Community Spirit: Convergence founder Russ Collins reflects on the relevance of art houses

Cinemas Features

The timing was almost perfect. 

In the early 1980s, as Russ Collins was completing his graduate degree in Arts Administration at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Michigan Theater, a former movie palace from the 1920s, was on the verge of being turned into a food court. The community saved it, but when volunteers tried to run it, they floundered. In 1982, they hired Collins, and he began his long career as its executive director. Now, fully restored and operated as a not-for-profit cinema and performing-arts facility, the Michigan Theater has been named the Outstanding Historic Theatre in North America by the League of Historic American Theatres.

Along the way, Collins turned his talent for business and his passion for independent cinema into a continually expanding career. Today, he’s executive director of both the Michigan Theater and Ann Arbor’s State Theatre. He’s also artistic director of the Cinetopia International Festival in Detroit. And he’s the founding director of the Art House Convergence.

The 2018 annual conference of the Art House Convergence takes place Jan. 15-18 in Midway, Utah. Over four days, there are dozens of speakers, 20 educational sessions, several film screenings, and lots of opportunities for art-house cinema operators to learn from one another. In a wide-ranging conversation, Collins began by talking about the conference’s progress since its inception.

On the beginnings of the conference

In 2006, Sundance invited 14 respected art-house cinemas from around the country to join them at the Sundance Film Festival to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Sundance Institute. We were one of the theatres selected. We got together with our colleagues and had a wonderful time, sharing problems and solutions and war stories. Sundance invited us back the second year so we could continue the dialogue. In the third year—2008—we went off on our own and started the first Art House Convergence conference. 

That first year, twenty-seven people attended. Last year, we registered 620 delegates; this year, we’re expecting to have to turn people away. There have been many people who’ve attended our conferences and said: “I want to start a community-based, mission-driven cinema in my home town”—and they did. But I can’t think of any established theatres that have come to the conference and have gone out of business.

On this year’s conference themes

We’re focusing on two important legal and ethical issues. One is how well art-house cinemas do—or do not—deal with diversity and inclusion. The other has recently dominated weeks of the news cycle: harassment and intimidation—particularly sexual harassment and intimidation. But we’ll also be talking about what theatres do in terms of programming, marketing and operations. 

The role of the conference is to gather people who are passionate about cinemas and local communities and willing to share information about how they’re achieving success and how they can do things better. They help each other through their collective experiences; they discuss their successes and their failures honestly with their colleagues.

The conference has exclusively a cinema focus. But the ethos and the history of performing arts—which as late as the early 20th century were exclusively commercial enterprises and then gradually developed both a commercial and cultural dynamic—provide a good model for cinema exhibition. Art-house cinemas often are operated as highly commercial enterprises—and simultaneously as institutions that focus intently on artistic and cultural aspects. 

On learning from other performing arts

My background and training are in nonprofit performing arts, and what I’ve contributed to art-house cinema is helping them to think of themselves as a cultural organization that is of great benefit to their local community. That’s how nonprofit arts organizations function—as community-based philanthropic organizations. And since cinemas have the same pressures and face the same issues as other performing arts, I used to wonder why there wasn’t that same thinking going on for cinema.

We often consider cinema as exclusively a commercial business. But we don’t do that with music, for example. With music, we understand there’s a commercial part—and another part that’s more cultural. And there are parts in between. And it seems to me that cinema should be thought about the same way. That’s especially important in smaller towns, where cinemas may need community support—beyond just ticket sales—to survive. That’s where this notion of culturally based cinema programs exists—and that’s part of what the Art House Convergence is about.

On the enduring purpose of the Art House Convergence

Convergence is a “coming together” of art-house cinemas. We don’t care if they’re for-profit or not-for-profit—all we care about is that they’re community-based and passionate about programming for the community. We think of them as “community-based, mission-driven.” Independent cinema—art house cinema—it’s the same thing.

The purpose of the Art House Convergence is to increase the quantity and quality of art-house cinemas in North America. Every year, about 900 movies are released into the North American market—and each art house is a curator to a certain degree. How do we match the films available with the interests and tastes of the communities we serve? That doesn’t always mean showing them the films that they “want”; sometimes, it’s showing them the films they need to see—so we have to be a little ahead of the community’s curve in terms of taste, but we can’t be too far ahead, because if we do we can leave the audience behind. It’s a tricky balancing act.

