Convergence,
in which he asks “
How do
we harness the spirit of cooperation, and the potential power of a
group that keeps growing year after year?” Deutchman granted us permission to share an edited version of his speech here. Visit his web site for more information and for his full speech.

When I first started out in the Film Business, I learned a couple of
very quick lessons that were in no way related to film, but were in
every way related to business.

First, I learned that Business is dominated by people who are driven,
sometimes myopic, and willing to do almost anything to succeed.

The second thing I learned is that the Film Business, specifically,
is driven more by ego than by profit. After all, it has never been a
predictable, scalable business in the traditional sense that allows for
believable projections and charts with any sort of certainty. So who is
drawn to such a business when far more money, far more predictably can
be made elsewhere? The answer would be those people who somehow convince
themselves that they know better than everyone else, or that they’ve
come up with some kind of system to beat the odds.

So given those two hard truths, it doesn’t take too much imagination
to realize why there was and is very little cooperation among the
various players in the business, whether they be exhibitors,
distributors, producers or anyone else.

The art film exhibitors in my youth…pioneers like Dan Talbot, Don
Rugoff, Randy Finley, Mel Novikoff, George Mansour, Bob Laemmle and many
others, were passionate, single-minded, competitive and fiercely
independent. There was very little sharing of information or
camaraderie. They were in some cases chasing the same films for
exhibition, currying favor with the distributors, try to one-up the
competition with the film rental deals they were able to negotiate and
harboring dreams expanding into each other’s territories.

The same thing has generally been true of the distributors. They’re
always chasing the same films for acquisition, fighting each other for
holdovers, jockeying for opening dates, competing for attention in the
media, etc.

One the first times I attended the Sundance Film Festival, I was on a
panel with Tom Bernard, Jeff Dowd and a couple of others who I frankly
can’t remember. In response to some long forgotten question, I vividly
remember a panelist saying, and I quote, “In the last 5 years, I’ve
worked on every specialized film that was released in theaters.” There
was a long pause while everyone else on the panel turned to look at him.
He continued, “Either for or against them.” The idea that someone would
claim to spend even part of their time conspiring AGAINST someone
else’s films was an eye-opener for me. It cemented my understanding of
the world I lived in in.

Russ kind of nailed it in his pre-convergence email to all of us,
when he said “The commercial film business is rooted in a retaliatory
(greedy) and monopolistic ethos; it is an ethos as creaky and
counterproductive as it is dysfunctional and misanthropic”

Yep.

Yet, I was also briefly exposed to a quite different model earlier in
my career, when I was doing non-theatrical sales for Cinema 5. There
was an organization at that time called the NFDA, the Non-Theatrical
Film Distributors Association. Perhaps it was the fact that selling
films to colleges and libraries was such a low stakes nickel and dime
business that allowed such an organization to exist, and certainly the
goals of the organization were modest. The main purpose was to trade
information on customers; to identify those that didn’t pay and the ones
that destroyed the 16mm prints they were sent.

The only other NFDA activity that I was aware of was that there was a
volleyball league that played weekly games in Central Park. By the way,
Cinema 5 (my team) won the championship in that league several years in
row because we had a ringer. Our head of theatrical coop advertising,
Mary Kay Kammer, was over 6 feet tall and had a serve that no one could
return. Throughout the league she was referred to as “Killer” Kay.

But, I digress.

When I came to what was the 2nd Art House Convergence 6 years ago,
the NFDA came to mind. It was rather astounding to think that all these
fiercely independent people could actually get together to share
information for the good of all. It seemed to me more like wishful
thinking than reality. But I guess the time was right. Cooperation
sometimes is born of adversity, and at that time, rightly or wrongly,
panic was in the air. Theatrical movie-going was being written off by
the pundits, technological change was upon us, and according to Mark
Gill, the sky was indeed falling.

Here we are all these years later, and it’s amazing how much has been
accomplished as a result of this annual event…. Thesharing
of information, the spirit of cooperation and the growth of
participation in the Art House Convergence has most definitely had an
impact on what you all do on a day to day basis. The health, or dare I
say, the survival of the business depends on more of the same.

But there’s a legitimate question of where do we go from here. How do
we harness the spirit of cooperation, and the potential power of a
group that keeps growing year after year?

What we have in this room are a group of committed people who are
self-identifying as “mission driven,” while actually having many
different missions. You also self-identify as Art Houses, which is also
somewhat ill-defined since one person’s art is another’s trash. I’m not
suggesting that this is a bad thing, but it requires some understanding
in order to take this group and maximize its potential.

There are people in the room representing institutions that are well
established and quite successful. Others are just starting out and are
trying to understand how things work on a very basic level.

There are those of you whose mission revolves around preserving the
cinema experience in its purest, most pristine form. There are others
who are working out of storefronts and trying to make the most of
limited facilities and resources.

