When I was asked to appear on a panel at the Art House Convergence, the annual gathering of arthouse exhibitors that takes place just before Sundance, called “Why Critics Matter,” my first thought was that I might be the person in the room least equipped to make that case. (My second was that that the panel should be called “Why, Critics Matter!” or “Why Critics… Matter?”) I think criticism is a vital and essential art form, but I’m not especially objective on the subject, and I’ve written enough glowing reviews of movies that tanked at the box office to be skeptical about criticism’s power to put butts in the seats.
But while critics can be a gloomy, Eeyore-like lot, the exhibitors at AHC were positively bullish on the future of film, shown in theaters to a paying audience, and role critics can play in that process. In his opening address, the Michigan Theater’s Russ Collins repeated again and again, “The state of the art house is strong,” pointing to numbers that show audiences have essentially been stable since 1964. In a week where Manhattan’s storied Ziegfeld announced it was being converted into “a high-event space” (vomit), that may seem like wishful thinking. But the “Art House Tales” sessions in which theaters from Missouri to Honolulu gave brief overviews of how they’d changed with the times showed that with creative thinking and attentive programming, it’s possible for art houses to thrive even in the on-demand era. “You should be confident in this fact,” Collins said, “the movie market is not in decline, but it is dynamic.” After all, the week the Ziegfeld closed was also the week that NYC’s digital-free Metrograph announced its first wave of programming, and the Quad laid the groundwork for a promising new beginning by hiring IFC Center’s Christopher Wells to head up its repertory programs.
In a national survey covering 25 art house theaters and 20,000 patrons, Avenue ISR’s Woody Smith said that reviews were the third-most important tool in drawing audiences to theaters, just behind recommendations from friends. (Most-effective, by a wide margin: trailers.) 41 percent of respondents listed print reviews among the most important factors, with online reviews at 35 percent, although the former number drops dramatically when limited to viewers 35 or younger.
Anecdotally, many exhibitors told me that Rotten Tomatoes plays a huge role in what films audiences select. In one medium-sized market, the local paper, which no longer employs its own critics, uses the Tomatometer to decide which review to pull from the wire services: If it’s “fresh,” they run a positive review; if it’s “rotten,” they run a pan. By pretty much any measure, that’s a huge dereliction of duty — not to mention incredibly lazy journalistic practice — but the good news is that same exhibitor sought me out later to tell me he going to start a criticism contest for local students, bringing back dialogue to a community that’s lost an outlet for those voices.
In his remarks, Collins stressed the point that art houses are not primarily a means of distributing movies, but a way of “building a culture of cinema love and appreciation in a community.” In the nationwide audience survey, the movies theatergoers said they enjoyed the most — “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian,” “Far From the Madding Crowd,” “Inside Out” — were not the same as the ones they said left the greatest impression —”Selma,” “Amy,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” With local media outlets dying off or scaling back, it’s easy for critics, and the people they work for, to neglect their immediate surroundings. But if they want to get people to the movies as well as getting them to click (or stream), it’s on them to develop local ties as well as virtual ones.
Other things learned at the AHC:
The art houses in the survey got about three-quarters of their revenue from “earned sources” — ticket sales, memberships, concessions — and only a quarter from donations. With live theaters, symphonies, orchestras and the like, those proportions are reversed. Art-house theaters can work harder to turn patrons and members into donors, but the numbers seem to say that we as a society don’t see cinema as an art form that needs subsidizing.
One of my favorite presentations was from the National Association of Concessionaires’ Daniel Borschke, and not just because he brought samples and I got to eat a Pickle in a Pouch. His pitch to “never let the customer leave with money in their wallet” seems tailored more towards multiplexes than art houses, and with good reason: mainstream movie theaters make a whopping 58 percent of their revenue from concessions; art houses only 15 percent.
What are the hot new trends in edibles? “Anything Cuban” — café Cubano, Cuban sandwiches, and mojitos. Also, pretzels are up 27.2 percent!
While audiences over 35 cite factors like cleanliness and value, millennials, according to the NAC’s research, prize “atmosphere, craveability and likely to recommend” — i.e. they like things they can tell their friends about. It doesn’t hurt if the food looks good on Instagram, either.
Another favorite panel was from Adam Montgomery, who manages Sundance’s programming department. Much of his talk was devoted to the practical matters of handling 4,000+ feature film submissions a year, but there were plenty of tangy asides as well. Found-footage horror movies, of which Montgomery, who also programs Sundance’s Midnight section, estimates he watches 300 a year, have all but vanished from the pool. Several years ago, found footage films were nearly half the horror submissions; this year, it was two.
The Ken Burns-looking Jackie Robinson documentary submitted to this year’s festival turned out to be… Ken Burns’ Jackie Robinson documentary. (It didn’t make the cut.)
Speaking of not making the cut, Shane Carruth’s “Primer,” which won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize in 2004, nearly didn’t make it into the festival at all after a first-round screener gave the film abysmal marks. That’s why every movie gets watched by at least two people.
Telling filmmakers they’ve gotten into Sundance is one of the best parts of the programming staff’s job, but they also have to send out rejections to the vastly more numerous films that don’t get it. Montgomery likes to send his in the wee hours, because when people get them first thing in the morning, they’re less likely to send back a drunken, angry “Eff You, Sundance!” in response.