I gave the (long) speech below to a room full of specialty exhibitors, distributors and festival programmers at the Art House Convergence, which was held in January in Midway, Utah right before the Sundance Film Festival.
Thanks for those kind words, and for having me here, even if I’m NOT in the art house business. I’m in the smart blog business, though. And I come from an art house family. So we’re both coming from the same place: we’re trying to figure out how to reach and grow a smart audience —which is getting harder to do all the time. And we all want to share the movies we love.
My film education started back in the early 60s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, when my busy single father used movies as a babysitter, dropping my younger brother and me in the well-patrolled children’s sections of the Riverside, Riviera and Symphony Theatres around 96th Street and Broadway; we later escaped to The Thalia, a rep house where seedy men in trench coats were an accepted hazard.
I remember sitting in the balcony of The New Yorker during a Marx brothers movie and recognizing my father’s booming laugh down below. “They were rolling down the aisle,” he’d say.
I can still remember where I saw my favorite movies: “Gypsy” and “Lawrence of Arabia” at the vanished Nemo on 110th Street, the Raymond Rohauer Buster Keaton revival at The Olympia on 106th, the Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night” at the first-run Guild on 51st Street (now an Anthropologie outlet), and “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the pot-smoked balcony at Loew’s 83rd. What was playing at the Loew’s Paradise when I graduated from the Bronx High School of Science? “The Godfather.”
And yes, my father let us stay up from midnight till dawn to see the eight-hour Russian “War and Peace” at the Elgin. (No, it doesn’t hold up over time.)
In high school I scarfed up the French New Wave, especially Truffaut and Godard, so perhaps it was inevitable that at the end of my freshman year at Kirkland and Hamilton College in upstate New York I took on the running of the Kinokunst Gesellschaft film society.
THAT was an education. I loved plowing through the Films Inc. and Janus 16 mm non-theatrical catalogues, ordering up whatever suited my fancy, from “Bringing Up Baby” to “The Seventh Seal.” I soon learned what worked and what didn’t. Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen were reliable audience grabbers, while Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” and “The Music Man” played to empty houses.
I learned to thread the two 16 mm projectors set up at the back of the auditorium and to watch for the little spot in the upper right corner that signaled a reel change. If you didn’t loop the print just right, the sound would warp. And the prints were often in such terrible shape that they broke—requiring a quick tape splice. I often had “Sherlock, Jr.” anxiety nightmares that the print was unspooling onto the ground.
When I transferred to NYU, I read my double-space movie reviews —ALL CAPS—on WNYU FM, and worked as an assistant manager at the Bleecker Street Cinema, an honorable Cinema Studies tradition. I got to meet the great Pauline Kael and husband-and-wife critics Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell.
And later, working in the United Artists publicity bullpen taught me marketing strategy. Those were the days of limited releases aimed at adults, when film critics and newspapers really mattered—we cultivated them and made them part of our campaigns. I even took then-New York Post film critic Frank Rich out to lunch at Pearl’s on my UA expense account! (I learned that he didn’t like films that much.)
I remember when the advent of “Jaws” and “Star Wars” clued the studios into the vast promise of the easy-TV-sell youth market. I watched as the studios developed their second-tier specialty divisions, of which Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics are the last ones standing.
Time critic and Film Comment editor Richard Corliss was responsible for pulling me into film journalism at Film Comment. But my PR skills were still in demand when I joined the Roadmovies team led by my chums John Pierson and Sam Kitt, programming the legit Harold Clurman Theatre on West 49th Street when it was dark.
I scored a New York Times Arts & Leisure break for our Outlaw Cinema series, including a “Pink Flamingos” personal appearance with reliably hilarious John Waters. Getting the word out was key to our success or failure. I even managed to coax temporary New Yorker critic Roger Angell to review an obscure Vera Chytolova movie. Victory!
