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ART HOUSE MOVIE THEATERS ARE PART THE OF AMERICAN FABRIC, MAKING CAMMUNITIES WHERE THEY HAVE SURVIVED

MORE LIVABLE. HOW SO DO WE KEEP THEM VITAL?
his year the AngelikaFilm Centerin New York City will mark a quarter-centuryof screeningart housefare. The theater has becomewell known for its eclecticofferings.Besides a selectnumber of studio-drivenfilms, its programmersencourage independentmoviemal<ers without distribution deals to submit their films directly for exhibition consideration.It standstoday amongthe most successful and recognizedmovie art housesin the country,with satellitesin Texas and Virginia. And its mission to bring smaller,more unique and lower-budgetfilms (at leastby Holli,'wood standards)to the public is the samemission of hundreds of art housecinema programsthroughout the country, someof them curated at settingsoutsidethe traditional movie theater, such as museums,universitiesand festivals. Yet in this current paradigm shift in the way we watch movies-with panicky exhibitors reporting falling theatrical reiturns-where doesthe humble art housestand? Doesits position left of center let it dodgethe VOD meteor hurtling straight towardsthe multipiex, or leaveit adrift without anything to hold on to?The prognosis, it seems, is optimisticas long aswe the peoplecare enoughto act in the footstepsof a number of pioneeringart housechampions. How art housesfit into the industry model may seemslmple: to lend exposure to films deemednot commercial enough (whether stylisticallyor in subject matter) to otherwise make it to a screen. But from an audience's standpoint, the role they. play is arguablymore valuable-promoting culture and community by bringing peopletogether for a singularcollectiveexperience,edifying a public that cravesa broader, more rounded cinematic educationthan the commercialstuff can teach. Russell Collins,CEOof Ann Arbor's Michigan Theaterand Director of the Art HouseConvergence, an annual conference for art houseowners,operatorsand allied businesses, describes the art houseas fundamentallycommunity-basedand missiondriven."Community-based means... custom-built for the dynamicsof the community, and mission-drivenmeansthey,re

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focusedon the art form and benefitting their community," he said."It's both a communitarian and cultural way of thinking about the cinemabusiness." "Beingconnectedto your community,you have a role in defining that community," he r,rritesin his blog at arthouseconvergence.org. "Many of our neighborsseemto need the experienceof gatheringcommunallyto experiencestoriesand receive information. The art houseis that place,because it is the community's living room, or better still, the communal campfire where people can learn, be entertained and transported by storiesthat are spun by that most brilliant of story tellers-the motion picture." At the Hollywood Theatrein Portland,Oregon,that sense of neighborhoodseemsalive and well. The theater,which openedin 1,926to hostvaudeville in additionto movies, and is Iisted in the National Register of Historic Places, had fallen into disrepair and demotedto a second-rundiscount movie house. In 7997 the nonproflt Film Action Oregonbought the building and has sincetransformedthe theater into a local center for film screeningand education. "We'vebeenvery luclqz. Portlandis a movie-goingtown. Per capita,we have more screens than anyr,vhere elseln the country," said JustenHarn, the Hollyr,vood Theatre'sDirector of Programsand Community Engagement. "Peopleare getting to know their neighbors.I think there's intergenerational going on. And I think alsowe're bringing artists exchange together to collaboratein waysthey may not otherwise. "We havereallymadeit a priority to reachout to artists,fllmmakers,community members, to incorporatethem into our processJ what we're doing here at the theater.We alsomal<e sure there arevariouspoints of access to people,too, and that we're programmlng,but at the sametime just showcasing challenging things that are fun, accessible and that help to build community." Similar righteousenergycoursesthrough the CoolidgeCorner Theatrein Brooldine,Massachusetts, where iocalsrallied to keep the movie houseopen afler its long-time owner wanted out of the business, Accordingto Andrew Thompson,Theatre OperationsDirector, the story goesthat a group of patrons

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encircledthe building holding hands and eventuallyraised the funds to purchaseit. Todaythe Coolidge,built in 1906 as a church and then renovatedas a movie palacein 1933, leases its spaceas a nonprofit foundation. It welcomes200,000 attendeesannually to a wide-ranging slate of independent, foreign-language,documentary and animated films. "We're a destination point. Peoplecome to CoolidgeCorner to seea movie here and go to the restaurantsand shops.I think that's grown quite a bit in the past 15 years,"Thompson said."There's a lot of local families, students from BostonUniversity and other schoolsnearby,and there's a large population of senior citizensright in the immediate neighborhood." Collins' Michigan Theater hosts a varied audienceaswell and maintains a strong relationship with University of Michigan's ScreenArts and Culture Department (Collins himself teachesat EasternMichigan University,just sevenmiles away). He attributes the longevity of his theater, around for 34 years, to Ann Arbor's "lon$ tradition of celebratingcinema," even through the cable-TVand home-videobooms.His theory is that the town developed ils passion for cinemaas lar back as the beginning of the automobile industry which drew college studentsinterested in technologyto Michigan. At that time, fllm also was a burgeoning and innovative technology. But just as discerning drt house fare fosters.community, so too does communify determine what that fare should be. In some areas,better-knor,tm indies and even a bit of mainstream commercial stuff may be on the movie menu. As Harn noted, art house cinema is about showing passionatepeople things they're enthusiastic about. Otherwise, the outcome is much lessmeaningfuland impactful. "Itls entirely about your market," assertedPatrick Corcoran, Vice Presidentand Chief Communications Officer for the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO),which handles the public image of the film industry and assists with industry-wide issuesinvolving the studios. government and reguiators."Ifyou look at a larger circuit or chain that's known for art house,Iike Landmark, in a lot of their locations they've moved into sort of a hybrid of playing obscure independents,mainstream independents and also just mainstream Hollywood movies, as well, to provide a mix. That again is going to depend on the sizeof your market, the size of your theater, how many screens.you've got." Collins agreed:"What the expectationis in New York City is much different than a small tov,'nin western lGnsas.A New York art house may do a few commercial movies and a few moviesthat may stretchtheir audience's interest,somehistorical retrospectives, documentaries,foreign-language fllms." As

