How to Solve the Arthouse Crisis in 5 Easy Steps (Column)


If art houses want to survive the current cinematic apocalypse, they need a collective strategy.

When you run a marathon, mile 25 is the time to start wondering if your legs are going to stick out. In my case last weekend, I was thinking about the future of arthouse. In a state of inhuman exhaustion as I raced down 59th Street and prepared to enter Central Park, I found myself gazing up at the marquee of the Paris Theater, where “Bardo” and “Stranger Things Day” featured prominently. . Between wincing in pain and squinting in sweat, the angle of this week’s column came to mind. How are arthouses across the country — those without the luxury of a major streamer behind them — charting a plan for the future?

Netflix took over Paris in 2019. The one-screen institution remains a favorite project for senior executives there and a handy resource for awards season qualifying races. Until last week, it also had a seasoned curator, with former Museum of the Moving Image program director David Schwartz serving as director of theatrical programming. On Wednesday, Schwartz announced that he would be leaving Paris at the end of the year.

“I want to do something a little more independent,” he told me this week. “The excitement was reviving the theater.”

Programming an indie arthouse is definitely one way to seek out more unpredictable pastures. Working outside the comfort of Netflix-funded Paris means facing the bitter truth that the arthouse business continues to crater at an alarming rate.

Movies like “TÁR” started strong in limited release but dwindled with expansion; even a strong start to “The Banshees of Inisherin” isn’t enough to make a huge dent in the larger equation. Hip releases aimed at young people like “Everything Everywhere All at Once” appear in multiplexes more than in boutique cinemas. Good luck to Schwartz in his future independent endeavors; it’s dreary out there, as many grumpy industry insiders regularly remind me.

Get ready for the optimist: here’s why hope is eternal for the arthouse. Small, locally oriented cultural institutions respond to the needs of their communities in a way that can be adapted to match the larger market without relying exclusively on it. Recent prophecies of doom often miss the forest for the trees: independent arthouses are more than the front lines of film culture. Many exist on a modest scale and that’s essential as audiences continue to shrink.

But all of that only works if they’re smart to work together. The Arthouses lack a unified national support network, but the loose collective known as Art House Convergence is heading in that direction. The Sundance Institute has been its fiscal sponsor for the past year, and AHC recently appointed a new board of trustees that includes entities from grassroots institutions like Film Streams in Omaha, Nebraska, the Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri , and the Over-the-Rine Film Festival in Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s a decent reflection of the effort to preserve the concept of arthouse in America.

Now this makeshift organization must come together with a uniform agenda. I have heard from many people in the industry on this topic and most importantly, it seems crucial that AHC extend its mission beyond the need for inclusive programs and supportive work environments. They must prioritize the practical needs that make independent art houses sustainable.

Here is my modest contribution: a list of five easy steps to ensure their survival, determined in part by examining published data from the AHC survey. Yes, that word “easy” is loaded and will definitely annoy a few people who sweat through these daunting challenges. To which I say: Bring the rage, but also your own ideas (email me: [email protected]).

We can’t judge the effectiveness until the arts and trials have been tried. It’s time to take a holistic approach to keeping the lights on.

Adopt the not-for-profit model

Many art houses have transitioned into nonprofit organizations, but a 2018 survey by AHC and SMU DataArts found that performing arts organizations attract more revenue from individual donors compared to film organizations, even if 40-60% of the income of these film organizations comes from donations. Small organizations don’t need to rely only on the wealthiest people for help. Moviegoers grew up going to the movies there, see the value and donate to keep it alive.

The Belcourt Theater in Nashville, Tennessee

Getty Images

Toby Leonard, longtime director of programming at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, Tennessee, told me that the not-for-profit model has been essential to the theater’s survival. “If we were a commercial cinema showing a movie in a theater four times a day for seven days, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” he said. “You wanna do shit like that, you gotta be a nonprofit. It is invaluable to us.

