Art House Arrest: Current Trends in Small Theater Programming

by | August 20, 2009 | Uncategorized

This is an article I thought you might find interesting from the Sante Fe New Mexican. Just in case you ever wanted to know what that Cinematheque programmer was really thinking.

The Big Picture: Art-house arrest
Pasatiempo | The New Mexican | 8/6/2009

Size shouldn’t matter, but sometimes it seems that big is all people want when it comes to movies.

While the paying public plunks down its cash to see such summer blockbusters as G-Force, Public Enemies, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince — making these pictures instant box-office hits — managers of art-house cinemas around the country are looking for new ways to attract younger viewers and keep old-time loyalists happy while paying the rent by showcasing “small” pictures.

Changing times, fast-paced technological advancements, an aging audience, the closure or scaled-back activities of art-house distribution companies, and the fact that mainstream multiplexes — like Regal DeVargas in Santa Fe — are playing art-house titles have contributed to the challenge of maintaining a single or even double-screen cinema devoted to art films. Yet directors of art houses are putting up a valiant fight, with some finding new ways to keep their houses vibrant.

“We are really trying to appeal to all ages, but our bread-and-butter audience is the older, aging art-film crowd from the counterculture era,” said John Ewing, director of the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, which opened in 1986. “Our attendance was down 21 percent from our last fiscal year.”

Brent Kliewer, programmer for The Screen on the College of Santa Fe campus, echoed Ewing’s comments. “Business is off,” he said. “Looking at the Hollywood hits this year, it’s pornographic what some of them are making. Everyone has the illusion that the movie industry is better than ever. People say to me, ‘I bet you guys are doing good.’ But good times don’t mean that Séraphine is breaking records. It doesn’t mean that anything small is doing big business.”

The Screen’s future has been in limbo since the financially strapped college announced that it was closing last spring. Now, with the city agreeing to take on $30 million in debt and lease the college campus to Laureate Education Inc., it seems that the 10-year-old art house will survive for now. Kliewer said he expects to talk with Laureate officials sometime in August.

That said, he acknowledged that the art-house enterprise has changed, with many programmers, like himself, looking at the bottom line. “The fact is, now, these titles have to make money,” he said, adding that Séraphine was holding steady but that his latest opening, The Windmill Movie, probably wouldn’t do well. (In fact, it just closed.) “You can do great for six weeks, and then September comes, and you hit a valley. It’s very much a roller-coaster business — a manic-depressive’s paradise!” (One unfortunate byproduct of the poor economy is that The Screen and Mission Control will not program a noir festival this year.)

Meanwhile, Santa Fe’s other art house, the Cinematheque at the Center for Contemporary Arts, is weathering the waves well, according to director Jason Silverman. It has current hits with the documentary Every Little Step and the French drama Summer Hours and is preparing for its annual Native Cinema Showcase (Aug. 20 to 23). Like The Screen, the Cinematheque is part of a larger entity; and as CCA’s fortunes go, so go the cinema’s. Silverman said that he’s aware of that bottom line, and that he has to program with an eye toward attracting an audience.

“There is a lot of creative expression in being an art-house theater,” he said. “And very little in running a commercial multiplex. But there are a lot of constraints. There are a lot of films I’ve seen on the festival circuit that I would like to play, but without a marketing budget or a big New York release, I’d be playing them for myself. I’m aware of the need to attract an audience. But unlike the commercial theaters, I won’t play something that I don’t like.”

Silverman said that he looks for ways to tie in his programming with community events. The Native Cinema Showcase will run during Indian Market weekend, for instance. CCA has also been showing the 1940 drama The Letter in tandem with Santa Fe Opera’s production of the opera based on W. Somerset Maugham’s short story of the same title. “We’ve done programs of films about ‘the disappeared,’ screenings with Veterans for Peace, a screening last October for the homeless coalition. There’s all sorts of things you can do and have to do [to thrive],” he said.

Silverman and Kliewer feel that their cinemas serve as brand names. Both can cite certain trends in public consumption. Documentaries almost always do well here, both said. Real heavy dramatic fare — like Hunger, which didn’t last a week at CCA — isn’t something audiences want to see on their plates during these uncertain times. Foreign films are a hit-and-miss affair; they are not quite as popular as they once were, it seems.

“My personal theory is that it’s the Masterpiece Theater-ing of America,” Ewing said. “People are interested in English-speaking film versions of literary classics.” He was about to screen the Turkish drama Three Monkeys, which didn’t do much business for Kliewer, and Ewing wasn’t optimistic about the box-office potential. “I think it’s a masterpiece. I don’t know how it will play. We’re still the only theater in town that will knowingly book a movie that will lose money because we believe in it. I was always committed to showing films that weren’t otherwise coming to this city. What I realize is that a lot of those films that don’t come don’t attract people when they do come.”

Shooting the works
Some cinemas have a “something for everyone” approach that works, including the Loft Cinema in Tucson — a favorite haunt of mine in the mid-1980s, when I attended the University of Arizona. The Loft recently screened Summer Hours, O’Horten, Dead Snow (about Nazi zombies), Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy, Chaplin’s City Lights, the 1980s comedy Teen Wolf, and the 1970s sex comedy Chatterbox (part of the cinema’s Mondo Monday series). The Loft also serves pizza and beer, and yes, you can eat and drink in the cinema. “I wouldn’t say we’re setting huge records, but we’re in the black,” said Peggy Johnson, the Loft’s executive director.

“The winning formula for a stand-alone art house that doesn’t have a regular revenue from blockbusters coming in, is to have as diverse and exciting programming schedule as possible,” she said. “We are open to anything; that’s how you have to be, and that’s what this community expects from us. We have a 500-seat theater and an 80-seat theater, and we regularly fill both of those.” Still, even in that college town, she’s having trouble attracting young viewers. “I speak to college classes here in town and am disheartened when I ask them, ‘How many have been to the Loft?’ and one person raises a hand.’ When I was young, back in the late 1960s, early 1970s, every young person I knew could speak smartly about Fellini and Truffaut and Godard. That was our voice. Now I guess their voice is Batman and Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Other art-house managers seek to redefine their venues as community
centers. Paul Strutz, program director for the Ragtag Cinema, a two-screen complex in a former Coca-Cola bottling plant in Columbia, Missouri, said “We’re definitely not a museum. We have a pretty lively place to meet people that you’ve never met before.” The Ragtag includes a bakery, bar, and lounge — a sign that enterprising art-house directors have to think outside the box to draw customers.

Strutz is one of those who emphasizes that the collapse of art-house distribution companies is hurting the business. “The problem is, the top fell out,” he said. “Companies like New Yorker Films and Picturehouse went out of business; Paramount Vantage got absorbed by the bigger Paramount, and Warner Independent pretty much folded at the same time. That all happened in a few months, and those are the most
dependable suppliers of our films. When they went out of business,
a lot of art houses started reeling.”

Some art-house titles are being released without marketing fanfare, like the offbeat Lymelife, which came and went in less than a week just about everywhere. (I caught the film at Regal DeVargas during its six-day run, and it’s a beauty.) Strutz isn’t confident that there will be an endless supply of titles to play as multiplexes appropriate more and more films that once would have played at art houses, like Slumdog Millionaire.

“I compare it to a restaurant that has no relationship with farmers or any ability to control the ingredients that go into their food,” he said. “That’s where we stand as art houses — I have no idea what the supplies are going to be for my theater in three or four months.”

Hope screens eternal
Obviously it’s not all gloom and doom as much as it’s a need to adapt to an ever-changing climate and a public that can get almost anything it wants online, on television, on video, or on some on-demand basis. It may be time to ask for help — that’s what Russ Collins, director of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, believes. His theater is one of 17 that
are part of the Sundance Institute’s Art House Project, designed to keep the business running. The next Sundance Institute Art House Convergence takes place next January, he said, and will include some 50 indie theaters.

“Surviving is important, but that’s on a basic level — thriving is when you make a contribution to your community,” Collins said. “The art house should be a place where you generate not only community enthusiasm for cinema, but community philanthropic support. People are so tuned into the commercial box-office model that it’s all they think about. They think they are failing if they have to raise money to support the product. What we are trying to tell the country’s art-house operators is that an art house is a cultural amenity for your community. Communities decide what kind of art and cultural amenities they want, and the art house is one of those amenities that a community needs to decide upon and support. Fundraising has to be part of the mission.”

All agreed that communities must get involved. “For the Cinematheque, individual donations, grants, sponsorships, and gifts are essential to our financial health,” Silverman said. Johnson said that she’s constantly interacting with Tucson’s population to get them to connect to the Loft. “It will be a sad day if we get to the point where art houses die and people watch movies on their cell phones. I hope as a culture we don’t lose interest in the big screen. It’s crucial that communities support their local art houses.”