Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reflections on the 2013 Art House Convergence

By Devin Wachs, Public Relations Manager, BMFI

Every year prior to the beginning of the Sundance Film Festival, staff and board members of art house theaters, film societies, and film festivals from across the country join together with distributors and film industry professionals in Utah to discuss the role of art house theaters in their communities and communicate concerns and solutions for the problems we face as independent exhibitors. Now in its sixth year, the Convergence is a wonderful way for far-flung organizations to come together and exchange resources and insight into how to improve our programming, fundraising, and outreach in order to better serve our diverse communities.

(Left to right) Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., Devin Wachs, Juliet Goodfriend, and Samuel R. Scott represented BMFI at the 2013 Art House Convergence conference in Utah.
This year, Bryn Mawr Film Institute was well represented, sending four delegates to the convergence. Juliet Goodfriend, our President, was accompanied by first-time attendees Samuel R. Scott, Chairman of the Board; Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., our Director of Education; and myself, Devin Wachs, Public Relations Manager. I am proud to say that the three of them were featured speakers and panelists, sharing the results of BMFI’s annual survey of art house theaters, and their knowledge of the non-profit art house theater model and creating educational initiatives.

We all took away different things from the conference, far more than we can put in a single post, but here are a few impressions that my colleagues and I would like to share with you.
Juliet Goodfriend, BMFI’s President:
What did I learn from my fifth Art House Convergence? That there is an endless amount to learn about running a mission-driven, community-based, independent art house. I keep typing “heart” house. Hey, that’s more than a typo. That’s what it takes to run an art house: heart. And management. And creativity. And stamina. Every year I delight in getting together with other executive directors and staffs, and, this year, board members, to talk about the challenges and successes that keep us going. This year’s goodies? Here’s one: Package a small film that cannot muster a full run with a major film that can. It would get more edgy, important, but not widely popular films shown. Now to get the distributors to agree!

Samuel R. Scott, BMFI’s Chairman of the Board:
As a first-time BMFI board person attending the conference (one of only a handful among all theaters represented), I came away with a sense of passion amongst all those attending, for good films, for operating the best theaters and organizations they possibly can, but most of all for playing an active role in the communities they serve. Needless to say, I came away with many fresh ideas. Likewise, it was extremely rewarding to confirm the ‘high place’ in which our peers regard both Juliet and BMFI.

Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., BMFI Director of Education:
One big take-away that I have from AHC was discussed in two sessions. Neither used this term, but I would refer to it as “organizational self-awareness”. The two presenters—on the topics of strategic planning and fundraising—made it clear that to be consistently successful in the long run, an organization has to know what it is, and what it isn’t; what it can do (well), and what it can’t; and what it does that no other organization (in its area) can. It has to incorporate this awareness into its mission, articulate it at every opportunity, let it inform every endeavor, and be one of the yardsticks by which it decides whether or not to undertake or pursue a new venture. It was largely this approach that drastically improved the fortunes of two prominent—and now thriving and sustainable—theaters, the State Theatre and the Paramount Theatre in Austin, TX. This is somewhat intuitive, though easier said than done, and I was surprised by the efficacy of disciplined adherence to it.
For my part, my first Art House Convergence was extremely informative, but the word that reverberates most in my mind is “community”. Steve Apkon from Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY gave a wonderful talk specifically about community, but the concept permeated the conference. It’s not just a buzzword; our commitment to serving our communities is what differentiates us from commercial cinema chains. We at BMFI are lucky to have such a strong, supportive membership base, but it’s not enough to say that we are a member-supported organization. We all must work to articulate our belief that we are here to serve the community through our programming, outreach, partnerships, and everything we do. On a similar note, the personality of the venue and its representatives is ultimately more important than the titles that are shown onscreen. As film scholar David Bordwell quoted in his keynote address, Marcus Loew once said, “We sell tickets to theatres, not to movies.” I want you to think of Bryn Mawr Film Institute as truly your community theater and your home away from home, and that is the environment that I work to create.

Devin Wachs is the Public Relations Manager for Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She joined BMFI in 2005, following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College. If you send BMFI a message on Facebook or Twitter or are interested in onscreen sponsorships, she's the one who'll be in touch!

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