My LA journalism career led me to LA Weekly and my column Risky Business, which tracked the rise of the independents. I also freelanced for the NY Times, Washington Post and The Guardian and joined the staffs of Entertainment Weekly and then Premiere Magazine, whose publishers stubbornly refused to go online. What a loss to all of us. Those archives were priceless.
Instinctively, as an early computer adopter I was fascinated by the worldwide web and in 2005 persuaded my reluctant Hollywood Reporter editors to let me launch their first blog, Risky Biz. I loved my independence. I could post on my own without waiting for permission from editors and fact checkers and see reader reaction in real time. Then I was lured to Variety, where I started Thompson on Hollywood, but the venerable trade was slow to figure out the Internet and I eventually took the blog to the more nimble Indiewire, where I’ve happily been for the last five years.
It’s fun being my own boss, trusting my own taste and instincts, writing about the movies I care about, the fun of discovery at Sundance or Cannes. The response online is immediate. They let me know if I make a mistake–instantly! (And there’s no reason why all of you can’t share your discoveries with your film communities the same way.)
In addition to my day job, for the last dozen years, I’ve been booking the prime fall season of the UCLA Extension series Sneak Previews, ten new movies with a Q & A, before they open. It’s harder than it looks, partly because I try to get the best films with the most in-demand talent.
Here are 13 things that I’ve learned along the way about keeping smart movie fans happy.
1. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. Our 500 or so Sneak Preview subscribers are your typical older arthouse attendee, right inside the Weinstein Co., Searchlight, Sony Classics sweet spot. This group is sophisticated but mainstream, smart but relatively unadventurous. Over the years I know that I can challenge them to a degree, but there are places that they WILL NOT go.
I’ve gotten to know their taste, how to feed it and play to it. I look for that magic space where our genuine likes coincide.
That’s the trick on the blog too. What do my readers want to know? What questions do they have? It’s about leading them to a well with fresh sparkling water, sharing with them what they may not even know they wanted, without pandering or fakery. And leaving them trusting that you will give them more of the good stuff. So they can come back and not be disappointed.
2. WATCH THE VIOLENCE. One year I had a hard time booking an early October night and took a chance on a movie I loved, Matt Reeves’ English-language remake “Let Me In,” an atmospheric and thoughtful vampire flick starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Richard Jenkins. It had earned great reviews. But as I sat through the movie again with the group, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. What was I thinking? It was a classic ‘tweener: too violent for seniors, too arty for younger horror fans. At Sneak Previews, it inspired a flood of angry walkouts.
The wrong kind of violence can be a deal breaker. Even Tim Burton’s family-friendly and visually elegant “Frankenweenie” was doomed to flop with my gang due to its black-and-white 3D stop-motion animation and horror elements. And on the opposite side of the spectrum, the real-world violence in “Blood Diamond” –even with Leonardo DiCaprio on board–was too much for them to take.
Yet, on the other hand, they went for both Guillermo del Toro’s tastefully artful gothic fairy tale “Pan’s Labyrinth” and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s searing family drama “Babel,” which both became Oscar-nominated arthouse hits. As long as it’s a compelling story that is not in-your-face gory or too intensely scary, they’re fine.
3. FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILMS CAN WORK. When they’re accessible. Zhang Yimou’s gorgeous festival hit “The House of Flying Daggers” didn’t play for Sneak Previews because it lacked forward narrative momentum, while John Woo’s historic epic “Red Cliff” lost them completely. I didn’t understand that my years of exposure to various exotic cultures–especially Asia—had made me more receptive and understanding of their cinematic conventions and language. This audience simply couldn’t go there. And neither did paying moviegoers.
4. TALENT MAKES AN EVENT. One of the surprises of this past fall season was opener “Whiplash,” which I was afraid would be too intense. But because the film goes out on such an utterly satisfying note, my audience rose clapping as Damien Chazelle and Miles Teller walked down the aisle to the stage. Standing ovations don’t happen often at my screenings, so this was a real testament to the film’s emotional impact.
