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A Call to Arms for the Art House

A Call to Arms for the Art House

As the annual Art House Convergence got underway here in Utah, ahead of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, event chair Russ Collins gave a rousing keynote to kick-off the proceedings and motivate hundreds of like-minded colleagues who had gathered from around the country. Here’s the full text of his speech.

Welcome to the Art House Convergence. Welcome to a friendly revolution.

This revolution, like all revolutions, is exciting and dangerous. But the Art House revolution is also a velvet revolution, a gentle revolution, a subtle and positive movement in the movie business. And, to be honest, this Art House revolution will not create millionaires and it will not transform media culture. It is a revolution that could, however, benefit all film lovers and almost everyone in the film business – commercial and not-for-profit exhibitors, big-time movie producers and DIY filmmakers and most certainly all passionate movie lovers. Although the financial measures of this revolution are, compared to a half-a-billion dollar summer blockbuster, rather small, this Art House movement’s long-term impact is critically important – and even its financial potential should not be underestimated. This is because the Art House plays an essential role in preserving and promoting the best and the brightest of cinema for diverse audiences. Your Art House is a sacred shrine and home to the most profound modern form of creative expression. Cinema, an art form created just over 100 years ago, has proven to be as profound a form of human expression as music, theater, painting, sculpture, architecture and great writing. It must be preserved and it must be celebrated in great movie houses – your houses, Art Houses.

In fact the obsession of the media, the public, even Art House operators over the singular measure of box office is understandable, but limiting and regrettably short sighted. It reminds me of the famous speech given by Robert Kennedy, about that essential national economic measure known as the Gross National Product.
Robert Kennedy said, “[A nation’s Gross National Product] measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion … [the Gross National Product] measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” Of course film grosses, like the Gross Nation Product, are critically important, but Gross is not a complete picture; in fact, it is merely a simple and clear measure of activity. It cannot provide an adequate picture of what is most important and valuable – in a nation or an art form.

Preserving and promoting the great art of cinema is essential, but just as important is the Art House’s role of serving as a center of community passion and vitality. An Art House can be and should be a dynamic civic center in cities large and small. Art Houses can be exciting, sustainable and practical venues that effectively bolster the vitality of local neighborhoods and transform lives through the creative vision of the people who work there and the poignant cinema found in these remarkable little arts institutions.

And some may ask, “Why an Art House revolution now? Haven’t we done this before?” Certainly Art House cinema is not new. It’s been around in some form since at least the 1920s. And since the 1950s it’s been a widely recognized segment of the film market. But Art House cinema has proven to be a difficult business model to sustain over decades of change. The products and prospects of specialty cinema ebb and flow and the commercial Art House business model is in constant want of revision. History shows that the foreign film title wave of the late 1940s and 1950s gave way to Campus Cinemas and the Repertory Art Houses of the 1960s and 1970s; that halcyon era of the Art House was dramatically shifted by home video and the American “Indie” tsunami of the 1980s and 1990s. Today, Art Houses must fight with local multiplexes and with an increasing number of in home, even in pocket digital delivery systems.

Over the decades, the Art House community has had a hard time finding its voice, a hard time believing it is, in fact, a community; and a hard time feeling like a citizen in the wider cinema world. But a sustainable business model clearly exists for Art Houses. I firmly believe as we gather for this Art House Convergence we are finding a collective voice, we are starting to believe in our potential and we are growing the number of communities throughout North America who are demanding community-based, mission-driven Art House cinemas in their town.

The sustainable business model for the 21st century Art House is a model that was forged by our colleagues in the performing arts world. It is a model that demands a manager and leader with competencies in three key areas: 1) cinema program management, 2) venue management and 3) community fund raising. Your Art House I,s a key community institution. You are a key institution in your community because you provide a vital service and you are an important economic driver in your neighborhood. Being a community-based, mission-driven, not-for-profit Art House you can be much more than a recipient of charity and coordinator of volunteers. You are a flagship asset, an essential cog and an indispensible part of a healthy community – both your local community and this community of Art House theater operators.

But, over the next few days, what will be most important for those of us gathered here in Utah is to feel the strength and joy of being among kindred souls, of benefiting from shared knowledge and experience and feeling anchored to this Art House movement, a velvet revolution of subtle but powerful change. To use better words, said by our friend John Cooper, the Director of the Sundance Film Festival, when he spoke to us two years ago, we need to know and feel that we are sexy!

