In 2007, the Art House Convergence began as a place for specialty film exhibitors, distributors, and film festival directors to strategize against the issues of the moment. Back then, it was the looming specter of digital conversion, which questioned the viability of many participating organizations. Not only did the vast majority of theaters survive, but also 35mm projection and repertory programming also proved sustainable.
Ten years later, the 2017 Art House Convergence was bigger than ever. Held in Midway, Utah, over the three days before the Sundance Film Festival, the Convergence remains a place where the love of cinema is physically tangible, where the oft-spoken phrase “film community” is meant without cynicism. It’s also a deeply practical opportunity for more than 600 film exhibitors, distributors, and film festival directors to spend four days assessing the challenges of American independent film exhibition and what they can do to make it work. Thankfully, the organization is better equipped than ever to meet these challenges head on; here’s what that looks like.
- The conference did not dither long on broad unknowns, like new storytelling forms. Instead, it established a sense of common purpose to create a network of spaces that could nurture empathy, dialogue, and new forms of artistic resistance. 2017 is the year that the value of curation, and new audience engagement strategies became the focal point.
- In a panel on the “death of cinema” and its seemingly counterintuitive vitality, curation strategies dominated the conversation. How might music and VOD subscription services model a transformation of art-house and festival engagement, programming, and revenue? Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League proposed that exhibitors do fewer screenings on more screens in more theaters at the same time, which would transform theatrical windows, allowing cinemas more flexibility in their programming, and kill the per-screen average as a metric of success.
- The Film Society of Lincoln Center deputy director Eugene Hernandez spoke of art house brands finding ways to emulate the subscription model by developing national reach for important programming, with supplemental materials like talks, conversations, and printed essays enhancing the art house experience on a nightly basis.
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- In his keynote address, writer-director James Schamus gave a terrific presentation that used the real-life film industry debates and challenges of 1916 (multi-reel “feature films,” inspired by lurid, long-form European movies, will soon replace short-form content, ruining theatrical exhibition forever!) to foster a current sense of hope. The film industry has always argued with itself about form, technology, audience habits, how to address political turmoil, and about what constitutes “the future.” Ultimately, cinematic storytelling and film exhibition persevere and transform.
- Columbia University’s Ira Deutchman received the Convergence’s inaugural Spotlight Lifetime Achievement Award, and he used the occasion to speak directly to American cinemas and festivals about the need to reject the temptations of political passivity and acquiescence in their programming. That message resonated deeply and was echoed in various statements throughout the event. In her closing keynote conversation, director Cheryl Dunye reinforced the need to expand the conversation and to create meaningful connections across diverse communities and embracing the multitude of identities that individuals inhabit.
- In a resonant panel on how film professionals and their organizations can be allies to underserved and underrepresented communities, Seed & Spark’s Emily Best, Northwest Film Forum’s Courtney Sheehan, and the Doris Duke Museum’s Taylour Chang provided an excellent primer on strategies for engagement. These included collaborative programming strategies and community outreach efforts that build equity for the voices that continue to be missing from key decision-making and creative roles in the art house movement.
- Underpinning all of the Covergence concerns was the matter of nostalgia. There is nothing wrong with loving classic films or the vibrant design of old movie houses made new again, but how can cinemas attract younger, more diverse audiences without a deep embrace of the contemporary moment, of the concerns of younger and more diverse film lovers, and without an investment in the people that represent those communities? This year’s Convergence made clear that each art house cinema will need to reframe its story in order to preserve the past in the context of the urgency of the times. If cinema culture can’t inspire a new generation and new communities with the same depth of passion that created the modern art house movement, then what is the community working to build and preserve?