I expected Oscar contenders “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Selma” to play, and so they did. (By the way, edgier “Birdman” met mixed response.) I learn from this audience by sitting in the house and feeling how a movie plays. “Whiplash” clued me into how it would play for Academy. And of course having talent on hand makes a big difference.
Radius helped to make “20 Feet from Stardom” a hit by taking the different singers around the country for P & As and performances, not just for the opening weekend but for the second and third, which helped to support the gross, and keep it on screens for others to discover. It led the movie all the way to a win on Oscar night.
5. SEE FILMS YOURSELF AND TRUST YOUR GUT. I’ve gotten better about knowing what this captive crowd will accept. And it absolutely requires that I see the films. No way can I guess on the basis of the elements. Each time I go by what I’ve read or heard I regret it. For example, festival favorite, Agnieszca Holland’s holocaust drama “In Darkness,” was way too disturbing and claustrophobic for them. They fled, even knowing that I had this world-class filmmaker on hand to talk afterwards.
This year’s Israeli Oscar entry “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” wasn’t a disaster, but while they had adored another marital drama from Iran, eventual Oscar-winner “A Separation,” “Gett” was set entirely inside a courtroom. As innovative and clever as the filmmaking was, the film was too visually limited. They just got restless.
So. The secret sauce for my job, as for you, is seeing as many movies as early as possible, at film festivals.
Sundance, to which many of us are bound, is packed with so many yet unseen riches that it makes me crazy. The trick is to figure out what my agenda is and not worry about everyone else’s. Many distributors already know what films they want to buy. Their schedules are mapped out ahead of time. They’ve scouted advance intel, read scripts, been approached for financing, been shown early footage. They just want to get that last confirmation that yes, the finished movie plays for an audience.
But Sundance also programs movies from new talent who are completely off the radar. Those are the riskiest screenings, because you don’t know whether it’s the next “Beasts of the Southern Wild”—a rare breed indeed with the right stuff to roll all the way to the Oscars—or yet another horrific coming-of-age story.
There’s plenty to be found. I try to trust my gut and keep my ears open. I love hearing that something’s terrible and I can skip it or that something’s good and I must track it down. That’s the fun of the chase, knowing I’ll kick myself for what I missed. But seeing everything is impossible. It’s always just a slice.
That’s where other festivals come in. They are less intense and make it possible to play catch-up—where it’s economically and geographically feasible– from South by Southwest, San Francisco, Tribeca, Seattle, Los Angeles and the fabulous Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic to the fall fests Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York and AFI.
South By is jammed with Sundance hits and leftovers—they usually have a Lena Dunham or Aaron Katz discovery or two– and more and more, strong TV previews. It’s a great place to network and take advantage of the ways the interactive and film worlds intersect, mostly via panels, where folks from the music industry and Silicon Valley share their knowledge with us movie types. One year I went to an impromptu Twitter meet-up with the New York Times’ David Carr, who introduced me to Kickstarter’s Yancy Strickler—long before the indie crowdfunder became an industry player.
Last year, I caught Jon Favreau’s scruffy indie comedy “Chef,” which turned out to be a rare example of an old-fashioned long-legged theatrical sleeper. It reminds us that nothing beats weeks of good word-of-mouth: it grossed a total $31 million domestic for Open Road, which also pushed Toronto hit “Nightcrawler” to $32 million, farther than some thought that disturbing film noir would go.
Well-curated festivals reveal the wealth of movies out there. It helps to see for yourself that “Timbuktu” or “Wild Tales” can bring a huge house to tears or laughter. I wonder if some of the indies, docs and foreign language films at festivals—many of which won’t be deemed commercial enough for top-tier pickup—could still play for your audience? The only way to know for sure is to see them and then bring them home —and advocate for them.
