To the Editor: Re “Inside Indie Movie Theaters’ Battle to Survive” (Variety Feature)
Brent Lang and Matt Donnelly are right, thousands of screens in the United States are operated by independents. However, the depiction of these theaters as imperiled is incomplete and inaccurate.
Throughout the United States, independent cinemas that prioritize community engagement and ambitious programming are thriving. At Art House Convergence, a national association committed to advancing excellence in film exhibition, participation in our annual conference has increased from 27 in 2008 to over 700 in 2019, a reflection of the number of art house cinemas opening, expanding, and embracing the vitality of theatrical exhibition.
Joined by the guiding principle of “community-based, mission-driven,” these theaters, which number in the hundreds, aren’t merely trying to “out hustle the bigger circuits.” They are effectively strategizing financial growth and sustainability to support exemplary theatrical experiences, media education programs, and meaningful conversations — and their communities are growing. Since 2009, for instance, the Gateway Film Center (Columbus, OH) has doubled its attendance, while the Belcourt Theatre (Nashville, TN) has increased attendance by 55% over the past five years, and other theaters such as the Brattle Theatre (Cambridge, MA), and Pickford Film Center (Bellingham, WA) also report steady growth.
These organizations, including the Michigan Theater Foundation (Ann Arbor, MI), the parent organization of Art House Convergence and two historic theaters, are mature arts nonprofits. The Michigan Theater Foundation currently has a membership of over 7,000 individuals and since 2015 has raised $9 million dollars for a major renovation of its historic State Theatre. Likewise, Film Streams (Omaha, NE) recently completed a $9 million capital campaign to restore and renovate the historic Dundee Theater with outstanding results — in 2018 they enjoyed increased revenue, attendance, membership, and ensured that 30% of exhibited films were directed by women.
Art house theaters across the country are also expanding their programming to include robust media arts curricula. The Jacob Burns Film Center (Pleasantville, NY) has implemented education programs for over 150,000 students since 2001, while the Bryn Mawr Film Institute (Bryn Mawr, PA) educates 5,000 students each year, offering filmmaking and documentary courses as well as educational opportunities for elementary school students.
At the same time, in the face of our current social and political polarizations, independent theaters including the Nickelodeon Theatre (Columbia, SC), FilmScene (Iowa City, IA), and the Nightlight Cinema (Akron, OH) are giving audiences the opportunity to see films from countries including Palestine, Kenya, Lebanon, and Colombia. These screenings are indispensable invitations to encounter diverse perspectives while enlarging one’s understanding of the world, not just presentations of “obscure foreign language movies” as Variety describes.
Art houses are successfully crafting community partnerships with other organizations, as the Doris Duke Theatre (Honolulu, HI) did with Hawai‘i Women in Filmmaking on their “Women in Film” series, and collaborating with each other on programming initiatives like The Seventh Art Stand, championed by the Northwest Film Forum (Seattle, WA), and Science on Screen, which through a partnership between the Coolidge Corner Theatre (Brookline, MA) and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has helped 82 cinemas host science related programs.
These vibrant theaters demonstrate that audiences everywhere appreciate collective viewing and the public square. Art houses are going to keep bringing people together, showing incredible films, and facilitating challenging conversations — that’s far more than just keeping the lights on.
Art House Convergence
Los Angeles, CA
Art House Convergence
Ann Arbor, MI