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Does Digital Spell the End of the Art House?

Does Digital Spell the End of the Art House?

I did not attend Art House Convergence, the annual event in Park City, Utah that precedes Sundance and gathers together the leading lights of community theaters and small art house venues around the country. But it seems as if a post I wrote last week, Indie Theaters Left in the Dark by 3D Boom, set up one of the central issues facing the exhibitors as they discussed their futures. Twitter feeds offer a glimpse of the hopes and fears of indie theater managers–and it doesn’t look good. As producer Mark Wynns writes, “Storm coming: Arthouses having to take their small profit margin to capitalize digital cinema projectors/servers. Will they survive?”

One of the most active contributors was Emerging Cinema’s Ira Deutchman, who noted the dominance of the digital debate at the conference. “Given the number of times that digital conversion has come up, maybe we should call this event the Art House Conversion,” he quipped.

According to Twitter, there were lots of discussions about different ways to cater to and cultivate your audience, strategizing new ways to split up screens or split runs in order to make more money, advocates of running ads and advocating of not running ads. The Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League contends that not having commercials gives them a competitive advantage over other chain theaters.

But, it seems from the online chatter, art houses are mostly concerned with what digital means to them. And the difficult nature of converting old theaters into new digital spaces. One noteworthy Twitter feed suggested that non-disclosure agreements are preventing exhibitors from comparing information and thus understanding what digital cinema deals are available.

I wonder what it would take for Art House members to create their own version of NATO (the National Alliance of Theater Owners) and start put pressures on those powers that are keeping them down.

Now that I’ve been living outside of New York for the last several months, in a small town with a struggling little, but much beloved local art house, these concerns have hit home. Like most of the art-loving people in this town, no one wants it to go away. But somehow the financials still don’t seem to make sense. How can they — or any indie theater — justify the $100,000-plus dollars to invest in an already iffy business? I’m really not sure.

But lovers of non-corporate movies–and non-corporate venues in which to see them–need to step up to the plate before it all goes away.

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