The Brave New American Art House

Art House Convergence Welcome Address

by Russ Collins, Director

(Ted's note: I have participated in the AHC three times now.  Over the last 6 years, the American Art House Exhibitors have gotten organized.  Their mission of instituting best practices for community theaters is lifting our culture.  I have found it incredibly inspiring and exciting.  Filmmakers everywhere should take note as to what's afoot.)

January 15, 2013 – for the Art House Convergence conference, Zermatt Resort, Midway, Utah

Welcome to the Art House Convergence. Welcome as we celebrate the Brave New American Art House. Thank you for taking the time and trouble to gather here in Utah with colleagues and friends and, with strangers who will soon be friends, to execute the mission of the Art House Convergence. 

The mission of the Art House Convergence is to increase the quantity and quality of Art House cinemas in North America.  We hope you will help us pursue this mission by: 1) constantly improving your own Art House; 2) helping colleagues make their Art Houses better places for audiences to experience cinema art and 3) working to make all Art Houses serve as highly effective community cultural centers.

This conference would not be possible without the hard work of a dedicated group of volunteers. Thanks to the Art House Convergence Conference Committee – if you participated in one or more of those Friday calls that happen throughout the year as we plan the Art House Convergence, stand and be recognized. 

It is wonderful to see so many of you here! How many are here for the first-time?  Wonderful, welcome to Utah to the Art House Convergence.  How many of you are staying, for at least a day or two to go to Park City and check out the Sundance Film Festival?

I see a lot of friends; friends that have grown from the 25 brave souls who came to the first Art House Convergence to this year, with nearly 350 registered delegates, the sixth annual gathering of community-based, mission-driven cinema operators.

The strong theme of this year’s conference is The Brave New American Art House. So, what’s the Brave New American Art House? 

The Brave New American Art House is a set of ideals that looks something like this:

  • It is located in Canada, Mexico or the USA.
  • It is focused on frequent and regular screenings of Art House movies – classic, foreign, documentary, independent and experimental cinema (and sometimes other cultural programs the community demands).
  • It actively seeks community support – it believes philanthropy and volunteers are important and viable sources of revenue and support.
  • It is a cultural institution – it teaches its community about the art, craft, grammar and historical importance of cinema.
  • As possible, it is dedicated to quality celluloid AND digital exhibition methods – providing state-of-the-art image and sound across all eras and formats (including live music for silent-era films).
  • It believes excellent customer service is paramount – it trains its employees and manages its marketing, facilities, event presentations and staff to put the customer’s experience first.
  • It makes cinema come alive – with intelligently curated programs and ever expanding relationships with living filmmakers.
  • It is community-based – it is not part of a national chain.
  • It is mission-driven – it has a triple bottom line: Bottom lines calculated in: 1) community benefit; 2) artistic quality; and 3) financial success.
  • Its business management is strategic – it plans effectively and does not expect Deus ex Machina* to magically provide for its financial success.
  • The Brave New American Art House annually sends staff and board members to the Art House Convergence to have fun learning and being inspired by dedicated and resourceful colleagues.

The “Brave New” of the Brave New American Art House is an intentional literary reference to both Aldous Huxley and Shakespeare – because, you know, Art House people are just a little smarter and better-read than your average movie exhibitor (some might say “snooty,” rather than smarter and better read, but I think “smarter and better read” works better with this crowd). In Huxley’s novel “Brave New World” he expressed the notion that the fast-paced world of the future would force dehumanizing changes, causing anxiety, the loss of intimacy and individuality. Plus, Huxley predicted that movies in year 2540 would be called “feelies,” a cinema-style entertainment that creates the illusion of an entertainment reaching out and literally touching the audience. Which given the ironic nature of the novel supports the poetic notion that 3-D is the movie technology of the future – and it always will be!

Of course Huxley and the Convergence both stole the phase “brave new” from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” The play’s most famous lines are said by the Prospero’s daughter Miranda, who looked on in wonder as drunken sailors stagger in a disorderly manner from their wrecked ship, and said:

“O wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in't.”

 And although Shakespeare’s words spoken by the naïve Miranda were ironic, I believe, stated without irony, that this “brave new” notion is correct, because today and for the next several days the Zermatt and Homestead resorts will be full of goodly people; goodly community-based, mission-driven Art House people. How beauteous it is; O brave new world, to have such people, such Art House people in’t!

