There are over 200 theaters in the United States that are independently owned and operated and generally screen nothing but what would be labeled “art-house” films. These theaters have existed in one form or another since at least the 1920s, and back then were sometimes called “little cinemas.” After World War II, they became more popular and for a while were glibly referred to as “sure-seaters,” a term credited to writer Stanley Frank in a 1952 issue of Nation’s Business (and used by scholar Barbara Wilinsky as the title of her excellent book on art-house cinema).

A more accurate moniker, overheard at this year’s 6th annual Art House Convergence (AHC), might be the People’s Republic of Cinema. From January 14 to 17, the Convergence was held as usual in Midway, Utah, just a short distance from Park City, allowing attendees to head to Sundance immediately afterward. The latest edition drew nearly 350 participants including many representatives, owners, and operators of venues that specialize in screening many of the titles written about in FILM COMMENT. Also present were many of the smaller distributors such as Magnolia Pictures, Janus Films, and Oscilloscope Laboratories who supply the films that help keep theaters in business. A fair amount of vendors, almost all of whom were in the business of digital projection, were on hand. This year AHC became an international event, with a panel that discussed the challenges for art-house theaters in other countries including Britain, South Korea, and Canada.

AHC began in 2006, after the Sundance Institute contacted 14 art-house theater operators to meet as part of a celebration for the 25th Sundance Film Festival, for a discussion about the needs and operations of their theaters.  Twelve of those theaters participated, said Russ Collins, the Art House Convergence chairperson, and executive director of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Sundance Art House

Photo courtesy of Chuck Foxen (Circle Cinema, Tulsa, OK)

“The Sundance staff suggested the idea, which at that time was actually only a meeting before the festival,” Collins recalled.  “Each theater received two film festival passes and we had a single meeting at the Peery Hotel in Salt Lake City.”

Sundance staffers such as current Sundance director John Cooper attended the meeting as did former Sundance executive director Jill Miller.

Over the next year, most of those involved in the meeting stayed in touch and were joined by Connie White, currently the film buyer for Balcony Booking, who became active in planning future conferences. Most importantly, the Sundance staffers were pleased with how the gathering went and scheduled another for 2007. Building on the success, a larger more structured event spanning several days took place the next two years, growing from 25 participants in 2008 to 75 in 2009.

“We outgrew the Peery, and it was decided that the meeting needed to be more formalized.  There was also a huge outdoor expo in Salt Lake during that same time frame, and that is when we moved to Midway,” Collins said.

For the 2010 edition, Amy Beth Leber of the Salt Lake City Film Society, which was one of AHC’s original 12 participants, was able to make arrangements with the Homestead Resort, about 40 miles from Salt Lake, but very close to Park City. Homestead had a homey campus feeling that added to the event’s atmosphere. The new locale also added to the attendance, which went to 125 from 75. This year, AHC’s ranks swelled to nearly 350.

Sundance Art House

Photo courtesy of Chuck Foxen (Circle Cinema, Tulsa, OK)

“AHC is run entirely by volunteers from many of the original 12 venues, including the Coolidge Corner Theater [in Brookline, Massachusetts], Jacob Burns Film Center [Pleasantville, New York], the Belcourt [Nashville], Gary Meyers of the Telluride Film Festival, and others. With the growth, we have picked up a number of sponsors and Sony was very helpful this year, but we need to make sure that it stays a conference and does not become a trade show,” Collins said.

One of the highlights of AHC the last several years has been the benchmark survey compiled by the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and presented by its executive director, Juliet Goodfriend.  Using data compiled from 87 participants, Goodfriend reported the following this year:

— 60% of the theaters are in urban areas

— 90% are independent, 78% are non-profits

— 87% of the patrons are non-student adults, with 35% of that number over age 65

— A total of $73 million in revenue was generated, with 51% from box office receipts

— Most venues were at least slightly profitable or broke even, but 25% ran a deficit

It was also noted that only about a third of the survey participants were using digital projection. Most ranked Facebook as one of the most effective ways of using media, but print advertising, mostly newspapers, was still quite popular, ranking behind weekly email blasts and website announcements and ahead of printed calendars or guides.

