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Sundance Isn’t the Only Answer: Inside the Fight to Diversify America’s Movie Theaters

At the annual Art House Convergence before Sundance, one theme loomed above others among the exhibitors in attendance.

A presentation at the 2018 Art House Convergence

The Sundance Film Festival often provides a window into the kind of movies that the industry wants to sustain, and the 2018 edition is no exception. From opening-night crowdpleaser “Blindspotting” to the police shooting drama “Monsters and Men” to the satiric “Sorry to Bother You,” the U.S. competition swells with stories featuring people of color. But the impulse to diversify current cinema goes beyond the movies. Though hard data is elusive, few will deny the dominance of one demographic at independent movie theaters around the county. Sundance titles lucky enough to land distribution in art houses invariably find themselves in front of predominantly older, white audiences.

The Art House Convergence is finally trying to do something about that. In the days leading up to Sundance, the annual gathering of the indie exhibition community met for its ninth edition in Midway, Utah, a half hour from Park City. This time, diversity catapulted from a tangential issue to center stage. While discussions about new platforms for ticket sales like MoviePass and shrinking theatrical windows had their moments, a renegade group called Alliance for Action — designed to seek out more inclusive approaches to exhibition — gained traction.

“Basically, we’re trying to talk about the elephant in the room,” said co-founder Taylour Chang, director of the Doris Duke Theatre in Honolulu. She caught herself. “Well, elephants,” she said. “There are a lot of them.”

Among the hot-button issues discussed by the group: Sexual harassment, a topic most notoriously faced in the exhibition community after a scandal hit the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain. Drafthouse CEO Tim League participated in a buzzy panel about the issue, admitting the company’s setbacks and unveiling a tighter HR strategy for employees to submit complaints anonymously, and a discussion about whether the company should revise a decision to list one of its core values as “fun.”

But while the sexual harassment issue reflected broader conversations taking place throughout the industry, diversity discussions took on more communal air. “There are things that get in the way of people communicating in a really healthy, open ways,” Chang said, referring to a Google Group founded by Alliance for Action that dozens of participants have joined. “Now that the conference has been so successful, there are different silos of conversations. How do you keep those conversations healthy?”

The group met for a series of workshop sessions, with arthouse exhibitors from around the country splintering into various groups to address key questions, one at a time. They cut deep. One example: “How can films be used as educational catalysts for uplifting stories that need to be told and humanized about people of color and other marginalized identities (that are made by filmmakers of those communities?)”

Potential solutions could be heard everywhere in the conference. The night before Sundance, guest speaker Marcia Smith of nonprofit production company FirelightMedia addressed a dining hall filled with some 600 registrants. “Your space is a lot more than chairs and a screen,” she said. “People are very destabilized right now, disoriented. In some cases, they’re very fearful, and they want to talk about it. They want to engage with each other, they want to tell their stories, they want to be involved in their communities. Imagine a mini-festival of films from Haiti or Africa right now… There’s an opening where we can have a space and use it.”

The applause was deafening — and nearly unthinkable less than a decade ago, when Art House Convergence started in a Salt Lake City hotel with just 27 people in attendance. The 2016 edition found 52 arthouse distributors in addition to representatives from theaters stretching across both coasts, from New York’s Film Forum to the Grand Cinema in Tacoma. In a moment of deep uncertainty over the future of the film business, this progressive gathering struck a more idealistic contrast, with theaters engineered for success on more manageable scales than the frantic efforts behind national chains to sustain their overhead. The Alliance for Action sat at the center of its developing ethos.

Emily Best, Taylour Chang, and Courtney Sheehan at the 2017 Arthouse Convergence

Emily Best, Taylour Chang, and Courtney Sheehan at the 2017 Arthouse Convergence

The group emerged from a panel at the 2016 edition called “How to Be an Ally,” in which Chang, Seed & Spark’s Emily Best, and Northwest Film Forum director Courtney Sheehan engaged in a lively discussion about community outreach and a better means of building equity for voices left out of many theaters’ programming strategies. The conversation kept going, and going, until they had to clear out the room. They invited attendees to keep talking elsewhere at the conference center, and around 70 registrants showed up.

Founding director Russ Collins, who runs the historic Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, used his closing remarks to acknowledge the prominence of the Alliance in the latest edition — and praised the ubiquitous conversations about diversity that defined the year. “If it makes us a little uncomfortable, that’s OK,” he said, “as long as we’re making forward progress, as long as we’re trying to increase the quantity and quality of arthouse cinemas in North America, because we are an important sector of this industry. We are an important sector of the culture. We can make a difference.”

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