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Sundance Art House Convergence With a Doc Spin

Sundance Art House Convergence With a Doc Spin

Before I begin with the Sundance festivities I want to say adieu to the Sundance Art House Convergence with a comment on a Sundance festival doc Big Boys Gone Bananas* (ISA: Autlook) which conveys the same fight that the art house theaters deal with on a daily basis.  I will write more about the Art House Convergence in the coming weeks.

This year, as last, this gathering of art house exibitors was brimming with positive energy, developing on ideas put forth last year and developing new ones ranging from from fund raising, social networking (Ira Deutschman gave a great presentation), forming an association, lobbying, community outreach and educational initiatives. Attendance was up to 250, a critical mass in terms of starting a real association for independent art house exhibitors to move their agenda forward. New this year was the attendance of art house distributors, many of whom were meeting the exhibitors for first time although they have been doing business with them for years.

The one sad point went almost unnoticed, though some few saw it happen and until now it was not mentioned.  Indie film veteran Bingham Ray was taken by ambulance on the last day of the Convergence to the hospital after suffering a slight stroke.  We are all saddended by this and hope he will recover fully and soon continue on to his new position as head of the San Francisco Film Society.  Friends are posting on his Facebook page.

Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s Art House Survey of 2012 notes that 

Art House box office for the year 2010 was $69 million whereas the total U.S. box office for 2010 was $

10.5 billion

.  This puts the art house in the David category.  The Goliath is not simply the major chains, the 3 largest being AMC which is starting its own niche distribution arm for exclusives in partnership with Tom Ortenberg’s Open Road, Regal who does not care about programming art films as shown when they let go of veteran film buyer Denise Gurin recently, and Cinemark who deserves some attention here.

Cinemark is headquared in Plano Texas has 448 theatres and 5,096 screens in the U.S. and Latin America as of September 30, 2011.

  • Their circuit is the third largest in the U.S. with 296 theatres and 3,864 screens in 39 states.
  • They are the most geographically diverse circuit in Latin America with 152 theatres and 1,232 screens in 13 countries.
  • During the year ended December 31, 2010, they ranked either #1 or #2 by box office revenues in 25 of our top 30 markets.

Wikipedia: In 2008, CEO Alan Stock donated $9,999 toward the successful passage of California‘s Proposition 8, an initiative restricting the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples and overturning the California Supreme Court‘s ruling that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. An ensuing campaign, launched by opponents to the Prop 8 passage, encouraged patrons to see the Gus Van Sant film Milk, starring Sean Penn in the title role of gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, at a competing theater in protest. Others called for a more general boycott.

actions of cine ark are particularly troublesome and probably illegal. The other competitive element comes from not being digital.

Cinemark was also the first to build stadium seating in the 1990s, and in 1997 was involved in a long running law suit by several disabled individuals alleging that their stadium style seats forced patrons who used wheelchairs to sit in the front row of the theatre, effectively rendering them unable to see the screen without assuming a horizontal position.  The resolution ended in better seating for the handicapped.

At the Convergence I heard so many stories of Cinemark’s predatory practices that I thought (and mentioned at the final session of the Convergence) that AHC should form a real association, like NATO, and lobby for their rights.  Some participants at our Round Table discussion on Competition suggested ARC send an emissary to speak one on one to each theater chain and each distributor.  Cinemark has been said to have gone so far as to tell distributors that if they let certain theaters show their films, then they, Cinemark, will not show any films of that distributor again.  Some of the larger distributors must abide by this and others, such as Music Box, tend to their business and, based on the larger box office returns of the independent theaters, they book their films in the best theaters.  Ed Arentz states that the difficulty lies in a particular rule that each zone (part of a market) has an exclusivity rule that only one theatrical company can show a film so that if the film goes wider, it cannot show in one small theater if a chain wants to spread it wider in that zone.  However the chains do tend to do less targeted local marketing than the art houses and show smaller returns as as result.

Another story about Cinemark was that they were also about to build a mutliplex theater just across the street from an art house theater and the owner, who has 100 art houses theaters, rather than  facing off with them as competitors instead sold them his theater.  Other stories include overheard conversations in which Cinemark stated baldly they they were out to kill their competition, the art house theaters wherever they could.  

Such competition can be offset by creating special community events and a special place in the community.  Many art house theaters are non-profit already (e.g., Loft, Bryn Mawr) and, of course, if they consistenly show better box office for the strong art house films than the chains, they can will out.

On a final note, after coming to Sundance and seeing the Swedish doc Big Boys Gone Bananas* which gives us the positive effect of one man winning against a major global corporation such as Dole, is heartening and hopefully will strenthen all the viewers’ resolve to stand up against the Goliaths of the world…as we already are seeing in the Occupy movements and in the Arab Spring revolutions (1/2 Revolution (ISA: Level K) here at Sundance is the Danish take on this event.)

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