Art House alliance: Sundance-sponsored Convergence offers motivation and inspiration

Features

“When it’s late into the evening and you’re the last one left in the office answering just one more e-mail, it’s nice to know there are others out there who share the same passion and level of commitment to sustaining the art house,” says Jordana Meade of Enzian Theater in Maitland, Florida (FJI April 2008). “These venues are the gems of hundreds of cities and towns across America. When we meet, it’s not only ideas and best practices that are exchanged, but it’s also the transference of motivation and inspiration.”

On Jan. 18-20, over 200 members of the North American cinema community gathered for the Art House Convergence to share successes, challenges, anxieties, hopes and dreams at a quaint, snow-covered “White Christmas-esque” resort in Midway, Utah. The annual gathering, organized by an all-volunteer national committee, is presented in cooperation with the Sundance Institute and held just before the Sundance Film Festival. Keri Putnam and John Cooper, directors of the Institute and Festival, respectively, also attended along with several other Sundance staff members.

Since it originated in 2008, the Art House Convergence has doubled in size each year and has evolved into a leading national resource for the support of independent film and the promotion of film culture in local communities. Covering 36 states, Washington, D.C. and Toronto, Canada, the delegate mix included art-house directors/staff, film distributors, service providers, film bookers, press reps, and a even a documentary film crew.

The 2011 Convergence theme, “Building Community/Building Success,” universally resonated with attendees. “The Convergence was such a great experience for us because you realize that you have a peer group,” said Andy Smith, Nickelodeon Theatre in Columbia, South Carolina. “Whether it’s sharing ideas for new programs or marketing strategies, or commiserating on the shared difficulties of our industry, it’s so great to know you’re not alone. We came home with pages of notes filled with ideas.”

Event chair Russ Collins of Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan, opened the Convergence with a rousing keynote speech designed to galvanize the passion and professionalism of the art house community. “Over the decades,” he said, that 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 a citizen in the wider cinema world. But a sustainable business model clearly exists for art houses. I firmly believe as we gather for this Art House Convergence, we are finding a 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.”

Equally inspiring and entertaining speeches were given by Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper and filmmaker and art-house operator Michael Moore (http://statetheatretc.org). The art-house exhibitors were also able to engage with film distributors, bookers and service providers for extended casual conversations, a nice alternative to the usual quick e-mails and phone calls. “It was incredibly gratifying to meet, all in one place, so many people I’d never had a chance to meet in person before, to shake hands and sit down to eat with people I’ve known, for years, only through e-mail and phone calls,” said Neal Block, head of distribution at Magnolia Pictures.

While the tone of the three days was jovial and many delegates playfully described it as “art-house summer camp,” the Convergence offered 18 professionally developed sessions, panels and roundtable discussions, and small-group consulting sessions. “I would never miss the Art House Convergence,” declared Sid Heberger of the Crest Theatre in Sacramento, California. “I get tremendous value out of the seminars and sessions, from social-networking tips to concessions management. And more important is the exchange of ideas with my colleagues. It’s not easy being an independent theatre, and spending time with like-minded theatre operators is a great antidote to burnout!”

The Convergence’s phenomenal attendance growth over the past four years is a testament to the national art-house community’s need to find its collective voice and to benefit from shared knowledge and experience. “The Convergence is a time and place where art-house operators can share best practices, and contemplate new ideas in funding, operating, programming, marketing and the many other realms of art-house day-to-day reality,” observed Jan Klingelhofer, Pacific Film Resources, Oakland, Calif.

Convergence delegates represented a vibrant mix of art houses: from nonprofit and mission-driven to commercial-for-profit, located in small towns and metropolises, start-ups as well as long-established venues. As during previous Convergences, there was a strong propensity for delegates to share with great alacrity despite their differences. Last year, Martin McCaffery from the Capri in Montgomery, Alabama faced the daunting transformation from building lessee to owner. Meanwhile, Josh Levin contemplated opening an art house in Washington, D.C. Both received support, inspiration and, in Levin’s case, practical information about programming and business operations.

“This was my second Art House Convergence, and each trip was a totally different experience,” reported Levin. “Last year, I came because I had a dream of operating an art-house cinema, and I wanted to learn everything. This year, I came because I realized my dream…and needed to relearn everything. Fortunately, I was in exactly the right place both years. The single biggest gift of the Convergence is getting to spend time with people who have built and maintained great institutions, and learn from their successes and failures.”

Levin’s West End Cinema opened to sold-out screenings the weekend of Oct. 29, 2010. (Jon Stewart celebrated the new cinema by staging a rally in D.C. that same weekend—well, maybe it really was just a coincidence.) “The most important thing about meeting other art-house colleagues is to know we are not alone doing this,” said McCaffery. “Especially those of us not in big markets. I know I’m crazy to be running a nonprofit art house in Montgomery, Alabama, so those doing it in even smaller, less ‘sophisticated’ markets must be that much crazier. Great to know it can and is being done.”

Lawren Desai opened the two-screen Aperture Cinema, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in January 2010 and attended her first Convergence this year. “As an art-house theatre in our ‘rookie’ year, we found the Convergence immensely beneficial,” Lawren said, echoing the thoughts of many attendees. “Spending time with colleagues and brainstorming and sharing success stories was just so energizing and a great way to start the new year.”

Tara Schroeder is the program and marketing director for the Tampa Theatre in sunny Tampa, Florida. When she is not happily serving on the Art House Convergence Conference Committee, she especially enjoys playing in the snow at the Convergence and in Sundance.