[Excerpted with permission from a keynote speech by Stephanie Silverman, Belcourt Theatre, at the 2014 Art House Convergence]
You have been my teachers; we have been each other’s teachers. I wanted to take this moment, the closing of another remarkable convergence, to name what I think makes us special and where we have room for growth. Because these are the things I learned from you….
- Start at home.
Care most about programming for your community, and do it with exceptional creativity. We all love a tent pole, and there have been some magical ones over the last few years. Great filmmaking exists, and we are the lucky ones who get to share it with our audiences — but building a theatre that’s sustainable in years when the tent poles are pup tent size, rather than circus tent proportion — or when the big guy down the road decides he wants to be more “creative” — is not simple. You have to be able to survive, but that survival may just be where you find your programmatic voice — and is absolutely where you build audience trust, where you begin to teach your community to check in on you every week just to see what’s going on.
- Teach your children well.
Film organizations like ours are in a remarkably unique position to engage young people creatively —because kids love movies. Take it from someone who came from the contemporary dance world. Kids do not love modern dance as much as they love movies. We are an art form that is both accessible and challenging — and one that can tell stories which hit close to home, or make connections across the globe. Yes, we need to raise young people to be the engaged film audiences of the future, but even bigger and more important, we need to raise young people whose eyes are wide open and whose world views are informed and broad — even if it’ll be years before they get to move far past their front porch in Nashville, Tennessee or Omaha, Nebraska or Anchorage, Alaska, all of which have great art house cinemas.
- Run a damn good business.
Know how to make your year successful, and know that those transactional relationships whether via a ticket, a popcorn purchase, a membership purchase or a contribution — those are where the gold lies. In the world of the art house, those people are your tribe. They trust you to do right by them, and of course, it starts with the films — but it has to exist in every other detail in your institution. How we gracefully and warmly navigate each interaction is how trust is built…how recommendations are made…and why audiences are drawn back to us. Even if they’ve never heard of the film…
- Work with amazing people.
I have never, in my professional life, been surrounded by better colleagues than I am every day at the Belcourt. They are exceptional. I feel the freedom to brag about this freely here because I know I’m not alone. I also know, though, that there’s a place for us in the national conversation about hourly wages. Different communities have different stories — and, in our theatre, we certainly don’t have the ability to instantly address what I personally believe to be a substantive issue for our part time staff. But within the film exhibition world, we are the institutions who could start to improve pay for our hourly workforce. I don’t know about yours, but mine lowest paid employees are largely from the much-heralded creative class, most of whom have college degrees and know more about film that I ever will. The value of those people being on our front lines is extraordinary — and it is my goal, at least, to begin to pay them more what they are worth.
- Fight for your place in your cultural community.
Evangelize your philanthropic community, your tourism board, your chamber of commerce. Know them, talk to them, and remind them endlessly that a great film house is as important on any community’s cultural map as a symphony hall or a museum. And in some communities where symphony halls and ballet companies are not possible, it’s the film house that can step up and bring great symphonic music and world-class ballet to those communities.
And here’s the point that is closest to my heart. It’s the one that frustrates me the most and galls me the most in terms of the national narrative about art houses. It’s this:
- Aggressively refute the myth of the dying art house.
The typical story I’ve been called on to address by the media (barring some of the smarter publications sitting in this rooms) is a straight up Goliath vs. David narrative. Only it seems like there’s a predisposed desire that Goliath wins. Seriously—I was interviewed for three or four articles in the height of the economic downturn. And when I’d mention that we were having amazing years……end of conversation.
We, as a community, have weathered some tremendous storms from shifting formats to digital conversion. And there are only more to come. It’s the nature of this business and the nature of life — but unless a bomb drops on the Zermatt in the next few minutes — fantastic film exhibition is not going anywhere, and in fact we are healthier and more vital than ever.
There could not be a better time to be in our world, either in the year round exhibition business or the festival business. I love being here now, and I love having all of you as my colleagues, mentors and friends. Cheers to all of us. We are doing something special in communities around this country and around the world. You all inspire me to keep being better and I thank you for that every single day.