The Spotlight Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes an individual whose commitment to the theatrical experience and successful track record has made a major contribution to the history of art house cinema. This year’s recipient, Gary Meyer, began his life in exhibition in the family barn, originally a place to screen the films he shot as a high school student. That space grew to become the Above-the-Ground Theatre, home to over 250 screenings.
The experience provided a natural transition to film school, at San Francisco State University, during an era in film history that would define an entire generation of American filmmakers and cinephiles. Meyer formally entered the industry as a booker for United Artist, only to venture back into the weekly grind of operating movie houses in 1975, as a co-founder of Landmark Theatres. After leaving Landmark in 1996, Meyer went on to consult on several high-profile projects in the art house world, including Sundance Cinemas, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas, and the effort to save San Francisco’s historic 1926 Balboa Theatre. A veteran of the film festival circuit, Meyer was associated with the Telluride Film Festival for 16 years beginning in 1998, including a seven-year tenure as co-director from 2007 to 2014.
Currently, Meyer operates the EatDrinkFilms Festival (along with its online magazine, eatdrinkfilms.com) and consults for Cinetopia in Ann Arbor and Detroit. Boxoffice spoke to Meyer ahead of Art House Convergence about the current state of art house cinema and his hopes for the future of specialty-film programming.
What’s your take on the status of specialty exhibition and distribution today?
It’s an interesting time. There’s a renewed energy around art houses, with a lot of energy around creative thinking about programming, environment, presentation, amenities—and there are probably more specialty distributors than ever before. That has its mixed blessings: on one hand, it gives us a tremendous amount of product to choose from, but on the other hand there might be too much product to choose from—I’m not sure we have enough screens for it. It puts us in a natural selection process where some films survive and others don’t. But there’s a pressure to meet your bottom line for most operators, so you’re going to gravitate toward the films that do the most business—and that can push out some really exciting small films.
Marketing independent cinemas has always been a challenge, particularly because they don’t have the support of a big company—and its big dollars—to promote a film. How has that challenge changed with today’s digital media?
We’re at a point in time where print media, which used to drive moviegoers to theaters, has fundamentally changed. When I read something online, I’m looking for something specific—I don’t tend to read and discover stories like I do when reading print. There are thousands of places you can go read about movies. It’s overwhelming. There are only a handful of those outlets that can make a dent. It’s a challenge for us: how can we alert people about the movies we’re playing? I’m organizing a panel at the Art House Convergence on new journalism for that reason.
How important is it for exhibitors to help build that moviegoing experience for audiences in their individual communities?
There’s a wide attempt to try to build loyalty among your audience, but it is hard to do. People will tell you, “I love your theater,” and when you ask them what they saw they admit that they haven’t been back for three years. I had very mixed feelings about MoviePass, for example. Initially I was completely negative about it, but I’ve spoken to a number of people since who have been going to two, three movies a month since signing up for it. These are folks who used to go to two to three movies a year. They’re getting excited about the moviegoing experience again.
Graying audiences are a concern for movie theaters around the world, but it seems like a bigger issue for art houses. What role do younger audiences have in the current state of art house theaters?
I’m not in theaters often enough to have the anecdotal evidence to give you a good answer. When I go to art houses here in the East Bay, where I live, there’s rarely anybody under 50. We’re not communicating to enough of that young audience. Now, Alamo [Drafthouse] has figured out a formula that does appeal to a younger audience—and I know there are other independents out there that are doing similar things: special programming, creating a sense of community around screenings, and the ability to be able to drink and eat. Now, I wouldn’t want every theater out there to adopt that concept—but I think what they’re doing is fantastic
Do you think there are any cultural barriers to finding that younger audience? There seems to be an aura around art house cinema that might make them seem too inaccessible for new audiences.
What often happens is that movies like Lady Bird go into commercial theaters after they get launched in the art houses, and that’s when they enter into the consciousness of mainstream moviegoers. They don’t think of those films as being “independent” or “art films.” When you think of titles such as Like Water for Chocolate or Pulp Fiction, I don’t think most people would identify them as specialty titles or have any idea that they started at an art house. There have always been people that are put off by the art house, for so many reasons, and for many years these are theaters that were located in funky old buildings without many upgrades. Sight lines were not especially good, for example. There’s an old line, “you have to suffer for your art,” and that applies so much to those old theaters. When commercial theaters really started to build multiplexes with stadium seating and amenities, slowly art houses realized they needed to become more comfortable. In my Landmark days, that’s when we started bringing in a lot of these upgrades.
Is there a specific trend or amenity in today’s moviegoing culture that stands out for you?
I can’t stand Barco loungers in theaters; I think it’s an invitation to go to sleep. It has nothing to do with the film. Just walk around in a theater and look at the number of people that dozed off. I’ll admit it myself, I fall asleep sometimes in movies and plays—and it has nothing to do with the quality of the show. I’ve fallen asleep in the loudest action scenes. I learned a long time ago not to fight it; it usually only lasts around five minutes. Many years ago, Roger Ebert convinced Gene Siskel to go to the Cannes Film Festival—the only time that Gene went. The three of us went to a screening in the marketplace … we went to see a French literary period piece. Well, I fell asleep and a few minutes later I wake up and look at Gene Siskel next to me, sleeping, and on the other side Roger Ebert, sleeping. The movie finishes and we kind of joke about it and as we’re leaving, we look back at this 50-seat auditorium and see six Japanese men, with their suits and ties on, and they are sound asleep. We didn’t wake them up. And when we came back to that same screening room to see a western 45 minutes later, these guys are still there. When they woke up to see that action western, I wonder what they thought—they fell asleep during this French literary adaptation and woke up in this action western. I’ve seen the best of them fall asleep: Vincent Canby, Janet Maslin, you name it.
What is your outlook on the future of art house exhibition and distribution?
I have high hopes for our segment, even though I believe that we’re going to have a reduction in the number of screens and complexes over the next 10 years on the commercial side. I’m hoping that the specialized segment is able to build audiences that appreciate a different way of experiencing a movie. As frustrated as exhibitors are that someone like Netflix doesn’t give their films a true theatrical release outside of their qualifying run, these OTT platforms are putting money into making films that otherwise might never have been produced—and be seen by vast numbers of people. I hate to say it, many more people than would see them at an art house. I prefer Amazon’s strategy, which puts films into theaters and gives them a theatrical life before putting them on Amazon Prime.
When did you first attend Art House Convergence? What were your initial thoughts about the event?
It might have been the third or fourth year, I can’t remember. I got a call asking if I would come speak at the event. I had been feeling burned out of attending exhibition conferences and film festivals, but I agreed and went with a certain amount of skepticism. Once I arrived, I found a new world: a place full of inspiration, cooperation, and love for what people were doing. I came home and called and wrote people, telling them to attend the following year.