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Convergence brings arthouse cinemas together

Shared woes inspire shared insights, promotion

Call it artistic Darwinism.

Each year, the Sundance Film Festival reduces several thousand entries to a few dozen competitors with the best chance of survival in the marketplace. And once the smoke has cleared, of course, the chosen few still need theaters in which to play.

Ensuring that they will was the objective of the third annual Art House Convergence, which wrapped Jan. 21, just before Sundance started. The confab drew 120 operators, programmers and figures from the world of independent exhibition to Midway, Utah, in anticipation of this year’s crop report from nearby Park City.

There’s a tremendous collection of independent and community-based theaters and film societies from around the country here. They have not only come up with innovative strategies to connect audiences and communities with specialized film but most importantly they are sharing these ideas with their colleagues from other arthouses,” says John Vanco, VP and general manager of New York’s IFC Center.

The importance of having a viable arthouse biz was illustrated by the prominence of those who attended: filmmaker (and theater operator) Michael Moore; Landmark founder Gary Meyer; GuideStar CEO Bob Ottenhoff and Sundance festival director John Cooper, who five years ago – — via the ongoing Sundance Art House Project — helped get the whole thing started.

We were looking for where the spirit of independent film lives 365 days a year,” Cooper says. “Sundance is great, but where does that spirit live? And we realized that, a lot of the time, it’s out in the provinces.”

So the Institute invited representatives of 12 prominent arthouse cinemas to talk about their mutual concerns and problems.

At the first event were Connie White of the Coolidge Corners theater outside Boston; Russ Collins of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, and Susan Tive of the Pickford Theater in Bellingham, Wash. They all knew they were onto something.

We said, we do a lot of the same work, so why aren’t we communicating on a regular basis? Not just us, but all the theaters in the country — talking to each other and trying to develop a unified network,” says Tive.

Two years ago, the informal meetings coalesced into the Convergence, whose attendance has doubled each year. Participants consult about fundraising, issues with their boards of directors, capital campaigns, programming. “We share marketing materials,” Tive says. “Every year, people bring examples of how they promote themselves. This year, we have panels on everything from social networking to midnight movies, sci-fi marathons and singalongs.” And school outreach. And concession sales.

Originally, Cooper says, Sundance gave the group access to 25 fest films, cleared the rights, and had each theater program its own festival. This year, the program, known as Sundance Film Festival USA, takes place Jan. 28 with the fest sending filmmakers and films to Chicago, Nashville, Boston, New York, Madison, Wisc., Los Angeles and San Francisco.

There will be a feeling that Sundance has gone nationwide for one night,” he says.

Like everyone in the business,” Tive says, “we’re trying to focus on what’s within our control and what we can do about it, not the changes within the larger distribution system that are beyond our control.”

They are aware, of course, that there is strength in numbers.

One of the purposes of an arthouse network,” she said, “would be to create a louder and unified voice, by which we could become part of that bigger conversation.”

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