By Mark James.
It’s fitting that “Art House Convergence” spells it with two separate words. Without the specificity that the term “Arthouse” commands in the film world, “Art House” can enjoy a far wider interpretation. The Art House Convergence, which started as an adjunct to the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, holds it’s annual meeting in Utah usually just prior to the Sundance. Meanwhile, its second regional seminar was recently held on July 10, 2014 at the sublime Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, California—just north of San Francisco. Conference Manager (and filmmaker in her own right) Barbra Twist explained that the term Art House is not always about independent or foreign films but most broadly about community. It’s this less strict definition then that allows for a wide array of for-profit and non-profit cinemas, museums and many other types of community-based groups, both small and large, to come together and share the best practices that can help mission-based cinemas to continue and even thrive.
The mood of this Art House Convergence seemed lighter than had reportedly been the case last time. Especially because many member cinemas have successfully made an arduous transition to digital projectors—an expense that strained many cinemas, especially non-profits. The one-day conference began with a tour of The Rafael Cinema lead by Mark Fishkin, Executive Director of the California Film Institute, followed by opening remarks from Russell Collins (Conference Director) and Fishkin, who laid out some mid-range goals for the organization. These centered around advocating for film to be more widely accepted as an art form as opposed to solely a commercial enterprise.
It might surprise you to learn that many of the film societies and festival organizers who often require government and private support still need to educate their benefactors on the difference between community based film organizations and the larger chains. Additional goals include expanding the organization’s presence on the web. The long-term objective, however, remains the core mission of linking art house cinemas, community based theaters, film festivals and film societies. Accordingly, the organization is also actively looking for partnership from art house cinemas in Mexico to make its reach truly “North American.”
Collins told me that the Convergence team is exchanging best practices with Europa Cinema, the government funded European organization that—through its global network of cinemas—provides funding support to promote European Cinema worldwide. One of Europa Cinema’s overarching goals is to educate younger audiences (also a paramount goal of the Convergence). The rest of the conference consisted of breakout sessions focused on information exchange. For instance, Tim League, the founder and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse, and Shelly Spicer of the California Film Institute discussed marketing disciplines ranging from consistency of message to building a brand.
The theme of educating elected officials and corporate grant makers loomed large in a break out session titled “The Big Four in Fundraising.” Tori Baker of the Salt Lake Film Society shared a one page summary of a study which she distributes to local elected officials detailing the impact of Salt Lakes Film Society’s effect on the community. Liana Bender, the director of the California Film Institute, spoke of engaging her audience, which includes film salons where audiences can discuss films in a group setting. Also discussed were opportunities for grants to help create Film Clubs that engage seniors, and treating cinema and its community impact in the manner of non-profit community based live theater, which often are the recipient of local government grants.
Peggy Johnson of the Loft Cinema in Tucson discussed how she makes sure that decision makers see the youthfulness and diversity of her audience—often in contrast to older audiences for the ballet or opera, which reminded me of the importance of ensuring that future generations appreciate the arthouse. On the technical side, the Sound Systems for Cinema presentation detailed the current offerings from Dolby and THX, and was a perfect lead in for the keynote by Academy Award winning sound designer Benn Burtt (Star Wars and Indiana Jones). His presentation traced the arc of his rich career. He even reveled the genesis of such well known sounds as the Star Wars light saber (it was partially the hum of a film projector).
Raising awareness of a particular cinema while giving back to the community was the focus of “Give back, Get Back: Art House Karma at Work,” featuring Russ Collins from the Michigan Theater who donates his space for the Penny W. Stamps lecture series that has a heavy emphasis on community building through the arts.
The evening ended with a screening of a blues infused love letter to Memphis—the documentary Take Me to the River (directed by Martin Shore) which tells the legendary tale of Memphis R&B and its overarching influence on all aspects of American music. Unlike other recent music documentaries (Muscle Shoals and Twenty Feet From Stardom come to mind) that focus solely on the accomplishments of yesterday’s music legends, Take Me to the River proposes that such a heritage, through collaboration and knowledge-sharing, can help forge the future of music in this home of the blues and the birthplace of rock n’ roll. The film is an affectionate uplifting stomping good ride.
As we mourn the loss of so many blues masters, the film’s message of connecting generations of artists was joyfully optimistic, and its soundtrack bounced off the walls of the theater, again illustrating how the experience of film is at its best when played in the cathedral of film: the theater. And perhaps Take Me to the River’s intergenerational message is a fitting parallel for Art House Convergence, an organization whose purpose is to share knowledge and build community across generations—all through the unique experience of cinema seen in a theater.
Mark James lives in San Francisco and is a frequent contributor to Film International.
Art House Convergence take place January 19-22, 2015 in Midway, Utah. Take Me to the River opens in select USA cinemas September 12, 2015