I have had the good fortune to work at two of the over 300 independent movie theaters in the U.S. that primarily screen art-house movies. These venues host a somewhat more specialized audience, one that’s more mature and discerning, open to appreciating a blend of foreign pictures, small American films, documentaries of all sorts, and the occasional breakout hit that relies more on storytelling than pyrotechnics.
Working at such film palaces was a fantasy that came true—with a number of asterisks attached. It was at once exciting and fun while also being headache-inducing because of the unique set of challenges I encountered, from demographic issues to working with owners and boards who put up stiff resistance to change. I’ve learned a lot and hope to learn more but it’s clear that those challenges aren’t going away anytime soon.
Art-house cinemas have been around in one form or another since the Twenties, with substantial growth taking place after World War II. Their numbers peaked somewhere in the late Seventies and early Eighties, steadily declining since then, although currently there appears to be a slight revival. Not having the financial backing of theater chains and often having less cooperation from the major studios and certain specialized distributors when it comes to booking titles, these venues face a number of unique problems, the most recent being the switch to showing films in a digital format during the last five years.
Distributors in general strongly support digital projection, as do the large exhibition chains such as Regal, which has eliminated almost all of its 35mm capability (as of late 2014). There are still anomalies and holdouts in the filmmaking world, with Christopher Nolan going as far as offering an earlier release date for Interstellar to theaters large and small, if they would project it on film.
Digital projection originally made its debut in the summer of 1999 when Fox’s Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Miramax’s An Ideal Husband were presented using an early digital system. But 15 years later digital now dominates film exhibition, worldwide. Many smaller theaters have had to launch special campaigns to get funding for digital equipment, while others have gone out of business.
“The state of art-house exhibition is what it has been as long as I’ve been in the business: precarious,” said Martin McCaffery, the director of the nonprofit Capri Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama. “Digital has really changed none of that, other than draining our resources. Studio films are no more available to us than during the film days. Actual 35mm prints are harder to obtain, and many classics are only available [for projection] on DVD, if at all. Likewise, many of the up-and-coming indie filmmakers for the last decade or so have made their films exclusively in digital formats, so we had to obtain video projectors long before the DCI [Digital Cinema Initiative] was forced upon us. Digital is just the latest elephant in the room.”
Toby Leonard, the director of programming for Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre, notes another development that digital has created: formatting. “Recently we had a first: an entire feature film delivered in proper DCP format, but on a 128-gigabyte flash drive. A commonplace delivery method for trailers, four- and eight-gig flash drives are now ubiquitous at cinemas because, though file sizes vary based on compression, DCP video roughly translates to 1 gig per minute [in screen time], thereby making the thumb drive an ideal option for lightweight trailer delivery. Though downloading zipped DCP trailer files is commonplace, thumb drive delivery is absolutely the norm.”
Although the question of how patrons would react to the switch from 35mm presentation to digital was an initial concern, the changeover seems to have had little effect on the faithful patrons of smaller venues. “We are now attempting to educate our audience about the importance of appreciating the medium they are watching. For the vast majority of our filmgoers, the transition to digital projection would have been essentially imperceptible if it wasn’t for the elaborate fundraising campaign to finance the change,” Dylan Skolnick, the co-director of the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, New York, observed. “In fact, some viewers were still asking when we were going to buy the new projectors months after they had already been installed.”
For Skolnick and others, the transition involves taking a side and affirming film’s importance. He added: “In a recent exchange in an online forum for film exhibitors, supporters of showing movies on 35mm celluloid were accused of being ‘film fetishists.’ The conversation was friendly and undoubtedly humorous but it did raise crucial questions that must be answered by any cinema that cares deeply about the art and essence of movies: does it matter if movies, especially classics, are projected in their original format? In our cinema we have decided that the medium does matter, and have committed ourselves to making 35mm film projection an ongoing part of our work. Are we preserving a vital part of the movie viewing experience or just fetishists? Only time will tell.”
Whatever the case, Andrew J. Douglas, director of education at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute in Pennsylvania, hasn’t noticed much concern among audiences. In general, patrons aware of the difference seem to enjoy the clarity of the digital image, but tend to voice this appreciation in the context of complimenting the larger facility expansion and renovation that occurred around the same time as the change in projection technology.
“The phasing out of 35mm has been sad for us, but we are in the business of showing mostly new films, so it’s our reality,” said Peggy Johnson, the executive director of Tucson’s Loft Cinema. “We acknowledge the quality of the digital image, which is hard to deny, but we will always take a 35mm print over a digital file if the print is in good condition.”