This new Art House movement demands we change the way we think about exhibiting films in local communities. The commercial model for the media arts is a powerful model. It is a model that created the profound aesthetics of cinema. So we owe a deep debt of gratitude to Hollywood for developing this most remarkable art form and for the tremendous business acumen of its moguls and the art they encouraged.

But that most spectacular for-profit method of exhibiting motion pictures died when the movie palaces began their descended into demolition by neglect in the 1950s and crumbled throughout the 1960s and 70s. Cinema exhibition since 1964 has been a business of seeking profit from a market in stasis. Truly great business minds have accomplished this feat – they have literally squeezed profits from stasis, water from stones – but the commercial exhibition model does not, for the most part, make sense for the community-based, mission-driven Art House.

We all know that home video critically wounded the motion picture as a highly successful commercial product – but those injuries occurred primarily between 1948 and 1964. Believe it or not, cinema attendance has essentially been stable since 1964. This data runs contrary to what we want to believe. Movie exhibition crested in the United States in 1948, when over 4 billion people went to the movies. Between 1948 and 1964, movie attendance shrank from 4 billion annually to 1 billion annually. Since 1964, attendance at motion pictures has increased gradually as the population has grown. So when people talk to me about movies being killed by home video and that mobile devices will be the future death of cinema exhibition, I take comfort in the fact that if movies could survive the devastation of television in the 1950s, it means seeing cinema in a darkened room full of strangers is so vitally important to the human experience that, like every durable form of art, it will survive technological transformation and the vagaries of popular culture.

Bolstered by these truths, to me, history can be reassuring as we think about the future of community-based, mission-driven Art Houses. We need to remember that the movie industry was not the first entertainment business to experience cataclysmic economic change. The methods used by live-on-stage arts business leaders to transcend technological change, shifting economics and failing profits provide clear lessons to us in the Art House business.

In the early twentieth century live-on-stage performing arts businesses were devastated by the introduction of the phonograph and the motion picture. The collapse of Vaudeville in the 1930s is generally understood among show business people. But all performing arts had to retrench, redefine their market and rejigger their business model to survive the advent of mechanically captured sound and moving images. Although the movies killed vaudeville, it did not kill live-on-stage drama. Broadway is still, today, the “fabulous invalid” and the live-on-stage regional theater movement of the 1960s and 1970s – which continues as a vigorous movement today – created a renaissance in live-on-stage professional theater throughout the United States and Canada. The professional regional theater movement should be reassuring to Art House professionals. As the regional theater movement grew and became more “democratized” in the second half of the 20th century, the product flow of new theatrical productions gradually changed from starting on Broadway and moving to the provinces, to starting in the provinces and moving onto Broadway – interesting to think about as you contemplate the future of the Art House in North America.

Birthing a paradigm shift from an almost exclusively profit driven model, to a model that is a hybrid of commercial and philanthropic management, is a path that was blazed by our performing arts colleagues. For contextual reasons, it is interesting, I think, to know that in the 19th and early 20th century almost all performing arts organizations, even opera companies and symphony orchestras, were started and operated as for profit businesses. Believe it or not, New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company was a for profit business for over a half a century, from its founding in 1880 until the depths of the Great Depression in 1932. The MET changed its business model because it was an institution more dedicated and passionate about producing great opera than it was to the notion that producing opera could generate profit. Although the gross budget of the MET is completely outsized compared to a local Art House, the proportional budget ratios are relevant. Ticket sales generate just one-third of the MET’s total revenue stream – yet it is a viable institution. Those MET broadcasts many of your theaters exhibit (brought to you by one of our sponsors, BY Experience) plus the MET’s radio broadcast bring in less than 5% of the MET’s gross revenue; about fifty percent of the MET’s total budget comes from annual donations. Opera lovers willingly donate funds, above and beyond the price of admission, to assure that opera and the Metropolitan Opera House, the next door neighbors of our Art House colleagues and Convergence sponsor, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, continues to thrive.

Clearly the local Art House is not the Metropolitan Opera; however, those who show the MET broadcasts will tell you that most of those people who attend the MET simulcasts also go to Art House films. Wouldn’t it be logical that those same patrons and a significant number of your passionate Art House patrons would be willing to support your theater with generous contributions, just like the patrons do at the MET? Becoming as good at raising money in your community as you are at programming films for your community is the core of the sustainable not-for-profit Art House model.