Quality has also to do with operating the theatre. How well do we inform our community about the films we’re playing? How good is our customer service? How good is the image on the screen? How good does the audio sound? Are we being a good curator? Are we thinking about that long arc of quality—and not just the short term? Do we know—and are we responding effectively to—our community? Those are the qualitative aspects we’re focusing on. In terms of quantity, we’re convinced the number of independent cinemas is increasing and attendance is stable—but success is in the hands of the local art-house operators and in how effectively their communities support them.

On being not-for-profit

There can be certain fiscal advantages to being a nonprofit, mostly because you’re compelled to engage with your community and have your community engage with you. But if someone becomes a nonprofit simply as a tax dodge, they typically won’t succeed, ultimately.

If you look around the country, many places don’t have an independent or art-house cinema, so I think there’s a lot of opportunity for growth. The thing that independent cinema can and should do best is to think about themselves as a community cultural institution—even if they’re a commercial business. That requires them to get involved in their community—be members of the Chamber of Commerce, volunteer for community service projects, serve on boards, be thought of as a community leader. All of that helps people see them not just as the local movie house, but as someone who is thinking carefully about the quality of the community and how the cinema can broadly benefit the community. That’s how they can remain vital.

In the “digital cinema panic era,” many small for-profit and not-for-profit cinemas discovered their communities really loved them because when they said, “We’re going to go out of business because we can’t afford a digital projector,” in many places around the country their community stepped up and supported them. The cinemas were surprised. But I think that’s how an independent cinema can continue to thrive—by being connected to their community.

On what constitutes success for art-house cinemas

Maintaining your passion and paying your bills are important, but an independent theatre should be run with passion; it has to be motivated by passion before profit. It’s not that you don’t want to make money; every business—whether it’s for-profit or not-for-profit—has to end up taking in more money than it spends. But art-house cinemas are businesses of passion and they can succeed in any town, large or small, if they have the right group of people who are smart about business—and dedicated to their community. 

On the difference between large chains and small independents

If you’re a national chain, you make your money by applying a formula broadly across a wide geographical area. There are national chains in all kinds of businesses—not just cinema—and they’re run by smart businesspeople. But there are also very successful local businesses and they usually distinguish themselves by being uniquely connected to their community. My boss is my community, it’s not someone in an office in some major city. I don’t think that makes me a better cinema, but it does mean that I can operate by a different business model.

My uncle ran a hardware store in a small town in southern Missouri at a time when Walmart was putting local hardware stores out of business. He did just fine in the face of their challenge because if people had an issue, they knew they could talk to my Uncle Bill. He knew them, he could relate to their problems, he was involved in his community. He’d be fair, but he was also a good businessman. Large cinemas do fine, but some people really want that special local connection—and we also play many movies they can’t really find anywhere else.

On the importance of learning the language of film

Young people today are much more savvy in terms of cinema repertoire because such a vast array of films are available for them to watch on Blu-ray, DVD, at their local library and via streaming. Two-year-olds have Disney movies memorized from watching them on iPads. Even people who like to go to the cinema typically see more movies at home on their TV or computer screen than they see in a theatre. That’s been true for many years. Still, most people are generally ignorant about the nature of cinema language. It’s like they’ve had a lot of stories read to them but they’ve never learned to read or understand English grammar. Generally, people understand the stories movies tell, but they don’t understand how the art form is composed or the techniques used to tell the story.

That cinema “grammar” is often taught in colleges, in film-appreciation courses, but a small minority of students take those—and it’s really too late. Because most people get most of their information from audiovisual media—TV, phones, computer and theatre screens—we should be teaching the grammar of that media at a very young age. Children need to understand how that media tells its stories, communicates its messages, convinces them to make decisions. They need that understanding to make intelligent choices not just in the movies they see, but in the way they live their lives.

On the future

Cinema—and the media in general—are mature businesses, so we have to be constantly aggressive and thoughtful and imaginative about how we pursue our business so we can stay in the market and continue to be an effective service to our customers. But human beings are creatures of stories; our brains are organized around stories and there’s something primal and profound in sitting in a darkened room full of strangers and having a story presented by flickering lights. It’s primal desire. Cinema fulfills that desire. Plus, people like to go out and one of the best places to experience quality stories is in a well-run movie theatre. I like to think that the Art House Convergence enables and encourages both that primal desire and the chance to get out of the house and escape our day-to-day lives for a few hours. And that’s a very good thing!