This assortment of digital-related issues has compounded the challenges that art-house venues all tend to face. During my 13 years in New Mexico with the Mesilla Valley Film Society (MVFS) in Las Cruces/Mesilla and at the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, I encountered a myriad of things that I never expected to experience.
The Fountain Theatre, home of the MVFS, is a marvelous old adobe cinema that has been screening art-house movies for just over 25 years. As the only such venue for a 250-mile radius, it seems natural to assume that everyone would know about the place, especially since the building is located just off a popular plaza in a quaint New Mexican village.
But during my time there, one of the most common questions was “How long has this been here?” That’s usually followed by “What do you show here?” or, conversely, “Is this a playhouse?” even though there’s a one-sheet film poster right out front. The basic identity of the theater was an enormous problem (as were old rumors that the theater only showed gay-themed films, with one patron asking “Do they still have the bowl of condoms in the men’s room?”). Many ticket buyers could remember seeing a movie there, sometime years earlier, along with the fact that the theater once served wine (slightly illegally), while others knew a friend that had once been a volunteer.
Although both of the theaters I worked at were relatively small single-screen venues, I was surprised when I attended my first Art House Convergence conference in Midway, Utah to learn that all venues face similar issues. “As Bryn Mawr Film Institute approaches its 10th birthday in March 2015, one of the consistent issues—and possibly the most surprising to many of the folks that work there—is the number of people in BMFI’s immediate area who either do not know that it has regular, daily shows of new movies or who do not even realize that the Institute exists,” Douglas said. “Despite the presence of the period-appropriate, neon-lit marquee, shining brightly along the community’s main thoroughfare, advertising the films now showing, there are still people unaware of BMFI’s presence.”
“One particularly vexing subset of this group is college students, who seem to confound art houses in general. Despite the diversity of movies, relatively low price of admission, and the many special screenings and events intended to appeal to them, BMFI does not regularly attract a substantial number of the nearly 6,000 students that populate the four colleges within a 1.25 mile radius. To be fair, if The Big Lebowski, The Room, The Great Gatsby, or Gone Girl is showing, they do come, but these visits triggered by specific films rarely transform into anything approaching regular attendance.”
Financial stability is always an issue as well—in one egregious case of mismanagement, a former president of the nonprofit MVFS board absconded with all of its funds and was rumored to be making films in California. (I guess that’s one way to bankroll a picture.) The film society recovered from that scandal but became very, very careful with their finances afterward. Low attendance, the inability to book the bigger art-house films, and a demographic that even now remains somewhat apathetic and hard to reach, made for tight budgeting and an extra effort to have money-making special events.
Another big concern expressed by other venue managers was the fact that minorities tend to keep their distance from art-house theaters. All of the outreach programs that have been used by many exhibitors tend to be for naught, no matter where the theater is located. African-American film director Ava DuVernay approached this problem head on with a talk at the 2013 Art House Convergence. But her solution was one of those that most, if not all, had tried: show more films made by or targeted at people of color or the LGBTQ community. But from my observations, programming more specialized titles not only doesn’t really draw the target audience, but the regular patrons are not very interested in them either.
Of course, drawing any audience is a huge challenge, since movie fans now have many more delivery options to choose from than they did 40 years ago, a problem which is sometimes compounded by the distributors who serve such venues on a regular basis. Toby Leonard touched on this subject: “Not to get into how VOD [Video on Demand] releases affect theatrical exhibition (it does), but when a film gets out there on the Web, it hurts us too if a company has made the decision to release a film on day-and-date (a film released to theaters and on video the same day).”
“Every art house is different, but we all show the movies that [the mass audience doesn’t] want to see. If everyone wanted to see them, they’d be selling out at the multiplexes and there would be no art-house theaters,” McCaffrey, of the Capri, added. “We walk a fine line, mixing programming like metaphors, hoping to present a successful blend of artistic obscurities and rent-paying pop. If we’re lucky, we get enough of the latter to show more of the former.”
The term “sure seaters” arose long ago from a skeptical film industry that was convinced that those attending art-house theaters would have no difficulty finding a seat. But as Barbara Wilinsky notes in her still relevant 2000 book about art-house cinema, likewise titled Sure Seaters: “In the end, the attempts by art house operators and art cinema participants to carve out a niche helped to shape the economic, social, and industrial structure as well as the cultural significance and values associated with the film industry from which they were originally excluded.”
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