To many in the film exhibition business, even people in Art House exhibition, the non-profit model seems counterintuitive, mysterious, or worse, an admission of failure. Even when the benefits of seeking charitable giving seem obvious, Art House managers and their Boards frequently have a hard time putting in the necessary effort to aggressively grow (or even start) a robust membership program – and they have a difficult time understanding why their members and patrons might be willing to send them donations to support their Art House.

Fund raising to support your Art House will not ultimately save a poorly run Art House. You must be great at programming, marketing and general business management to operate a successful Art House. However, success created in part because you raise significant amounts of contributed revenue will make your Art House sustainable, decade after decade and viable over generations. It will allow you the resources you must have to grow your audience, to do meaningful youth programs and provide valuable educational experiences. It will allow you to do surprising and unique programs. All of this will build a loyal audience for you. Plus, a side benefit that I am pretty sure occurs wherever there is a well-run Art House is that audiences for the commercial multiplex just down the road increase – and that’s a good thing. It may not seem like a good thing, but it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing because our job, our primary job as the local Art House, is to increase the number of passionate and knowledgeable movie lovers in our community. Passionate cineastes are our core audience, they can be our important donors and, damn it, our work developing movie lovers is sure to benefit commercial theaters as well. And I believe that, no matter how they act, the commercial multiplex chains are our friends… well, maybe not our friends, but our respected neighbors. Why? Because the not-for-profit Art House can afford and should afford to invest in creating more and more movie lovers, and developing audiences in ways not possible in the commercial film exhibition world. Of course, like Broadway producers of old, commercial theater owners don’t appreciate our work and probably won’t for many years. However, back in 1932, many thought that the Metropolitan Opera should have died when it became unprofitable. Not surprisingly, the commercial theater producers on Broadway actively resisted the not-for-profit professional regional theater movement for many, many years. Now, however, they are a key beneficiary of the spectacular growth in the quantity and quality of regional theaters throughout North America.

Cinema is a profound art form that, like regional theater, should be celebrated in cities large and small across North America. Every town with people passionate about cinema can create and support an Art House. Your Art House is and should be a shrine to cinema art and craft; your Art House should be the place that vitalizes your neighborhood or your part of Downtown. At this Art House Convergence our vision of the Art House is to be a special place that celebrates the richness of the cinema experience. It is a rich and special experience because people gather there to connect with insightful creative expressions, to be in a community and to risk the chance to have their minds, maybe even their lives transform through the power of art.

However, we Art House operators are frequently so busy keeping body and soul together we don’t have time to think about high minded things like the role of art in society, the history of the performing arts in American and becoming highly effective at fund raising in their local communities. Which is why, I hope, you came to the Art House Convergence; to think about some of those things, but more importantly to be inspired by the work and wisdom of your colleagues and to return home energized and armed with tools to make your Art House great and sustainable for generations.

The path for our revolution is clear. It is a path that has been blazed by opera houses and art museums, dance companies and string quartets, regional theaters and performing arts centers all over North America. The commercial film world and the media keep trying to make cinema a shiny new thing. It is not a shiny new thing – of course there is always innovation, new artists, new visions and great new movies, which is what the Sundance Film Festival is all about and is so brilliant at doing. But the cinema itself is not a new thing and that’s OK, because cinema presented on a big screen in a darkened room full of strangers is a great thing – a most profound form of human experience.

So will you pledge to join with us to increase the quantity and quality of Art House theaters in North America? Will you play an active role in the community-based, mission-driven theater movement? Will you be a soldier in this cinema revolution? And will you work to create a great film program and be highly effective at raising funds from your local community to support your shrine to cinema art and craft?

But first, promise that over the next few days you will share with us how special and wonderful your Art House is to your community. Promise to share what you know with an Art House colleague who could learn from your professionalism and experience. Please help us to build this movement one Art House at a time by doing the best you can to enhance the quality of your Art House and to help that community down the road from you to create an Art House in their town. Will you do your best to love the local multiplex and work your hardest to create movie lovers that will love you the most, but support the local cinemall as well?

Thank you for coming to the Art House Convergence. Thank you for being passionate Art House people. We are a community of fellow travelers, people driven by a passion for cinema that is only equaled by the passion we feel for our community. We are ourselves a community. I hope you feel a part of this community. I hope the Art House Convergence is a productive experience for you and that you find colleagues and friends who will be a source of ideas, comfort and camaraderie for years to come.

Welcome to the Art House Convergence. Welcome to our friendly revolution.

Russ Collins is the Executive Director of the Michigan Theater Foundation and Chair of the Art House Convergence. The conference continues through Thursday in Utah.

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