The Future of the Art House Cinema

In this time of scarce resources and DIY/DIWO attitudes, it’s rare that a week (or a day) will go by without an alert from a friend about their new Kickstarter campaign raising dollars to start/finish/distribute their film project. But in recent weeks, a new Kickstarter wave has crept into my inbox. Two art house theaters near and dear to my heart are Kickstarting their digital conversions.

I’ve been going to Providence, RI’s Cable Car Cinema since I was 15 years old. This “cinema with couches” is where I first understood how a nonfiction film can captivate an audience when watching 1982’s SOMEBODY SAY AMEN. It was also there, after seeing Todd Hayne’s POISON, that I knew I would be switching my major to film in the fall. My good friends Daniel Kamil and Emily Steffian bought the theater a few years ago and with them came yummy food, great atmosphere, new couches (!!!), and some damn good local programming. The Cable Car brings unique and unusual films to town that would never find their way here were it not for Daniel and Emily’s keen sensibilities. They also support local festivals by providing a home to the incredible Providence French Film Festival, the Providence Children’s Film Festival, and others.

The Bratte Theatre just miraculously reached their $140,000 goal for their digital conversion and HVAC system (much needed!). I’m biased, as I work with the Brattle closely – they are our partner on The DocYard. However, one look at their programming and you can clearly see how creative they are in using their space to celebrate cinema. Their calendar is full of special events and partnerships with local programmers and festivals. They host an Oscar party every year and curate a festival of trailers. In the last year, their repertory film programming featured the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, Focus Feature’s 10th anniversary collection, and a week of “Great Romances” (including IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and THE FLY…how can you not love this?). It’s like a graduate seminar in genre, craft, and culture.

So what will digital conversion mean to programming like this? Will theaters like the Cable Car and the Brattle be able to maintain their unique programming visions in this time of efficiency and uniformity? Will the art house survive in the digital age?

Film scholar (and general great mind) David Bordwell writes about his observations gleaned from three days at the Sundance Art House Convergence. It’s worth a full read to get a sense of the landscape for the contemporary art house theater. Check out the full blog post here:

But for those in a hurry, here are some observations that struck me:

1. Quality (that’s supposed to be Job 1, right?): Many smaller theaters like these show work on Blu Ray when prints are too expensive or not available. Patrons seem to be unaware of the difference, as I’ve witnessed for myself at The DocYard, but art house owners like Daniel and Emily from the Cable Car, and Ned and Ivy from the Brattle care deeply about providing a quality experience to their audience. For some, showing a balance of prints and lower res formats has been the formula. However, most distributors will cease making prints within the next few years, which means those theaters that do NOT convert will be limited to low res formats. This results in a diminished experience for the audience, and a reduction in the value of what the theater has to offer. In this scenario, conversion seems like the only option. And conversion is not cheap. And movie theater attendance is diminishing. I’m not liking these numbers.

2. Distinct, Diverse Programming: To quote David directly, “…what about access to older films in studio collections? These titles are central to repertory cinemas, and many art houses that play recent releases schedule some classics too. Yet some studios are increasingly reluctant to supply 35mm prints from their libraries. … Unhappily, we may get less repertory programming on the whole. Audiences that don’t live in a town with an archive or cinematheque will have less chance to discover film history.” While Boston is rich in archives and cinematheques, without the Cable Car (and the Avon Cinema) Providence would largely be a cinematic wasteland and I can imagine this is true for many small towns with single screen art houses. The curatorial leadership of the programmers at these theaters are what gives them their reputation and what builds their audience. Limit that ability and you limit the unique selling proposition of the small independent art house. My hope is that conversion does not end the distinct programming voices of venues like these.

In David’s article he notes, “that 5% of US screens could disappear during the conversion. That number sounds small, but it amounts to nearly 2000 screens, and many are likely to be in art houses.” 

My life would be very different had the Cable Car Cinema not been in it. I can imagine that is true for many of the filmmakers, scholars and cinephiles in my close acquaintance. For a weird punk rock kid like me, seeing POISON was a revelation. It was not simply a “what a great film” moment for me; it was an “I am not alone” moment. Therefore I would argue, it was not only the filmmaker who provided me with that transformation, but it was the person who selected the film to screen – the person who said, I bet there’s someone out there who wants to see this. For a species that has long relied on the power of storytelling to understand ourselves, others, history, science, love, death, and beyond; the art house is our library and our church. We should protect it, if we can. 

Three cheers to the Brattle! Best of luck to the Cable Car (I pledged!) and to the countless art house cinemas launching Kickstarter campaigns every day to stay ahead of the curve, and to keep church open!

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