6. CHECK OUT REGIONAL FILM FESTIVALS, if you can. These labors of love are achieved on a limited scale for the enjoyment and education of their loyal local audience. I’m a regular at April’s Ashland, Oregon festival, where every year Joanne Feinberg always pulls in an ambitious mix of feature and documentary films and filmmakers, from Julie Taymor to Ondi Timoner and Morgan Spurlock.
Similarly, on the other side of the country, besides strong programming, the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore offers a practical peer-to-peer symposium on indie film. I learned more sitting in a circle on folding chairs under a tent in one intense afternoon than any series of panels over the years. I’ve moderated my share and try as I might, they tend to be less about info-sharing than self-promotion.
In 2012, filmmakers Joe Swanberg, Craig Zobel and Rachel Grady hosted the stimulating mix of filmmakers, exhibitors, distributors and journalists for a candid off-the-record session of sharing intel on what’s going on with self-releasing and marketing, film coverage, art house theaters and the move to digital.
7. MIND THE MARKETING GAP. Many filmmakers like Swanberg are growing personality cults that get them booked on the film lecture circuit. Some folks possess superb marketing instincts, while others like Zobel don’t have the self-promotion gene. For every Swanberg, who is voraciously curious about how to work the system, others are less comfortable pushing themselves out via Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Google Plus and Twitter. When do you stop sharing information and start turning people off?
As someone with healthy respect for the people who know about distribution, marketing and publicity, it worries me that so many young filmmakers whose films are marketing challenges anyway are facing an even more daunting mountain to climb: teaching themselves to market and release their own films.
I like the idea that more film schools should prepare their students not just to become filmmakers but to know the varied marketing and distribution options for their movies so they can steer their films to the best possible success. I have met so many young directors who are like deer in the headlights at their first film festival with no idea where to go from there.
8. DON’T BE AFRAID OF TECHNOLOGY. One thing I’ve learned is that in today’s digital age nothing stays the same. It’s all in flux. It’s hard knowing that the ground is moving under your feet, that what worked yesterday won’t work tomorrow. Obviously, figuring out what your audience wants and how to reach them is key.
Some theater owners are afraid of new technology and view it as a threat—every one of you tell your patrons to shut off their cell phones before every show. As you should. But technology is your ally. It has to be.
9. BUILD AND ENGAGE YOUR AUDIENCE WITH SOCIAL MEDIA. Twitter is good! Tweeting up to the start of the movie—and responding right after with a 140 character review—is a good thing. That’s how younger people in your community learn what to see, who don’t read newspapers, which no longer carry your listings and blurbs anyway.
I learn so much from Twitter, especially at festivals, where it keeps me informed of what’s happening and trending. It tells me what I need to see, in time to do something about it.
Twitter’s easy: start by following who your friends follow and lurk about, or share what you’re learning and build your audience. And get rid of anyone who annoys you, ‘cause life is too short.
I start my day over coffee, trawling through my twitter feed to see what’s going on. It’s my window on the world. And I can let the people following me know not only what stories we’re publishing, but what I’m reading that’s cool. I share news.
Ava Duvernay, Richard Brody, Matt Zoller Seitz, Jon Favreau, Matt Dentler and Eugene Hernandez are all model citizens on Twitter. They promote a little, share but not too much, and never wear out their welcome.
Facebook is mostly about personal sharing and keeping up with your friends, but you can also build interaction with your audience on a professional Facebook page.
If you’re not good at social media, find someone who is. Social media is your friend because you can interact and engage directly with your patrons, let them know what’s coming and playing, post visual materials about the films, answer their questions, and find out what does and doesn’t work for them.
Michael Moore’s State Theatre in Traverse City Michigan is one of the top-performing art houses in the country. Why? Moore gets marketing, engagement and building fans, friends and followers. Many theaters like his are tied to film societies or festivals: they offer many ways to actively participate in a vibrant film community.