Ava DuVernay Art House Sundance

Photo courtesy of Chuck Foxen (Circle Cinema, Tulsa, OK)

Over the course of two-and-a-half days of seminars and panels this year, the convergence covered a range of topics. Panels addressed the ever encroaching need for digital equipment and funding, as well as “Race and Diversity in the Art House” (which challenged programmers to book more films made by African American directors). A series of round-table discussions during a lunch break covered a number of other subjects such as getting better results from the use of social media, working with volunteers, and microcinemas.

A discussion about midnight programming yielded reports of promotional events such as human bowling prior to screenings of The Big Lebowski,  a veal-testicle-eating contest in conjunction with screenings of Cannibal Holocaust,  and “Midnight at Noon,” Saturday afternoon matinees of midnight movies, in venues with older patrons who might not be night owls.

The topic of microcinemas reflected an apparent trend, with a number of theaters popping up in a variety of places such as the Phoenix’s Film Bar and the Trylon in Minneapolis. Microcinemas might be described as small screening spaces that strive to provide intimate and contextual showings of films, from classics to new releases to the avant-garde. Several future owner-operators of micros were at AHC, hailing from Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; and Bend, Oregon.

Attendance at this convergence and the others has never been confined to larger big-city operations.  Representatives from theaters in at least 25 states and Washington D.C. were on hand, ranging in size from part-time art center or university film series programs to multi-screen metro operations.

Sundance Arthouse

Photo courtesy of Chuck Foxen (Circle Cinema, Tulsa, OK)

Rose Ann Hernandez, a board member and treasurer of a film society that operates a single screen, non-profit, all volunteer venue based in Mesilla, New Mexico, was among the first-timers who would like to come back. Hernandez, who has been involved with the film society for over 20 years, attended for several reasons.

“I went with the intention of meeting other like-minded people and picking their brains about what they've done, doing or thinking about doing. I was particularly interested in what others were doing in fundraising and marketing.  I also wanted to meet the distributors to match names with faces,” she explained. 

“I got a lot of information; I'm sifting through it to see what we can implement now and later. The individual conversations were energizing. It felt so good to meet others who work as hard as I do for something we both love and are passionate about.”

Patrick Schweiss, the executive director of the Sedona Film Festival and the Mary D. Fisher Theater, both in Arizona, was attending for the second time. He found out about the event in 2012 from a distributor.

“I learned so much last year that I chose to attend the 2013 AHC rather than going to as many film festivals,” Schweiss said. “My staff really encouraged me to go, especially after attending last year, even though our festival starts in just a few weeks.”

Michael Moore

Needless to say, the event is not all work. A lot of socializing and some deal-making do take place, and there are screenings and entertainment each evening after dinner. The 2011 AHC featured filmmaker Michael Moore as a special speaker, and this year Robert Redford gave a brief talk about the importance of art-house theaters. There was also a special advance screening of one of the films that played at Sundance, Upstream Color, directed by Shane Carruth, whose 2004 film, Primer, won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize that year. Crispin Hellion Glover presented his Big Slide Show (“a one hour dramatic narration of eight different profusely illustrated books he has made over the years”), followed by screenings of several of his short films and a Q&A.

Sony Pictures Repertory screened their newly restored version of Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion on the final night. It served as a preview of 4K digital restorations including On the Waterfront, Lawrence of Arabia, and Groundhog Day (the last of which will be screened “back to back” next month at the Seattle International Film Festival Cinema, according to programmer Clinton McClung).

Above all, it was proven again this year that the art-house world has something going for it that multiplexes will never have: community. As noted in the AHC program guide this year, “art house theaters will remain alive and well and be especially vital if operated and supported as a community-based cultural institution.”