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Niches go nonprofit

Arthouses turn to public support

The major exhibition chains have ShoWest in Las Vegas. The independent venues have Art House Convergence in Midway, Utah.

Though the confab, now in its fourth year, continues to grow steadily and attract such bold-faced names as Michael Moore, few would mistake the two events. After all, with 75% of this year’s 180 attendees representing not-for-profits, there’s less talk about popcorn sales and more about the ins and outs of 501(c)(3) tax loopholes.

While the majority of unaffiliated arthouse cinemas have gone the nonprofit route, many of the remaining mom-and-pop shops are mulling the switch, marking a watershed moment in the world of indie exhibition.

“I noticed there’s a lot of similarities between arthouse theaters and not-for-profit performing arts organizations,” says conference director Russ Collins, who came from a performing arts management background before taking on the executive director post at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. “I thought it’s kind of silly that the primary model for an arthouse cinema is a commercial model. There’s a model for a community arts organization that is already quite successful.”

In fact, Collins notes that at the turn of the 20th century, all performing arts organizations were for-profits including symphonies, operas and theater groups. Gradually throughout the 20th century, most morphed into not-for-profits.

“They weren’t sustainable on a commercial model,” explains Collins. “Think about the movie industry and the music industry in an analogous way. It makes sense that if music has a range from very commercial to very subsidized, film should too. There are all kinds of movies, and there should be all kinds of outlets.”

A decade ago, Nashville’s Belcourt Theater was struggling mightily before it shuttered altogether. A group of community activists united to save the theater’s iconic building, which was erected in 1925. The cinema, located near Vanderbilt University, was reinvented as a community-based mission-driven nonprofit. Managing director Stephanie Silverman says the Belcourt enjoyed its strongest financial year ever in 2010. And being a not-for-profit also gives the theater wide latitude with programming choices.

“It allows us to bring in a film that doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t have to be commercially viable,” adds Silverman, noting that 75% of Belcourt’s budget comes from earned revenue and 25% from contributions. “We love it when (an arthouse title becomes a box-office hit). But we don’t want to have to make decisions based on commercial viability.”

Belcourt, like many of the venues participating at AHC, prides itself on being not just a highbrow entertainer, but an educator, particularly to next-generation audiences. In that capacity, the theater has partnered with Vanderbilt, whereby the university underwrites the price of movie tickets if a student attends with a faculty member. As a result, Belcourt is reaching beyond its typical demo of theatergoers aged 35-65.

Many see cultivating a new generation of cineastes as crucial to the survival of indie arthouses. Balcony Films’ Connie White, who books for several specialty cinemas including the Coolidge Corner Theater outside Boston, says one of the topics most broached at AHC is “How do we get high school and college students psyched about film?”

In 2006, the Sundance Institute tapped White to organize Art House Project, a precursor to AHC. The initiative brought together two dozen of the nation’s top arthouse directors to share knowledge about the challenges and successes of the business. A number of the participants kept in touch after the event disbanded.

Two years later, AHC was born, with 22 attendees assembling in the backyard of the Sundance Film Festival. In 2009, 70 took part, followed by 120 in 2010. This year features such panel topics as “The New Networking: Social Media Tools and the Art House” and “David and Goliath: Dealing with Local Competition.”

The growing guest list includes such distributors as Focus Features and Fox Searchlight as well as theaters like the not-for-profit Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., which uses its state-of-the-art facilities to “teach cinema literacy” to both teen and adult visitors, says founder and executive director Steve Apkon. That mandate is being echoed by AHC-participating venues from the Tampa Theater to San Francisco’s Balboa Theater, where programmers are taking cues from the community by embracing everything from live opera and ballet to foreign-language films that cater to a burgeoning immigrant population.

“If you’re a nonprofit, you are kind of owned by the community,” explains White.

And that idea of public ownership is what inspires many in the niche business. After all, Silverman points out that no one is getting rich in the arthouse business.

“People are speaking up and saying that a film house is an integral part of a community,” says Silverman. “For us, it’s exciting to be a part of that movement.”

More on Independent Exhibition:
Niches go nonprofit | Getting the word out | Digital screens boost alt options | When tickets don’t cut it

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