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.,THESE INDEPENDENT CINEMAS (lFTHEMSETVES Ttl]THINK TNEE]I NtlT IUST AS BUSINESSES, BUT AS ACUITURAI IIYNAMIC THAT CAN EFFECTIVELY t|PERATE WITH IN ACIIMMUNITY.''
many art housesare nonproflts, in contrast to big-box theaters, their mission allows for a tremendousamount of flexibility and risk-taking in programming. Collins himself embracessmart programming of a broader nature. 'At the Michigan Theater this May,we played (BazLurhmann's) TheGreatGatsbg.Whl? We're a 1920s movie palace,so doing a movie that celebrates the 1920swas a nice fit. Second, it openedthe Cannes Film Festival,so the art houseaudiencewas interested in that." Betweendistributors, film festivals,other pro$rammers and local indie moviemakers,art house bookers have plenty of channelsto mine for material. Someeven invest in production and then screentheir completed projects. The Hollywood Theatre, for example,offers a flscal sponsorshipprogram that vets applicants with its board. Potential recipients must demonstrate they have the experienceand resources necessary to bring their projects to fruition. The theater has worked extensivelywith Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, helping fund their Independent Spirit Award-nominated October Countrg(support for which enabled its releaseon 35mm), aswell as their secondfiImOffLabeLTheir third fllm is currently in preproduction. Apart from the material, however, related programming and presentation are key to keeping viewers coming, and therein lies the need for constant innovation. Many art houses,particularly nonprofits, provide some degreeof education,

WINTER 2014

whether it's teachingthe art form or offering film appreciaTherealsoare Q&Aswith fllmmakers,themed tlon classes. and seriessuch as the Coolidge Corner'sScience on Screen, lil<e experience, special tie-insro createa more immersive when the HollywoodTheatreservedcherry pie, donuts and coffeeat a screening of Twin Peaks. and it's constant"There'smore mediathan everbefore... ly accessible," Harn said."Sofor us, it's reallybeenimportant to get people excited about just what's specialabout going out to a film. And that is to createexperiences that are event-like,that can't be replicated at home." Still, aswith everybusiness, art housestoday facecompulsory changes and challenges in the way they operate."The biggest thing everyonein this industry has had to deal with in the past flve yearsis this film-to-digital conversionor transition," said Thompson."Fundraisingfor generalrestorationand DCPsfdigital cinema projectors],that was a significant challenge." Currently, about 91 per"Thirfy-fivemillimeter is goingaway. cent of screens are digital in the U.S.-about B0 percentof theCorcoran. aters-and that's just goingto continue,"noted NATO's for lessand lesssense "Andasthosenumbersget higher, it mal<es in fllm, because it becomes too expensive distributorsto release for eachprint and you haveto justify that coston the return you expectfrom it. It's alsoharder for indie distributors.Some of them are havingtrouble making the transition to digital.It's a differentway of distributing and preparingyour movie." misBut if evidenceof the stayingpower of community-based, sion-drivenart housecinemasis needed,look no further than Attendanceat the organization's the Art HouseConvergence. afar 2013 annualgathering ballooned to morethan 350 people, sixyearsago. cry from the 25 attendingits first conference "They'relike weeds,you can't kill them," said Collinsof art

houses, with a satisfledlaugh.'An innovation we've promoted is for theseindependentcinwith the Art HouseConvergence not just as businesses, but as a cuiemasto think of themselves within a community." tural dynamicthat can operateeffectively Collinsalsopointed out that beforethe early 19 Z0s the inbut rather a condustry was not organizedaround blockbusters, sistentrelease of all typesof films. To this day "there are small, fragilewonderful fllms and it's nice to havea forum for them." "lt's the samereasonyou don't want to have one channel on TV that only showsspofis," said Thompsonof the need for art housecinema."Peoplehave many different interestsand if to them, then that's all they're there'sonly one thing available going to know about or understand.It's important to know the narrow range what elseis going on in the world besides that Hollyra,rood and big industry is putting out there." perspective, art houses will continueto be a From Corcoran's but vital part of the film industry and movie-goingexperience, he cautionedthat with all of the availabiechannelsto access product, one of the big difflculties for the industry as a whole is grabbingand keepingpeople'sattention. "You haveto l<now your audiencebetter and you haveto know where they're $oing. I think the art houses,particularly the indie onesthat are with their tied into their community, need to be really engaged local audience and usethat connection." the commercial The art housesectorhas "existedalongside the well-operatedartdynamic for a very long time. Because about housetheater is closeto its community and passionate it can survive changes that the art form that it celebrates, might be lessacceptedin the commercialdynamic," Collins said.'And cinema is such a valuable,important and psychologicallyimpactful kind of art form, it has transcendedbeing eclipsedby technology,"uru