The ethos of the Art House Convergence is a commitment to quality, openness and community. It is the antithesis of the “whatever the market will bear,” cutthroat and mass market dynamics of commercial exhibition. Please know I’m not saying one is better than the other – both of these business dynamics are viable, even needed, but the ethos of each are juxtaposed. The Art House Convergence ethos embraces the notion that philanthropic subsidy from a community will create a stable, culturally significant center for cinema to be experienced, taught, supported and loved for cinema’s intrinsic artistic and cultural worth and for civic enrichment of communities.

The community-based, mission-driven exhibitor is a powerful but subtle aspect of the movie business; too subtle to be deeply appreciated in a blockbuster obsessed media or in a greed driven entertainment industry.  And, let’s be honest the Art House movement will not create millionaires and it will not be the hot new thing that transforms media culture.

At this point cinema is an old art form, like painting and writing, sculpture and dance, theater and music. Although artists always do new things with their forms of art, the art of cinema itself is now an old form. It can no longer be a shiny new thing and that’s OK; because cinema presented on a big screen in a darkened room full of strangers is a great thing; a profound thing that can deeply move the human psyche and transform lives.

Although the financial scale of the Art House, compared to half-a-billion dollar superhero blockbuster, is rather small, it is significant and the long-term impact is critically important; because the Art House plays an essential role in preserving and promoting the best and the brightest of cinema for diverse audiences.  Your Art House is a sacred shrine and home to the most profound form of creative expression created in recent human time.  

And just as important, Art Houses are exciting, sustainable and practical venues that effectively bolster the vitality of local neighborhoods and transform lives through the creative vision of the people who work there and the poignant cinema found in these remarkable little arts institutions.

Over the decades, the Art House community has had a hard time finding its voice, a hard time believing it is in fact a community and a hard time feeling like it is a citizen in the wider cinema world. But now, with the Art House Convergence we have found our collective voice, we are starting to believe in our potential and we are growing the number of communities throughout North America who are demanding community-based, mission-driven Art House cinemas in their towns.

Your Art House as a key community institution – feel it, own it. You provide a vital service and you are an important economic driver in your neighborhood. Being a community-based, mission-driven, not-for-profit Art House you can be much more than a mere movie venue and employer, or a recipient of charity and coordinator of volunteers. You are a flagship asset, an essential cog and an indispensable part of a healthy community.

Over the next few days, what will be most important for those of us gathered here in Utah is to feel the strength and joy of being among kindred souls, of benefiting from shared knowledge and experience and feeling anchored to this non-profit Art House movement.

Welcome to the 2013 Art House Convergence celebrating The Brave New American Art House. We hope all delegates, who this year come from around the world, will share with great enthusiasm all that is wonderful and brave and new about their Art House and their community. Thank you for coming to the Convergence. And as the Bard of Stratford on Avon almost said, “How beauteous it is; O brave new world, to have such people, such Art House people in’t!” Enjoy the 2013 Art House Convergence.

* Deus ex Machina is something that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly into a narrative or system that provides a seemingly miraculous solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty – like expecting a handful of box office hits or some amazing marketing, business management or technology solution to make running an Art House profitable. In the long-term depending on Deus ex Machina type solutions is ineffective and often implies a lack of creativity and strategic management effectiveness.

From Russ Collins

CEO, MichiganTheater-AnnArbor

Director, Art House Convergence


Is Independent Exhibition/Distribution Saved? Or Doomed...

Was it good news for film lovers everywhere that Cinedigm, a company that provides smaller theaters with digital projection, said it helped arrange funding to save 3,000 screens from extinction when studios phase out film prints of movies?

Early this month I wrote about how Independent Exhibition & Distribution In The US Is Seriously Threatened by the conversion to digital.  If only it was simple as putting in the digital projectors and servers.  Don't get me wrong, that's a great leap forward... in some ways.

Virtual Print Fees (VPFs) may provide a way for exhibitors to afford the equipment to go digital, but they indirectly, but severely, limit the type of films that can play theatrically.  The answer to a Grand Abundance of movies is not to limit accessibility but to curate audiences as well as films.  We have to give communities what they are hungry for… but between exhibiton splits & VPFs only films that can afford to buy (not build) audiences can truly be distributed.  