Dan Schreiber shared online what the Champaign, Illinois Art Theater Co-op learned when they installed on their website Google Analytics, which produces detailed reports on traffic, reader demographics and patterns. That’s the sort of data that Indiewire eats for breakfast, and it can help you too, because information is power.
Crowdfunding site Seed & Spark’s Emily Best talks about “targeted communication,” rather than just “shouting into the wind hoping it will be effective.” Who is your audience? What social media platform are they on? She offers several ways to grow attendance:
A. POLL YOUR AUDIENCE. If you want to find more people like your audience members, interview them. The great thing about a theater is that people come through your door, which means that you can ask them where they heard about the movie, where they hang out on line, at what times of day, and what kinds of things they click on for news, music, blogs.
Posted on the Seed & Spark site is a standard audience interview form. “Attendees to your theaters are the people whose friends rely on them for movie recommendations,” Best told me, “these are really important people to film as a whole, tremendous influencers who you have access to.”
It’s not radical, but you can talk to and learn from your audience, which is a simple shift in thinking, from producer push to consumer pull. They’re looking to you. They’re overwhelmed with content, desperate for curators. You’re in a special position to be able to make a difference, not just for your audience, but by bringing them things they are desperate to see, you will really make a difference for filmmakers whose films seek to connect with viewers.
B. FIND OUT YOUR PATRONS’ SOCIAL PLATFORMS. If 90% say they are on Instagram and Facebook but not on Twitter, press a little harder on Facebook and less hard on Twitter.
C. DISCOVER WHICH ADVERTISING WORKS. Figure out which of your modes of advertising are effective and which ones aren’t. The conventional wisdom may be challenged by what your theatergoers say to you.
D. DEVELOP A RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR PATRONS. Work on building a sustaining relationship with your customers, via efficient outreach.
E. BUILD YOUR EMAIL LIST. Use social media to get people to your mailing list, which is still your strongest outreach tool. They are the ones who opted in, who spend money to come to your theater.
F. OFFER COOL GIVEAWAYS. Make available to your most frequent attendees insider additives—which is something that Cinefamily in LA does well—benefits, secret screenings to make them feel cool for having been there. Make your theater, which is a sacred space, special for people.
10. DON’T LOOK BACK. This brings us to the question of 35 mm projection. Chris Nolan may be fighting to continue to shoot in 35 mm, but when Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee are drinking the 3-D Koolaid, we know it’s over. The studios gave theater owners deadlines for when they had to convert to digital (or lose their financial aid) and have no intention of continuing to make or ship 35 mm prints unless Nolan or Paul Thomas Anderson demand it. Many of you will probably hang on to the odd 35 mm projector for showing old prints. But the wave is to go all DCP.
In fact, I’ve witnessed this switch at Sneak Previews. Just in the last year we’ve gone from several 35 mm bookings to all DCP. I wonder how Quentin Tarantino’s celluloid-only policy at LA’s New Beverly is going to play out. Sure, he has a substantial film collection, but how pristine are those prints? And how long will they last? The ability to find decent 35 mm prints around the world is limited and expensive. Shoot on celluloid if you can, sure, but the digital ship has sailed as far as projection goes.
I figure you’re all in the DCP universe at this point. Clearly, being able to to expand your options seems optimal. Being able to show 3-D movies like Wim Wenders’ “Pina,” Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language” is also a good thing. And if possible, it’s a plus to boast a 70 mm projector to be able to show the odd PTA movie like “Inherent Vice.”
11. EMBRACE THE ALTERNATIVE– especially during the week. Whether it’s Movies Go to the Opera, Broadway Near You, the National Theatre, “Game of Thrones” or whatever alternative programming is possible. In Europe they call it Event Cinema, and it represents some 10% of their revenue, at premium ticket prices, too.