There are those of you who are devoted to the preservation of the
traditional notion of cinema as an art form. There are those of you who
are devoted to saving a particular venue, perhaps a classic and
neglected movie palace, perhaps a simple neighborhood theater, and art
films seem like they might be a solution, or part of a solution to make
sure the building doesn’t get thrown on the scrap heap of real estate
development.

Some of you have access to studio films and some of you don’t. Some of you don’t care.

Some of you are from big markets with obvious interest in more
challenging films. Others of you are from smaller markets that are
desperately in need of such content for its cultural value, but are hard
pressed to find enough audience to support it.

So, clearly, there is not a SINGULAR mission in the room.

However, there is enough common ground that the number of venues in the room continues to multiply year after year.

So, as this Convergence begins, I would like to get things going by
offering you a challenge. If the first 7 years of the Convergence were
about best practices, I would like to see the next 7 years be about
advocacy. Let me leave you with some thoughts about some initiatives
that have been on my mind.

First off, we deserve and should demand a “place at the Grownup
table.” What do I mean by that? When the studios and the major chains
have their next sit-down over technological standards, and start making
deals that change the fundamental economics of the business, this group
deserves a place at the table.

Putting on my Producer hat for a moment, every time I read in the
press about the latest round of negotiations with the film unions, and I
see that they refer to the negotiating body as “the producers,” it
infuriates me. Who is representing me? Some studio lawyer?

I feel the same way about being force-fed the results of the DCI initiative. We deserve a place at that table.

Now, the only way that is going to happen is to start gathering data
to show how significant the collective box office of this segment of the
marketplace can be. The data should compare per-screen averages across
the business, and include apples-to-apples comparisons of the potential
grossing power of a well-run art house vs. the local chain competition.
Assembling this data will require a level of cooperation from
distributors and exhibitors that might be beyond reach, but I believe we
should put it on the agenda.

  • If you, the Art Houses are going to be willing to be more flexible
    about windowing and day and date releases, you deserve something in
    return. You have effectively become the research and development arm of
    the theatrical film business. As I alluded to last year, the quid pro
    quo should be more flexibility on the part of distributors on film
    rental splits, on split schedules and there ought to at least be a
    discussion about some kind of real participation in the downstream
    revenues that feed off of the theatrical showcases. I would advocate
    that a committee of this group sit down with distributors and explore
    that discussion.
  • I think we should be thinking internationally. There are
    institutions all over the world that are facing the same issues. New
    distribution mechanisms and marketing initiatives are stripping away
    geographic borders to the point where thinking domestically is
    narrow-minded. We could be sharing programming ideas, curating programs
    that can cross borders, and sharing resources such as digital files that
    can be shipped instantly to places thousands of miles away. I’m
    encouraged that we do have representatives here from several overseas
    organizations. This needs to be a global enterprise.
  • I think we need to take an active role in Film Preservation. If we
    don’t start acting on this soon, entire swaths of film history are going
    to begin to disappear. There is no current business model that will
    justify the continuing transfer of the deep catalog of film history from
    one unstable physical medium to another, let alone to finance a true
    restoration.

Until recently, Emerging Pictures had our offices in the DuArt
Building in New York, and we watched with some horror as DuArt closed
its film lab operations, and began to dump out all of the original
negatives from their vaults. Now, mind you DuArt is working closely with
MoMA, UCLA and the Academy to try and find homes for as much of the
material as they can, but is this sustainable? In other countries, most
notably in Europe, cinema history is being preserved by virtue of
government support. Who will do it here?

We should join up with like-minded organizations which could include
Sundance, but also IFP, Film Independent, the Academy and others and try
to find a way to ensure that the next time someone wants to do a
Preston Sturges retrospective on the big screen, there are more than the
3 most popular titles available. Back when I worked at U.A. Classics,
we used to identify a small number of old catalog titles per year to
transfer from nitrate stock to celluloid. We identified those titles by
canvassing the repertory cinemas and getting commitments for bookings
that helped to support the transfer. If one of the missions of this
organization is preserve cinema as a theatrical experience, we have no
choice but to get involved with this issue.

Finally, we should be actively lobbying the government to increase
support for the arts in this country, and to make sure that they are
aware of the fact that while Hollywood may represent a powerful business
interest, film is a uniquely American art form (edit: I’ve been
chastised for this comment since it doesn’t acknowledge the wealth of
non-American contribution to cinema. Point taken.) that deserves support
in order to preserve our cultural heritage. Other countries see this
need, even in the face of a bad economic environment. If we are not
making the case, who will?

So, OK. I’ve laid out a bunch of very ambitious, some would say
ridiculous potential initiatives. I’m sure there many other great ideas
out there. The real point is that this organization, the combined
passion of all of you fiercely independent exhibitors, has the power to
affect change.

In the book “Adventures of Ideas,” written in 1933, Alfred North
Whitehead says “The motive of success is not enough. It produces a
short-sighted world which destroys the sources of its own prosperity.”
This might as well have been the motto of the film business through its
history.

We (You) have the power to change that.

Thanks you for your time and for the pulpit. Now let’s go converge!

This Article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit and tagged , ,


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *