This year three of us from BMFI went to the ever-expanding Art House Convergence to confer with our colleagues around the country about the joys and challenges of running independent, community-based, mission-driven, art house movie theaters.
This was my fourth Convergence, Programming Manager Valerie Temple’s second, and Lead Theater Manager Mike McCracken’s first, and each of us profited significantly. It turns out there is always more to learn, new “best practices” to consider, new solutions and new problems to mull over. We had a good dose of “Improving Customer Service” and one cannot get enough new ideas on that subject which is, after all, the essential foundation of our business. Mike and I spent most of our time at sessions that helped us fully grasp the digital transformation that all major art houses must undergo. Some new concession design concepts will be especially useful as we commence our final renovation projects. In listening to talks about “pre-shows” and trailers we got some creative notions to try and we also realized that our pre-show ranks well. Valerie walked away from the Convergence with lots of ideas about adventurous programming and "event-izing" and went on to attend her first ever Sundance Film Festival. At the festival she got a chance to see 24 films, a few of which were not great but many that we would be excited to screen at BMFI in the future.
Valerie and I started off the substantive part of the Convergence with a very well-received report on the health of art houses taken from the national survey BMFI does each year. (A big thank you to our consultant, Cordelia Stone.) Art houses are doing well and in many cases better than the entire national market, but they face daunting expenses as they transition to digital.
We were thrilled to learn that David Bordwell, Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, was attending. His numerous books and his penetrating blogs have transformed and informed our film viewing. He is just one of the very best film historians and analysts in the world. He enthusiastically incorporated our national survey into his blog.
Reproduced here (with permission) is an excerpt from David Bordwell’s take on the Convergence, with particular emphasis on digital cinema. To read his full post and find more of his insights into film past and present, visit his blog, Observations on Film Art.
An Excerpt from Pandora’s digital box: Art house, smart house
by David Bordwell
Theatres’ conversion from 35mm film to digital presentation was designed by and for an industry that deals in mass output, saturation releases, and quick turnover. A movie comes out on Friday, fills as many as 4,000 screens around the country, makes most of its money within a month or less, and then shows up on VoD, PPV, DVD, or some other acronym. The ancillary outlets yield much more revenue to the studios, but the theatrical release is crucial in establishing awareness of the film.
Given this shock-and-awe business plan, movies on film stock look wasteful. You make, ship, and store several thousand 35mm prints that will be worthless in a few months. (I’ve seen trash bags stuffed with Harry Potter reels destined for destruction.) Pushing a movie in and out of multiplexes on digital files makes more sense.
After a decade of preparation, digital projection became the dominant mode last year. Today “digital prints” come in on hard drives called Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs) and are loaded (“ingested”) into servers that feed the projector. The DCPs are heavily encrypted and need to be opened with passkeys transmitted by email or phone. The format is 2K projection, more or less to specifications laid down by the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) group, a consortium of the major distributors.
Upgrading to a DCI-compliant system can cost $50,000-$100,000 per screen. How to pay for it? If the exhibitor doesn’t buy the equipment outright, it can be purchased through a subsidy called the Virtual Print Fee. The exhibitor can select gear to be supplied by a third party, who collects payment from the major companies and applies it to the cost of the equipment. The fee is paid each time the exhibitor books a title from one of the majors. See my blogs here and here for more background.
It’s comparatively easy for chains like Regal and AMC, which control 12,000 screens (nearly one-third of the US and Canadian total), to make the digital switchover efficiently. Solid capitalization and investment support, economies of scale, and cooperation with manufacturers allow the big chains to afford the upgrade. But what about other kinds of exhibition? I’ve already looked at the bumpy rise of digital on the festival scene. There are also art houses and repertory cinemas, and here one hears some very strong concerns about the changeover. “Art houses are not going to be able to do this,” predicts one participant. “We will lose a lot of little theatres across the country.”
The long, long tail
‘Plexes, whether multi- or mega-, tend to look alike. But art and rep houses have personality, even flair.
One might be a 1930s picture palace saved from the wrecking ball and renovated as a site of local history and a center for the performing arts. Another might be a sagging two-screener from the 1970s spiffed up and offering buns and designer coffees. Another might look like a decaying porn venue or a Cape Cod amateur playhouse (even though it’s in Seattle). The screen might be in a museum auditorium or a campus lecture hall. When an art house is built from scratch, it’s likely to have a gallery atmosphere. Our Madison, Wisconsin Sundance six-screener hangs good art on the walls and provides café food to kids in black bent over their Macs.
Most of these theatres are in urban centers, some are in the suburbs, and a surprising number are rural. Most boast only one or two screens. Most are independent, but a few belong to chains like Landmark and Sundance. Some are privately held and aiming for profit, but many, perhaps most, are not-for-profit, usually owned by a civic group or municipality.
What unites them is what they show. They play films in foreign languages and British English. They show independent US dramas and comedies, documentaries, revivals, and restorations.
In the whole market, art houses are a blip. Figures are hard to come by, but Jack Foley, head of domestic distribution for Focus Features, estimates that there are about 250 core art-house screens. In addition, other venues present art house product on an occasional basis or as part of cultural center programming.
Art house and repertory titles contribute very little to the $9 billion in ticket sales of the domestic theatrical market. Of the 100 top-grossing US theatrical releases in 2011, only six were art-house fare: The King’s Speech, Black Swan, Midnight in Paris, Hanna, The Descendants, and Drive. Taken together, they yielded about $309 million, which is $40 million less than Transformers: Dark of the Moon took in all by itself. And these figures represent grosses; only about half of ticket revenues are passed to the distributor.
More strictly art-house items like Take Shelter, Potiche, Bill Cunningham New York, Senna, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Certified Copy, Page One, The Women on the 6th Floor, and Meek’s Cutoff took in only one to two million dollars each. Other “specialty titles” grossed much less. Miranda July’s The Future attracted about half a million dollars, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives grossed $184,000, and Godard’s Film Socialisme took in less than $35,000. For the distributors, art films retrieve their costs in ancillaries, like DVD and home video, but the theatres don’t have that cushion.
Something else sets the art and rep houses apart from the ‘plexes: The audience. It’s well-educated, comparatively affluent, and above all older. Juliet Goodfriend’s survey of art house operators indicates that only about 13% of patrons are children and high-school and college students. The rest are adults. A third of the total are over sixty-five. As she puts it, “Thank God for the seniors!” However much they like popcorn, they love chocolate-covered almonds.
Almonds aside, how will these venues cope with digital? To find out, I went to Utah.
Read the rest of David Bordwell's Art House Convergence post here.
Photos of Valerie Temple and Juliet Goodfriend (c) Chuck Foxen.