The math is simple.  Let's say exhibitors take at a 60/40 split at the box office.  A small film might hope to do $2500/week. That means that the distributor is left with $1000.  The VPF is generally $800 I believe.  That means if they are 10% off that projection, they loss money playing that theater.  And from the filmmaker perspective, when the the distributor is taking a 30% fee on rentals, you are in in the hole no matter what.  And that doesn't take in the fact that costs, plus mark up and interest are in front of the line.  

Say good-bye to small movies playing theatrically.  Unless something else is done

It's so ironic that the promise of digital delivery was a more diverse menu for audiences, but it is proving to be anything but.

Another problem with the digital exhibition set-up was recently pointed out to me.  Back in the days of film, when a movie was performing better than expected, all the exhibitor had to do was move the print to a bigger room.  Ditto when it was bombing, the film went whoosh into a smaller room.  DCP's give the studios more control over what room a film plays in in the multiplex than ever before.  If they book BATTLESHIP into the big room and it dogs, guess what?  No move over because the DCP's key code only works for that projector -- unless you get on the horn and track down the distributor and the flunkey on the phone gets the aproval of the uberlord to allow a move over.  Too much friction prevents efficiencies of old from taking hold.

Independent Distribution In America Is Seriously Threatened

And the reason is because independent exhibition is even more seriously threatened.  This is likely the last year of 35mm projection and the problem of that goes much deeper than whether you appreciate grain or not.

Sure the promise of digital projection & delivery is partially lower costs, but the cost of conversion is out of reach of many small exhibitors.  The funding scheme that many theater chains have utilized, instituting in a Virtual Print Fee (VPF), puts the financial return in jeopardy for indie films -- we could not play DARK HORSE in theaters that required a VPF because after the film rental split, another $800 in VPF risks having us not just not make money, but lose money.

The studios all require the theaters to be DCI compliant.  The cost of being so is out of reach for smaller theaters.  Yet, the studio, and their specialized subsidiaries, represent such a large share of the box office, theater owners have to consider this move.  But if distributors don't want to lose that $800 that goes to the VPF, can the same theater offer projection on one of the many cheaper systems.  Why not?  Because evidently the MPAA went to The Supreme Court and got them to approve an exception to the anti-trust laws and require all the theaters to sign a no-compete clause and use just a single platform.  This sucks and is not what I expect from a country that prides itself on being the "Land Of Opportunity".  

A former intern of mine, Ricky Camilleri, hosted a great conversation on this topic on HuffPostLive.  His guests include

Here it is that discussion non-live.


Two further notes: I have to say I really like this style of Google HangOut forum for discussion, particularly with the added in comments and questions from the audience/community.  It feels very participatory.
I wanted to title this "Independent EXHIBITION In America Is Seriously Threatened" but I suspect that "Distribution" will make more folks read this post.  More and more as I look at what is the lifeblood of independent cinema culture I come to exhibition.  They should be are heroes.  The industry and culture needs to celebrate them far more than we do.  The era of the filmmaker/exhibitor collaboration should already be here -- but it's not.  Shall we try to fix that too?

Rise Up And Curate! (Part 1 of 2): CINEFIST AND LIVE EVENTS

Today's guest post if from filmmaker Zak Forsman.

If you haven’t heard of CINEFIST yet, let me explain what it is: myself, Kevin Shah, Jamie Cobb, Neha Shah and Erik Reese -- all members of the Sabi Pictures family -- needed a new company to separate the production of our films from the distribution and exhibition of them. CINEFIST was born out of that need. When people ask, I say "it handles all things distribution and exhibition."

If you were to visit the web site you’d see that in addition to an online store (selling DVDs, soundtracks and posters), there is a section for our Quarterly Los Angeles Screening Series and some tools and services on the horizon like our own VOD portal, a private invitation-only community forum, and a digital cinema census. For the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on the screening series, why we started it and what we’ve learned about live events.

