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In the age of VOD and cable dramas, are arthouse theaters relevant anymore? That was a reasonable question leading up to the Jan. 19-22 Art House Convergence conference. But when AHC director Russ Collins drafted a petition that enlisted most of its 250-odd exhibitors (including the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain, whose CEO Tim League had his own talks with Sony) to release “The Interview” on Christmas Day — after online threats caused five major theater chains to drop or delay it — the answer was never clearer.

“The power of the collective was very apparent — they were able to release it together quickly, rather than have the studio negotiate with a bunch of different theaters,” says Sundance Institute exec director and AHC keynote speaker Keri Putnam. She’s working with Cinereach and other film nonprofits to gather data at AHC for the Sundance Institute Transparency Project, aiming to analyze indie films’ costs and revenue across all platforms to determine how theaters and fests contribute to their digital success, and eventually propose business models based on the findings.

One of the most promising new ideas comes from Mark Fishkin, who runs the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center theater and the Mill Valley Film Festival through his nonprofit California Film Institute.

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“What if there was a model where filmmakers work with a theater, market the film with in-person and online Q&As, go out on VOD at the same time and, with new technology, geographically limit the (number) of people they reach on VOD in a radius that’s comfortable to them?” he says. “It allows the filmmaker to test it, and if it’s successful, roll it out as a limited theatrical release in a similar way in more markets. And it would allow the theater to share in revenue they haven’t shared before.”

Finding such solutions is one goal of the exhibitor conference, held in Midway, Utah, on the eve of every Sundance, and one reason League is attending with seven execs, both as an exhibitor and a distributor at Drafthouse Films.

“I go there as a sponge,” he says. “Everybody is free with ideas and shares what’s working and not working in terms of promotions, events and strategies. We also love to meet the independent operators out there, to get to know them and how we can serve them better.”

Ironically, the hackers’ threat to freedom of speech with “The Interview” gave a major studio freedom to do the first large-scale compressed window release (in more than 300 independent theaters, a day after its hastily assembled ancillary rollout), with the extraordinary circumstances nullifying top theater chains’ opposition to multiplatform studio releases. But the film’s $5 million box office combined with its $31 million VOD revenue as of Jan. 6, while heartening for future releases,  doesn’t resolve issues that the vast majority of specialty films still face.

The Conference evolved from 24 execs from 12 theaters around the country attending the Sundance Institute’s Art House Project to support indie cinemas in 2006 and 2007. Attendees launched the autonomous conference the following year, and it has grown to 500 attendees for the largest gathering of independent cinemas in North America, says Michigan Theater CEO Collins, who organizes AHC with conference manager Barbara Twist out of Ann Arbor and a national volunteer committee. “The mission statement is to increase the quantity and quality of arthouse cinemas in North America.”

Collins’ online petition to screen “The Interview” began as a private Google group post he sent to Convergence members on the Friday before Christmas, expressing concern for Sony employees who were victims of the company’s computer hack and offering to release the film should the studio decide to do so. Members asked him to post it on their website to garner support from patrons, the media picked it up, and AHC took on a crusade bigger than any it had before.

“I love what Russ Collins said about how these community-built and -driven theaters are, almost by definition, committed to freedom of artistic expression, used to risk taking and pushing boundaries with their programming,” Putnam said, “so it was very organic for them to lead the charge in this conversation about free expression.”

Yet it’s the basic info important to indie exhibs that make up the bulk of the Convergence. “There’s a lot of sharing about what has happened this year, what’s being anticipated for year to come, and why is it resonating — is it localized or is it a trend?” Collins says of typical AHC conversations. “Communicating what has worked for you is a very dynamic part of specialty film exhibition.”

So is coming up with strategies to defend their turf, which seems to have prepped some exhibs in their courage to screen “The Interview.” “Some commercial exhibitors are very exclusionary and thwart independent cinemas,” he said. “In some markets, everyone can show everything, but sometimes there are very nasty battles.”

Art House Convergence exhibs hope to arm themselves with info at panels on Avenue ISR’s National Audience Survey, Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s Theater Operations Survey and more. And, as Collins notes, “The Interview” rollout proved there’s power in indie exhibs simply standing together.