Short the young audience

For years, the existential terror of art house has revolved around its aging foundations: nerd moviegoers born in the 1940s and 50s. Ultimately, this demographic stuck around long enough to outgrow the habit – the pandemic inspired them to discover streaming and satisfy cultural appetites at home. This leaves many institutions struggling to attract younger audiences. They have to reserve films that interest them, but it’s a vicious circle: distributors don’t want to send their films to theaters without an integrated children’s demo.

“A lot of the old arthouses were dependent on the older audience model,” a longtime booker told me. “They got too dependent on those films and now they’re not bringing in the same returns. It’s a real chicken and egg situation. It is a process that requires real initiative and strategy.

How can a theater prove that it can attract the right demo if it doesn’t already have the movies it wants to see? Continue reading.

Outsource your program to the arts community

Repertory cinema is crucial to many arthouses, but they often rehash the same 4k restorations as their brethren. Rep cinema is fortunate to be unique in having local musicians, comedians and other performing artists curate repertoire series that give off the kind of special occasion vibe that brings out the (more young people) of the house. It also ensures that the arthouse engages with the wider cultural community rather than settling in a distant niche.

Start with the main creations. In New York, many art houses invite filmmakers with new releases to curate series featuring their inspirations. In Paris, the Russo brothers wanted to show “Shoot the pianist” by François Truffaut, and the public responded. You don’t have to be a certified Marvel achievement to manage your influences. Ahead of the stunning dark comedy “Funny Pages”‘s release at the Film at Lincoln Center this summer, director Owen Kline curated a series of twisted cartoonish works by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Tashlin (among others). Filmmakers often seize opportunities to schedule repertory series if asked; they also take out their own networks to see these films.

Make room for genre films that play on commercial cinema

I’m not the biggest “Terrifier 2” fan, but this splatterfest proved that extreme genre cinema generates buzz and draws crowds. However, I refuse to believe that extremism is the only secret of its success; the film did well because horror films often do well, and many theaters don’t show enough. Leonard told me that one of Belcourt’s most popular series is an October horror package — and audiences buy tickets without even knowing the lineup. The genre sells.

This isn’t just true for horror. Consider the perennial appeal of superhero movies: If a theater can book one, it usually will, but even those who can’t can take advantage of its appeal. With “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” released this week, I recall BAM’s seminal “Afrofuturism on Film” series programmed around the first “Black Panther,” which leveraged the lure of a tall studio mast. to attract audiences to a much larger audience. ambitious program. Studio tents aren’t going anywhere; nor the opportunity to exploit them.

Bring TV to the big screen

Back to the marathon. Along with thinking about how gratifying it must be to see “Bardo” in 35mm, my exhausted racing mind also wondered: What is “Stranger Things Day”?

“Stranger Things”

Netflix/Everett collection

Not being a super fan of this bloated sci-fi show, I missed that Netflix turned November 4th into a national celebration of its biggest hit, a shameless marketing tactic that included theatrical events in major cities ranging from Atlanta to Jacksonville. Le Paris screened the final two episodes of the most recent season in full theatrical DCPs and Schwartz said the event sold out quickly. “There will always be a handful of movies that look like events,” he said. “But everything the rest should also look like an event.

Theaters that make room for the occasional blockbuster should also be more sensitive to the excitement of new TV shows. Superfans will see their favorite programs with optimal theatrical picture and sound; they might also see an ad for an upcoming directory series or a limited release movie they want to see as well.

Some might see this sort of programming directive as a betrayal, an acknowledgment that pristine 35mm prints aren’t enough. But ignoring the television side of the equation risks alienating audiences who might discover the joy of the arthouse experience, no matter what brought them there. Being in a space that reflects passion for cinema can be enough to make young viewers feel like they’ve discovered a home away from home, and that’s what makes them want to come back. In this industry, you don’t have to run a marathon to feel like you’re in the middle of a marathon, but it’s worth it if people keep showing up.

As usual, I encourage readers to comment on this column with their own advice, insights and questions that may be addressed in future editions: [email protected]

See previous columns here.

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