In September 2009, I was reading this blog, Ted's blog, and an new article entitled “18 Actions Towards A Sustainable Truly Free Film Community”. In that article he listed a number of areas where a member of our community could deepen their involvement through mentoring, collaborating, learning, evolving and more. As I went through the list, I was happy to note that we were doing each of these in one form or another with one exception -- curating. We weren’t involved in supporting other filmmakers’ work or elevating our local community’s awareness of the works we admired.

Around the same time, Jim Kirst of the Downtown Independent Theater in Los Angeles had invited me to program a regular night at his theater. He probably had something different in mind than what I proposed but he was happy to have us experiment with a new model. So we began with the following goals: To provide a path for an audience to discover independent films, to have filmmakers participate in box office revenue, and to elevate the level of audience participation in a theatrical setting.

I sought out ways for the audience to be involved in the curation process, in the hope that they would feel invested in the selection of films, giving them cause to return to each subsequent screening. Borrowing from something Lance Weiler pioneered at a FROM HERE TO AWESOME event, we created a system using Poll Everywhere, where the audience could watch two trailers, then use their cell phone to send in a keyword vote via text message, and see the results instantly on the theater’s screen.

In addition, we wanted to raise the perceived value of a $10 ticket, so we’ve coupled each screening with additional components like live bands and educational presentations. When we screened Tom Quinn’s The New Year Parade [VID 1, VID 2], his lead actor’s band played us out after a rewarding Q&A. At another, artist-entrepreneur Justin Evans did a two hour presentation [VID] on leveraging state and federal tax incentives to lower the risk of investing in microbudget features. This was followed by a screening of his film A Lonely Place For Dying, a Q&A and a live band featuring a member of the cast. Most recently, we invited filmmakers Gregory Bayne and Gary King to discuss their successful Kickstarter campaigns [VID] in a fireside chat before Gary’s newest film What’s Up Lovely:

We ended that night on the rooftop bar of the Downtown Independent Theater mingling with new fans and forging new friendships. That night in particular we had well over 50% of attendees sign-up for the CINEFIST mailing list.

Part Two continues tomorrow.

Zak Forsman
[Sabi Pictures | Twitter | Facebook]

The Price For (Most) Cinema Should Now Be Zero

Ticket prices for movies in the US keep rising.  The LA Times reported that the average cost is now about $8.00.  That's what I pay for Netflix where I get WatchNow! movies for no additional cost.  I have a typical NYC apartment where the width is about 15 ft wide; that's enough to have a 8 ft projector screen and a good spread of sound.    As much as I love to watch films with a crowd and great projection it is hard to justify spending more money when I suspect the films are not as good as the ones I get for $0 directed by Godard and Kurosowa. As filmmakers, the question we need to ask is: what is the added value that we can bring to the live cinema experience that justifies the additional cost for our films over the ones others can easily get for free. The films I get at home offer convenience, comfort, quality sound & image, affordable & personalized refreshments,  and no unpleasantries inflicted via strangers.  The films I get in the theater are new; is that alone really worth the price?  Can any price be justified just so they can get me out of the home and have another opportunity to sell me something?

I go to the movies far more often than most and pay 50% higher than the national average when I do so.  Why do I go?  I go to the movie theater for nostalgia factor and for political reasons (to support my industry and culture) -- at least those are the reasons that make the most sense to me.  I go to the movies also because I like to get out of the house, and it's patterned behavior, but that doesn't justify the price point.

Is the price point for theatrical exhibition justified by  the distributors' practice of manufacturing the desire and limiting the access for specific content?  If I can't get it at home, would I trade an annual subscription to a magazine or a month worth of unlimited access to catalogue titles (via Netflix) for seeing it in a theater?  And since I prefer to see movies with my wife is the event worth two magazines or two months (or three if we want popcorn with those tickets)?  Forget about piracy; sure people can steal it or copy it, but even when you consider the legal alternatives, the price point of cinema these days is not justified when we consider the superior value of other leisure time alternatives.

The Exhibitor Audience Collaboration

I ran into Chris Dorr last week and had a good conversation with him about the many different ways the film world needs to engage with social media. One of the ideas here offered was exhibitors and festivals utilizing FourSquare. I tweeted the genius idea and sure enough soon learned that at least one film festival was ahead of the curve. AMERICAN SPLENDOR created a soft spot in my heart for Cleveland and now learning what the Cleveland International Film Festival was up to brought a sweet pang of joy. What's FourSquare you ask? CIFF explains:

Foursquare, a social networking tool for mobile devices, is a cross between a friend-finder, a social city-guide, and a game that rewards you for doing interesting things. Anytime you log your location with Foursquare, you earn points that translate into virtual “badges.” Frequenting a place more than anyone else will earn you the title of “Mayor.”

