The art of exhibition: Art House Convergence reconvenes in Utah to discuss state of indie cinema

Now in its seventh year, the Art House Convergence in Midway, Utah, will welcome nearly 400 delegates when it convenes just before the Sundance Film Festival this January. That figure is 16 times the number of attendees who were present at the inaugural conference held in 2008. Initially begun by the Sundance Institute, which in 2006 gathered just 12 theatres to discuss issues related to art-house exhibition, the initiative has grown “aggressively,” in the words of founder and director Russ Collins. Last year, 39 U.S. states and seven countries were represented.

So, what’s in the water? The annual conference, an educational program for “community-driven” and “mission-based” art-house theatres, “has grown in terms of quality of program, quality of keynote speakers [and] quality of session leaders,” as well as in “the diversity of subject matter covered,” Collins notes.

“Diversity” is a top priority for the conference’s team of volunteers, who place a premium on ensuring their delegates have a varied slate of panels from which to choose. This year’s event will take place Jan. 13-16 and cover topics such as customer service, audience-building, community engagement, attracting a younger audience, best marketing practices, and exploring alternate programming via out-of-the-box and interactive offerings, among other subjects. In keeping with Collins’ emphasis on quality, 2014’s theme is “Making the Best Better.”

Finding new ways to make the movies even more entertaining certainly falls under the conference’s umbrella ethos of improvement. Panels “The Personal Touch: Audience, Showmanship and Personal Interaction,” “Up All Night: The Midnight Movie Marathon” and “Repertory Programming” all aim to help exhibitors put a unique twist on the traditional moviegoing experience. Screening a string of cult favorites or inviting filmmakers for a post-feature Q&A session are examples of strategies theatres can utilize in the interest of “differentiating ourselves from watching VOD on your TV at home,” as Conference manager Barbara Twist states. “You go from just passively watching the film to actively engaging with it.”

Last year, the Convergence hosted an interesting take on filmmaker engagement. The director, writer and producer of the critically acclaimed indie drama Upstream Color, Shane Carruth, screened his film and led a discussion on his plans for self-distribution. Addressing a roomful of art-house exhibitors, he savvily took advantage of the DIY opportunity. “He was planning on bringing up all the art-house exhibitors individually, and booking [the film] at their theatres…rather than going through a very traditional distribution route where the distributor purchases it and decides on the pattern of release for you,” explains Twist of Carruth’s decision to personally liaise with the conference’s attendees. Since its premiere at the IFC Center last spring, Upstream Color has gone on to gross over $444,000 domestically. This year, organizers have once again invited Carruth to speak, to stage a kind of retrospective on his unorthodox distribution strategy.  At the time of publication, the details of the filmmaker’s involvement were still TBA.

Atypical engagement of the sort Carruth exemplifies is also a top priority for the organizations behind returning panel “Science on Screen.” Last year, the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Boston partnered with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to award individual grants of $7,000 to 20 theatres, for the purposes of helping those theatres fund their own interactive “Science on Screen” programs. This year, the organizations will once again extend grant opportunities, now worth as much as $8,500 each, to Convergence participants. Collins and Twist’s home cinema, the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor, MI, was one of the 2013 awardees. “We showed Moneyball, and then we had a professor come in and talk about the physics of sports,” Twist explains, providing an example of the kind of audience engagement and media-arts education programming SoS seeks to foster.

Of course, delegates at the educationally focused Art House Convergence are themselves given the chance to act like students over the course of the conference’s four days, and this year’s lineup provides ample opportunity for instruction. “On-Screen Content: Wowing Your Crowds with Your Own Trailers, PSAs, and More,” for instance, focuses on cinemas’ recent conversion to DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages) and how exhibitors can leverage their new technology to achieve more sophisticated marketing ends. “We’re actually having a walkthrough of creating a preshow, and [how to] create your own trailers,” says Twist. With session leaders outlining the editing process “step-by-step,” the hands-on workshop will cover the fundamentals of digital editing software, particularly free offerings like FinalCut.

While such edifying fare speaks to the “quality of program” Collins highlights, the coup of booking industry personalities and experts has also played a role in adding to the conference’s cachet. Robert Redford spoke in 2013, and this year noted film critic, professor, and author of the annual movie reference publication Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin, is on deck as a keynote speaker. No less renowned Betty Siegel, of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., will also be on hand to discuss accessibility and disability issues in art-house cinemas.

Unfortunately, many of these theatres operate on such tight budgets (“60 to 70% of the theatres that attend are nonprofits,” says Twist) that, even given the conference’s steady increase in attendance, there remains a sizable contingent of exhibitors that is unable to afford the annual trek to Midway. “Because the conference is out in Utah, there’s a significant amount of expenses. Not as great as some conferences,” Twist points out, “but still.” A desire to extend its reach is part of the motivation behind the initiative’s recent expansion into regional seminars. One or two-day events held in different areas of the country, these seminars are, essentially, micro-Convergences: a brief series of discussions focused around a theme relevant to the art-house community.  “There was such a demand outside of the annual conference time,” adds Twist.

The first regional seminar took place in Huntington, NY, this past summer, and dealt with issues—and opportunities—related to the recent digital conversion. In 2015, the conference will host a seminar in the Bay Area of California and possibly one in Florida, says Collins.

Also in the works for the 2015 iteration of The Art House Convergence is a tentative expansion of the film festival track begun this year. The conference recently partnered with the Independent Filmmaker Project, which plans to host three festival forums on day two of this year’s event. (As of publication, specific panel topics were still TBA.)

“Generally, the Art House in North America has much potential for growth,” says Collins of the industry’s continuing quest to improve and innovate. “The biggest and ongoing challenge is matching great film from all over the world to the tastes, curiosity and interests of each community’s local audience."