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Indie Cinemas Face Challenging Future Together

Begun as a small exhibitor gathering at the Sundance Film Festival, the Art House Convergence has long since come into its own as a mecca for indie cinema operators.

Some 620 delegates are expected Jan. 16-19 at the 10th annual Art House Convergence in Midway, Utah, for panel sessions, networking, and film screenings before the Park City behemoth gets under way nearby. That’s a big change from 2008’s first Art House Convergence, which drew 25 attendees.

The growth, which surpassed its founder’s expectations, speaks volumes about the commitment of independent-cinema operators in a challenging business climate.

“Over the past decade, it’s grown far beyond what I ever imagined, and while it’s still a very intimate group compared with a CinemaCon, it’s a testament to the sheer passion [for arthouse cinema] of everyone involved,” says founding director Russ Collins.

As with multiplex operators, art-house cinemas must compete for audience attention at a time of exploding entertainment options. But Collins maintains that “all the streaming and downloading and new technology haven’t had that much effect” on art-house attendance.

“The art-house scene is very healthy and will remain very active,” he says.
Attendance for art-house fare has been “steadily climbing” each year in conference surveys, according to Barbara Twist, managing director.

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“Our current data, for 2015, shows that art-house patrons go to the movies on average 31.5 times a year — and those visits are split pretty evenly between arthouses and multiplexes. So what the data tell us is that our patrons just love movies in general. They go to the big blockbusters at their local multiplex, but they also show up for the smaller indie films they’re interested in, and that makes us very happy because we feel that the more people go out to catch a movie, the better it is for everyone in the business.”

This year’s conference will have a particular focus on local marketing and curation, Twist says. “Many of us are nonprofit, so fundraising is very important, and we’ll be covering that along with current trends,” she says. “We’ll also be looking at programming, another crucial factor.”

A panel featuring marketing and distribution execs will be moderated by producer-distributor Ira Deutchman, “and we’ll dig deep into the future of cinema.”

While Netflix, Amazon and other platforms “also stress curation, it’s all about algorithms,” Twist notes. “But at the movie theater, we’re all about curation through a person, and that’s always been part of the indie cinema experience.”

Over the past decade there’s been strong growth in “eventizing.”

“Meaning that filmmakers are being brought in for Q&As, and there’s a lot more interactive engagement with audiences who stay for talks and discussions after screenings,” Twist says. “Exhibitors are also building series around films and issues and topics that are going on in their local community, as well as globally.”

All this helps distinguish arthouse cinema from the multiplex and home entertainment.

“It gives audiences something you can’t get at the multiplex or sitting by yourself at home,” she says. “And as even just gathering in a darkened room with strangers is an experience you don’t get at home with all the interruptions of kids and pets and so on, the added events at arthouse screenings are making them really special occasions. People are even doing costume parties, so it’s a far more active engagement in cinema.”

This eventizing has created challenges and opportunities for art-house operators.

“The challenges are that with all the competing platforms out there now, and all the noise of social media, they are now thinking, ‘What else can we add to the screening experience?’ ‘How can we make it exciting and more engaging for the audience?’ Because there’s no doubt that audiences want to be more engaged now. It’s not just a passive ‘see the movie’ experience anymore. It’s discussing the movie with other people, and having panels and talks, and advertising the fact that we do that.”

This type of programming influences theater design and architecture.

“With the new art-house cinemas being built, almost all of them have a large lobby that actively encourages chatting and discussion, and many also have added rooms and spaces specifically designed for classes and panels,” Twist says. “And others have coffee shops and bookstores, even restaurants and bars. The Belcourt Theatre in Nashville added a 35-seat screen — part of a growing small-room trend — and also added a flexible classroom where they can host kids’ series after school.”

In emphasizing lobbies and gathering spaces, today’s theaters are taking a page from older cinemas in pre-television days.

“When you look at the old movie palaces and the way there were designed, with massive lobbies and public spaces, they understood how important the magic and sense of occasion was,” Twist says. “We’re not reinventing the wheel, just learning from history.”

That’s not the only old-school touch finding renewed favor.

Now that the majority of screens have migrated to digital exhibition, art-house cinema has also separated itself from the multiplex by still offering 35mm prints.

“Now we’re thinking about how to use that alternative to be able to get more audiences into the theaters, as it’s certainly not something you can see at home,” Twist adds. “And we’re definitely seeing a trend where more theaters are highlighting 35mm screenings.”

She cites San Francisco’s Roxie Theater as one that shows a significant number of 35mm prints.
Roxie’s exec director Dave Cowen says the trend toward 35mm is growing due to audience demand.

“Much like the renewed interest in vinyl in the age of MP3, our audience really appreciates seeing 35mm films,” Cowen says. “They’re softer than digital presentation, and there’s a warmth, clarity and color that’s unparalleled.”

The Roxie screens four to five 35mm films every month, and is currently showing the horror thriller “The Love Witch.”

“It’s been a huge success — and interestingly, the film opened digitally in San Francisco, and we got the 35mm version after that closed and we actually grossed far higher in weeks three and four than the digital release’s first and second weeks,” he says. “And I attribute a lot of that to the fact that it’s 35mm.”

Other recent 35mm presentations include Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” and Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”

“Two classics that our audiences loved,” he adds. “People just prefer to see such films in their original form.”

The Roxie also recently conducted a survey in conjunction with the Art House Convergence, “and over half our audience said they’d attend more often if we expanded our 35mm screenings,” Cowen says. “And 75% said they preferred 35mm to digital for classic movies.”

Tim League, CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain, also sees a very healthy growth in what he terms local, mission-driven theaters. Alamo, League says, plans to add “another five or six” to its existing roster of 25 theaters in 2017.

“I’m a hybrid, in that I have one foot in the art house world and one in the commercial, but our guiding principles are those of the art house,” League adds. “About 35% of our content comes from indie films or alternative content, and that audience is steadily growing.”

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