My only question though is what does becoming Mayor of CIFF get you? It's the kind of thing that I think all festivals should engage in and Mayor status should bring a free pass for next year. Theaters should also do the same and offer free tickets.

Simple promotions awarding the monthly "Mayor" is just the start of things that could come from a FourSquare alliance.  Mike Vogel pointed out that filmmakers could come up with ways to entice people who had earned a "Swarm" badge with 50+ attendees.  What such ideas do you have to share?

Let's recognize and accept that it is not just the movie that audiences want, but also the social experience. We have to work harder to find ways to enhance that. One thing is for sure though, the more you know the regulars at a theater then more you feel at home -- and the more you feel at home the more that you are going to be there.

Update 3/21:  The comments below are full of good ideas.  I hope the film festivals & exhibitors  listen (and foursquare too).  Please let me know of any that are doing it right (and why) as you come across them.

Fathom & Cinedigm: reinventing cinema entertainment

Tuesday's post on  A POWERFUL NOISE introduced me to Fathom.  It seems like a great service but I have no idea about the pricing.   I am curious to hear more from folks that have used it.

From Fathom's website:

Fathom, the entertainment division of National CineMedia (NCM), is reinventing the who, what, when, where and how of cinema entertainment. It’s a revolutionary concept that uses NCM’s vast nationwide Digital Content Network to deliver truly one-of-a-kind entertainment events — all showcased in amazing High Definition with Cinema Surround Sound — to movie theatre audiences across North America. And each benefits from extensive marketing support.

Working directly with the country’s leading entertainment producers, Fathom offers unique marketing and distribution opportunities for highly coveted programming: live concerts, theatrical and DVD premieres, live broadcasts from The New York Metropolitan Opera, sports events, exclusive stand-up comedy engagements and much more.

The Digital Content Network is comprised of more than 14,500 digital screens, with 75% of the screens in the top 49 markets. This puts well over half of US households within 10 miles of the theatres, including Regal Cinemas, United Artists, Edwards Theatres, AMC Theatres, Cinemark/Century, Clearview Cinemas, Kerasotes Theatres, Goodrich Quality Theaters, Hoyts Theatres, Marcus Theatres, Malco Theatres, National Amusements Theatres and Georgia Theatre Company. Additionally, Fathom has limited distribution in local performing arts centers and theatres in specific markets.

Fathom’s technical staff receives, tests, encrypts and digests source content for seamless playback over the network to all participating theatres’ auditoriums. Each auditorium is tested for optimum audio and visual presentation prior to event day. Plus, Fathom has a dedicated “event management” department that manages all troubleshooting before, during and after the event to ensure its success.

It's mostly been opera, concerts, and anime so far, but they have also presented This American Life and a live event with the film IOUSA.  The full list is here.

Another similar service is Cinedigm, which to date seems to have focused solely on live events.
Michael Walker over at PangoFilms just tipped me to this announcement in BusinessWeek that says that focus is about to change.  They have just done a distribution pact with Olympus Pictures  for some indie films. Things a be a changin'...

This Is How I Would Like It

But alas, I think I have to move to Brazil to get it.  I was reading in Variety, how a distributor (Rain) there has gotten all their art cinemas to go digital and use the same software management system, enabling them to get their films via satellite.  They then allow the audiences to organize themselves via a social network platform and select what films they want to see where and when.

Rain's COD will allow moviegoers, grouped in online film clubs, to recommend what films play when and where over Rain's digital cinema network.

Once exhibitors slot a film, virtual cinema club members can buy tickets, refer further wishlists to friends and, exploiting MovieMobz's social networking system, let other people know what films they're attending.

"For the first time in the market, we are offering new opportunities for the entire cinema chain: Consumers can choose their content; exhibitors can more efficiently program their screens; and content licensors can more easily find their audience," Lima said.

MovieMobz will book film screenings of new and old features as well as niche content.

Ahh..... one day soon, maybe America will catch up.