Each year, the owners and operators of America’s art house cinemas gather the week before the start of the Sundance Film Festival at a resort nestled in the mountains of Midway, UT. The Art House Convergence, this year celebrating its 6th anniversary, brings together theaters from all over the US and Canada to help foster the growth and viability of art house and independent cinemas. The Convergence, organized under the non-profit status of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, MI and chaired by the Michigan’s Executive Director, Russ Collins, has continued to grow over the past six years; what began as a meeting of 20 people in a basement in Salt Lake City has blossomed into one of the must-attend events for the independent film business. This year’s event, orchestrated under the banner of “The Brave New Art House,” drew over 350 attendees, each facing an environment of intensifying change in the art house business and an uncertain future for the theatrical presentation of independent, international and non-fiction film in this country.
The presence of uncertainty was palpable throughout the Convergence, which added not only to its importance, but also provided a vibrant sense of community among delegates; there were no radical outliers in attendance. Instead, the commonality of concern and the need for information sharing and best practices only deepened the existing feeling that everyone was pulling in roughly the same direction. Throughout the panel discussions, meetings and meals, art house owners gave voice to significant concerns about the future of their business and, as an outsider attending for the first time, provided a clear picture of how changes in film technology and distribution will shape the theatrical landscape for the next few years.
Listening to attendees speak, it was clear that there has already been a near-complete resignation among art house owners that digital cinema has become the industry standard; nearly every theater in attendance had already or planned on making the conversion to digital cinema projection. But if the pace of change seemed remarkable, the multiplicity of digital cinema options and the pending obsolescence of every technology (including digital cinema projectors) gave me pause when considering how I, or any owner, might hedge their bets. On the one hand, DCP prints, delivered by mail on hard drives, seemed to be the industry standard, but with satellite delivery currently in limited practice and the long-term compatibility of digital cinema projectors, servers and hardware a cause for some concern, art house owners looking to convert would be excused if they didn’t splash big money on a single, comprehensive digital solution. Add in a series of revenue generating steps in the film presentation process, from DCP “key” fees to virtual print fees designed to shift a portion of the cost of financing digital cinema conversion to distributors, and the range of options available to art houses seemed not only daunting, but almost impractical.
Instead of developing a single standard among the studios and digital cinema manufacturers, the industry seems to be using innovation as a way to drive the market forward. If it only took forward momentum to ensure the viability of the art house business, things would be in great shape, with 2K, 4K, 3D, 48fps and a host of other options pacing a period of incredible digital development. Unfortunately for the art houses, who must plan longterm capital campaigns (and, in some cases, highly effective Kickstarter campaigns), the pace of change is outstripping the ability of many to efficiently run their businesses. And yet, everyone seems desperate to do , lest they be left behind by the ever-changing digital landscape. Most have made one decision or another, with a large number of art house theaters already having converted screens to digital cinema systems.
Ironically, one of the most prominent themes at this year’s Convergence was the return of old fashioned showmanship at the movie theaters. In an era when art house theaters are competing for the time and attention of younger audiences, several speakers harkened back to the days of vaudeville, when films and live performance blended together on a single bill. And so, facing a runaway train of digital possibilities, theaters were encouraged to maximize the human elements of the cinematic experience, drawing audiences in for special events and unique programs that featured a hybrid of projection and performance. Liesl Copeland of William Morris Entertainment even went so far as to push back against the received wisdom of so much of the art house movement by suggesting that a reverent environment for film screenings– phones off, technology disengaged — might be set aside for some screenings in order to encourage consumers to use their digital devices to both access and promote the art house experience. The importance of audience growth and engagement was a constant theme throughout the Convergence; the figure was quoted more than once that, across the film industry, 80% of film tickets are purchased by 10% of ticket buyers, which only underscored the need to convert young people into ticket buying, cinema-loving patrons. Grow that 10% and the pie gets bigger for everyone.
But given the newest distribution models, many of which find films available on VOD or online prior to or simultaneous with their theatrical run, why would anyone, young or old, leave their couch for the art house? Looking at much of the data and testimonial evidence presented, there is a great deal of optimism that the experience of going to the movies will be around for a long time. In his brilliant closing address, Ira Deutchman, Managing Partner of Emerging Pictures and Chair of the Columbia University Film Program, gave a personal tour through the modern history of the art house, pulling from his vast experience to provide perspective on the modern art house environment. But after speaking about the past, Deutchman offered some interesting ideas about the day-and-date model for distribution, proposing that distributors should consider sacrificing week-long runs for films already in digital distribution channels, allowing art houses to re-create appointment viewing by once again exerting the exclusivity of the theatrical experience. So, instead of a film playing on VOD while simultaneously incubated in the local art house for 28 screenings a week, perhaps art houses could engage in a festival model of one or two days of screenings, with a much quicker rotation of their film calendars.
Finally, it was Deutchman who also reframed the competitive landscape for cinemas in a common sense idea that seemed to have unique ramifications for the business. If, indeed, 10% of the audience is buying 80% of the admissions, then perhaps the decision to see a film is not, in the end, about whether it is available at home or not, but rather about the attractiveness of the cinema as a consumer choice once the decision has been made to leave the house for entertainment. Instead of competing against television and the internet, Deutchman proposed, art house cinemas are competing against bars, restaurants and other entertainment options. Thriving businesses like the Alamo Draft House Cinemas, which provide a unique entertainment experience, seem to suggest that this framework for competitive analysis is more than valid. And so, in the end, with consumers generally agnostic about digital cinema (as long as it works and the film is good) and always needing to, at some point, leave their homes and connect with their communities for an array of reasons, maybe the art house can thrive after all by sticking to its commitment to generating a new experience out of that communal, sacred space in the dark.