The “art house theater” is at this point as ingrained an American outpost of culture as the record store, comic book shop, and bookstore. For years, each of those establishments have had their own celebratory day. This year, Art House Theater Day joins them. On September 24th, these mostly-independent theaters across the country will host a series of special screenings, collectively spotlighting the value of the art house theater and the communities that keep them active. Most will do so through coordinated screenings of Phantasm, Time Bandits, Danny Says, or a children’s program from the team behind A Town Called Panic. The American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre will show a 35mm double feature of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) and The River (1951), while the Egyptian will show Alan Tudyk’s web series Con Man. Both programs are free to current Cinematheque members!
While we all may have an idea of what an art house theater looks like, The Art House Convergence has a definition. “It is a community-based, mission-driven cinema,” Managing Director Barbara Twist told me. The group was founded through initially-informal gatherings at the Sundance Film Festival, formally establishing their yearly conference in 2008. Since then, it has grown twenty-fold and become a year-round organization.
Twist saw the benefits almost immediately. “The reason so many theaters have been drawn to Art House Convergence is that they didn’t have an outlet before this to gather and the network, and to complain to their fellow colleagues! And to bond over big issues. Everything from everybody’s favorite elephant in the room - windowing and VOD - to clearances to modern trends in concessions.” Plus, there’s the personal angle. She continues, “To be able to just get together and have a shorthand that our families might not understand is great.”
The Convergence conducts a yearly study of its member theaters, and publishes the results on their website. The results might sound familiar to regular attendees - audiences skew older, even as most are located near colleges and universities; profit margins are often thin; websites are driving much of the communication with audiences - while other statistics may surprise. Even in the age of the multiplex, fully half of theaters are still single-screen operations. 73% of responding theaters showed a profit - 42% of that 73 held a 10% or greater profit in 2013. And revenue and attendance is slightly on the rise for most theaters. The most profitable theaters generally ran with lower revenue, lower expenses, and fewer screens.
Twist attributes art house success to community engagement. “The real heart of our art house theaters is that they’re reflective of our communities and engaged in our communities, and the fact that we’re showing movies makes us art house theaters, I think it’s something more that actually draws audiences into our spaces,” she said. “It’s the same way that an art gallery or a symphony or a music hall could react to their community and represent them, even though they’re bringing in outside sources of entertainment or culture, the core of it is just people who want to gather and watch movies.”
Art House Day presents an opportunity for theaters to highlight their individuality amidst a national event. Twist shared some favorites: “People have dusted off old prints - one theater is showing an old reddish print of Time Bandits and they’ll show a bit of it before the restored DCP to showcase film preservation. Another theater is doing face painting for the kids, another is doing free popcorn, some are doing community giveaways. A lot of it is asking these theaters, ‘how do you want your community to celebrate going to the art house today?’”
There’s an opportunity for distributors here as well. “[Art House Theater Day] offers this really incredible marketing push for Danny Says the following week,” Twist notes. “It gives the audiences a treat - they get to see something early - and it also hopefully giving the distributors excellent grosses [by folding it into this event].” Plus, with titles rushing to VOD quickly, not every art house theater gets these limited-release movies before their theatrical runs are up, “so this is an opportunity show distributors what our network can do, how we can really rally and provide a great experience.”
The Aero and Egyptian are unique for their focus on repertory titles. While Twist estimates that 95% of the theaters in the Convergence have some repertory component, it is mostly a way to complement their first-run programming. Film history and film education is a big part of the art house experience, she says. “Our missions are to show people movies they can’t see anywhere else, and repertory is a big part of that.”
The Rules of the Game and The River trace an interesting evolution in the art house. In the late 1930s, international imports were extremely few and far-between, limited to specialized exhibitions. Renoir originally hoped to show The Rules of the Game at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, but an infamously-ruinous premiere in France did away with those plans. The social satire wouldn’t make its U.S. debut until 1950, and even then in a severely-truncated form (85 minutes compared to the premiere length of 113). While it is a somewhat unusual example (Renoir’s previous film, The Grand Illusion, played in New York and played well), by the time The River came along, the American interest in and opportunities for foreign-set productions was very different. United Artists handled local distribution, and it played for the better half of a year in New York.
Much of this could be attributed to the landmark antitrust decision in 1948 that divested Hollywood studios of their branded theaters, making them independent operations that could import foreign films. The late 1940s and early 1950s were vital times for Japanese, Italian, and French cinema in America, as men and women who had recently served overseas - or knew somebody who had - developed a keen interest in other cultures, and the art house theater was an important force in fostering that interest, to the point that The River could be a success without stars or a major studio propping it up. The gorgeous Indian scenery on the big screen was the draw. The screening at the Aero should demonstrate how appealing it still is.
Scott Nye is the editor-at-large at Battleship Pretension and co-host of the CriterionCast podcast. He can regularly be found at Los Angeles's many repertory theaters, or on Twitter @railoftomorrow.