Indie Cinema 2017: Art House Convergence Grows

It began as a small exhibitor gathering at the Sundance Film Fest, but now the Art House Convergence is a mecca for indie cinema operators.

The growth attests to 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,” founding director Russ Collins told Variety.

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.

“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.

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.”

There is a new concept, eventizing, which means  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 art house 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.”

“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.”

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.

Twist 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.”

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