The question I have going forward is how much do you have to rely on the taste of distributors –who can be conservative about the risks they are willing to take–and choose a more DIY approach? There are so many films that never get a theater release because marketing costs are so high. That has yielded a new tier of DIY bookers, marketers and distributors from Michael Tuchman and Richard Abramowitz to Bond 360’s Marc Schiller as well as Nicolas Gonda’s on-demand service Tugg.
Is it worth experimenting to be able to find out in advance whether you can galvanize enough people to make a critical mass for a local short engagement?
More and more filmmakers like “Detropia”’s Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing who are unhappy with the onerous deal terms available these days are jumping into self-distribution. They planned an IFC Center opening, hired a knowledgeable theater booker, raised $75,000 for marketing and publicity from Kickstarter, grossed almost $400,000, were shortlisted for the Best Documentary Oscar and won an Emmy. This kind of crowd-sourcing is becoming a useful tool.
Another example is how RADiUS radicalized the way that Harvey Weinstein’s pickup “Snowpiercer” reached an audience, taking it onto VOD two weeks after it opened theatrically. Alamo is also willing to take chances by experimenting with different ways of luring younger audiences in the digital realm, even partnering with Bittorrent on “The Act of Killing.” On a Cannes panel, CEO Tim League said that the solution is to “make the experience of going to the movies compelling, to engage with young people and get them excited about foreign language films.”
He’s focused on finding younger moviegoers because how else will you all thrive? We’ve all seen how grey movie theaters are getting, especially for archival film programming. The problem, as MoMa’s Dave Kehr told me, is “younger folks do not have the habit of attending anything older than they are.” That leads places like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to essentially abandon classic films in exchange for luring younger audiences to new films with celebrity Q & As.
There’s got to be a better way. Even if the old belief that “if you show it they will come” is no longer true. That’s partly because newspapers don’t cover as many film programs as in the past. And online movie sites, while plentiful, haven’t accumulated the same clout in reaching the masses.
12. VOD IS NOT THE ENEMY. Obviously the issue of multi-platform releasing during the theatrical window is charged and polarizing. The CEO of a major theater chain pointed out to me that distributors have many ways to recoup their investment in a film, while theaters only have one.
Which raises another question. Should theaters invest in alternative distribution as a hedge for the digital future? At this point nobody knows that answer.
The best argument for theaters’ ongoing strength is that, given a movie that plays, nothing beats three weeks of word of mouth. Movies need to be branded with opening day reviews and marketing. But it does make some sense for films to move to VOD within, say three or four weeks, when that branding and profile is still fresh in consumer’s minds.
I believe that passionate moviegoers will continue to demand early multi-platform access to movies like “The Interview.” It was cool to watch the movie on Christmas Eve with the family in the middle of the Maine countryside knowing that so many others were seeing it in your indie theaters.
13. BAND TOGETHER. That moment marked the Art House Convergence’s finest hour. That’s the independent theater advantage. You’re nimble, courageous and innovative and you opportunistically seized the day—as a group, working together. That’s your greatest asset. You can afford to experiment. That’s the key to your survival moving forward. It’s not about hanging onto the past but grabbing the future with both hands. Make mistakes. And learn from them.
You know that Sony is analyzing those “Interview” numbers. While they saved some marketing dollars–even though they had already spent some of them—they did not make as much money going online, even with more global publicity and awareness than any movie could ever hope to get, as they would have going entirely theatrically.
Innovative distributors Roadside, A24, Magnolia, IFC, Radius and our friends at the new Bleecker Street are all figuring out, slowly but surely, what sustains a theatrical release and what doesn’t. IFC’s Oscar-frontrunner “Boyhood” was a model theatrical rollout and turned out to be well worth the cost of sustaining it in theaters for all those long months. But not every movie can do that. That’s the rub. This year admissions were down 6 percent over last, at their lowest ebb since 1995.
But you CAN work together to produce a compelling strategy to help to nurture select independent films. The dictionary definition of independence is “to be free from influence, guidance or control from another.” THAT is our strength.