Braving a new world: American art-house cinemas face the digital challenge


Ironic? In earnest? It’s sometimes hard to tell in the movies—or in the movie business.
“The Brave New American Art House” was the title of the Sundance Institute-affiliated Art House Convergence conference that gathered just before the famous film festival in mid-January.

The provenance of that “Brave New World” reference is pure irony—first uttered by Shakespeare’s ingénue Miranda in The Tempest and later lifted by Aldous Huxley for the icily ironic title of his futurist novel. “The Brave New American Art House” title must have drawn a double take or at least a wry smile from some of the nearly 350 film folk attending the Utah conference.

But this was one movie production mercifully devoid of irony. Art House Convergence was characterized by an open, cooperative, even activist interaction—a vibe of optimistic, productive expectation. Convergence director and CEO of Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater, Russ Collins, delivered an upbeat opening address—and made short work of the more dire implications of our new world. Unlike Huxley, belonging to Collins’ new world means belonging to a tradition-based, community-based world where burgeoning technology doesn’t overrun the human cinema experience.

Art House Convergence first gathered in 2008 after the Sundance Institute brought together a handful of art-house operators to discuss common challenges and issues. Today, 120 independent cinemas and a dozen film organizations and festivals are represented at Art House Convergence. They come from all over the map—literally and figuratively. Enormous century-old movie palaces and compact, highly automated screening rooms. Small Southwestern towns and East Coast urban centers. Scores of theatre supply companies and studios also attended (and sponsored) this year’s conference.

Art houses face varied challenges based on infrastructure, audience pools and financial resources. But all cinemas—especially art houses—confront common problems. Juliet Goodfriend, president of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, asks, “What challenges keep us awake at night?” in her seminal art-house survey. She finds art houses worry about fundraising, attracting younger audiences and converting to digital cinema.

That last issue, Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) exhibition, of course, is what this brave new world is all about. 35mm film is gone—or it is about to be gone. It will be around for archival and repertory uses. Still, by and large, new films will be released less and less frequently on celluloid.

Twentieth Century Fox sent a letter to every exhibitor screening its films last year advising that it would no longer produce and ship 35mm prints after 2013. We got that letter at Tropic Cinema, but we are among the lucky art houses to have had a private foundation and county government interested enough in our hometown cinema to underwrite DCI projectors for us. Not everyone is so fortunate. Goodfriend’s survey says 68% of art houses responding to her survey have not converted any screens to DCI projection.

Huxley wrote about “sleep-learning” in Brave New World. None of that at Art House Convergence. David Bordwell, film historian and writer, made an eye-opening presentation about DCI conversion, recalling monopolistic market practices of the 1920s and ’30s when, like other industries, movie studios controlled every creative and business element of filmmaking. Likewise, Bordwell writes, the “shock-and-awe business plan” of the seven major film studios who created Digital Cinema Initiatives works fine for huge commercial movie chains, but leaves small, low-volume art houses stranded. DCI is unassailable from a business standpoint for distributors—films are less expensive to duplicate, less expensive to ship, harder to pirate. But for independent art houses without the backer or balance sheet, the transition can mean closing up shop.

Technology was only part of the conversation at Art House Convergence. There were panel workshops and roundtable discussions of every subject from candy bars to strategic planning to archiving celluloid—no art house wants to see celluloid abandoned.

Filmmaker, activist and African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement founder Ava DuVernay led a panel discussion on race and diversity in the art house. She didn’t mince words. She said looking out from the stage at an audience of mostly white faces made her imagine that the audiences in our cinemas were mostly white, too. She and colleagues said we were unlikely to see anything other than mostly white faces until we change the racial and ethnic balance of films and volunteers and art-house staff. Until people of color see their faces in art-house cinemas—onscreen and working as volunteers—they won’t feel they belong in art houses. She reminded us that our community is right outside our front doors.

Filmmaker, actor, crusader and the man who has put one of the most enduring imprints on American independent cinema, Robert Redford addressed a packed midweek dinner. He is no longer the Sundance Kid everyone—yes, everyone—had a crush on. He’s older, but he retains the nonchalant, unpracticed cool that launched him into stardom. Unlike most film stars, he has devoted his late career and fortune to supporting the art he helped make and that made him. Redford, in extemporaneous remarks, talked about community. He reminisced about going to the movies as a boy in the South Los Angeles neighborhood that was his community. Even then, he said, he sensed the value of watching film with other people. He also touched on our brave new world. “Don’t let the screens get too small,” he implored, “not too small.” Seeing films on a big screen together is important to Redford.
Collins hit on art-house values in his opening address: The art house “actively seeks community support” and “believes [in] excellent customer service” and “is mission-driven” and “makes cinema come alive—with intelligently curated programs and ever-expanding relationships with living filmmakers.” It didn’t exactly sound like a brave new world. Like many of the leaders and participants of Art House Convergence, Collins sounded like he was hoping, searching—with the good and bad of new technology—for the better world art-house cinema brings to communities near and far.

Matthew Helmerich is the executive director of Tropic Cinema in Key West, Florida. He is lobbying hard for the next Art House Convergence to take place in Key West, where it was 80 degrees in mid-January, not eight degrees.