Mission Driven: Interview with Alison Kozberg, Managing Director, Art House Convergence

The nation’s art houses, specialty distributors, and nonprofit cinemas will once again convene in Midway, Utah, for the latest edition of Art House Convergence (AHC). Boxoffice Pro spoke with Alison Kozberg, AHC’s managing director, to preview this year’s conference and discuss the most pressing issues affecting the art house community today. 

After an eventful 2019 with several industry-changing headlines, how would you describe the “State of the Union” for the art house community entering 2020?

I think it’s important to differentiate “the industry,” as it is now understood, from the core priorities of art house cinemas. Today “the industry” usually describes media conglomerates, and while the impact of these actors is undeniable, art house cinemas do more than react to streaming, mergers, and franchises—we build relationships that center cinematic art and audience experience. On the precipice of 2020, we have to think about these relationships with filmgoers, distributors, funders, and each other, and how we can collectively nurture a love for cinema. Art houses are spaces to gather, share, teach, and learn and not just receptacles for industry-wide decisions. 

At the end of 2019, audiences’ desires for original stories, visual experimentation, and unexpected experiences are clear. Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is exceptional, but it is not just an exception. It is evidence of filmgoers’ energy and curiosity, of their desire for creative and genuinely surprising cinema. There is also ample evidence of love for the theatrical experience, of a collective desire to watch films on big screens even if they available on small ones (I’m looking at you, The Irishman), and a passion for 35 and 70 millimeter. 

Looking ahead, it’s clear that art houses need to continue to pursue collaboration and to think seriously and consistently about the experiences people have in their theaters. In 2020 we know that excellent programming, impeccable projection, and a willingness to hear our audiences, combined with an openness to innovation and a commitment to presenting challenging fare unavailable in commercial theaters, will continue to make art houses essential to the cinematic landscape of the future.

As you prepare the latest edition of the 2020 annual conference, could you provide us with a quick preview of this year’s sessions and events?

I am incredibly excited about the 2020 conference. We are hosting over 50 sessions with a particular emphasis on our responsibilities as film exhibitors. Over the course of these sessions we will be digging into questions that disrupt the status quo while contributing to a more sustainable future. Some highlights include a group data hack led by Sultan Sharrief from the Quasar Lab at USC intended to challenge entrenched algorithms for categorizing films, a conversation about cinematic guilty pleasures led by K.J. Relth and Paul Malcolm from the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and “4 Times a Day?!,” an interrogation into whether the adage that more screenings necessarily generate bigger box office is true. We are also hosting incredible keynote speakers, including D.J. and scholar Lynée Denise, who will be giving a performance-lecture exploring the work of legendary art house filmmaker Julie Dash, and film producer Heather Rae, who will speak about integrity in cinematic storytelling. 

There have been two big initiatives that AHC has tackled in recent years: Sustainability and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Could you update us on some of your recent—and upcoming—projects on that end?

With regard to “going green,” I think it is an essential moment for ethically oriented, mission-driven enterprises to respond to our current climate emergency by committing to making our communities livable. Right now we are also very concerned with changing the ecosystem of the conference and reducing the amount of waste it produces. I am thrilled to see so many colleagues initiating composting programs and offering reusable beverage glasses. These first steps might feel small, but they are worth celebrating. 

The world is incredibly diverse, and it is imperative that this diversity of experiences and perspectives is present in art house cinemas. I prefer not to use the term “initiative” because it presumes a leadership that is including more people instead of acknowledging the many participants working together to create conditions for equity. Dozens of people involved with the conference and Art House Convergence are doing incredible work to oppose racism, reshape arts institutions, remove cultural and infrastructural barriers to participation in filmgoing, and challenge hierarchical presumptions about how change occurs. 

Three years ago Taylour Chang of the Honolulu Museum of Art and Courtney Sheehan, formerly of Northwest Film Forum, established a working group called Alliance for Action dedicated to equity in the art house. It is notable that many of this group’s activities have focused on asking questions: How does your theater reflect your community? What is the history of your neighborhood? What are its sources of pride? Who feels welcome at your theater? In subsequent years as Art House Convergence has had the opportunity to host facilitators like Tammy Johnson of Art/Work Practice and Shontina Vernon of Visionary Justice StoryLab, questioning the status quo and our own biases and impulses has remained essential. It is essential that we keep asking questions and holding ourselves accountable when the answers are hard to hear. 

Another recent initiative I’ve found very appealing is Art House Theater Day. Could you tell us more about that and describe some of the highlights of the 2019 edition?

Art House Theater Day is an annual celebration of the role that art house cinemas play in their communities. Art houses throughout North America and abroad are invited to participate, screen special film prereleases, and share special swag. Any mission-driven, indie theater can sign up through our website. In 2019 the Art House Theater Day lineup, programmed by Rocío Mesa of LA OLA and Dan Hudson of the Grand Illusion Cinema, included Putney Swope and Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, wonderfully weird films that are genuinely surprising. Over 100 theaters participated, and people around the country attended the celebration. 

Do you have any concerns regarding the Department of Justice’s recent decision to repeal the Paramount decrees? How do you think this could affect the arthouse community in the U.S.?

I strongly disagree with the Justice Department’s assertions that the decrees’ “existence may actually harm American consumers by standing in the way of innovative business models.” In fact, practices like block booking and circuit dealing hamper innovation by preventing theaters from entering into relationships with small distributors, developing eclectic screening series, and initiating programs in service of their local economies. 

The film industry has changed since the 1930s. Instead of major motion picture studios, a small group of conglomerates now hold a tremendous amount of control over media industries. We have already been feeling the consequences of the erosion of the enforcement of the decrees. During the 1980s studios made forays into the exhibition business, and over the course of the last decade there have been multiple lawsuits about licensing and clearances. This isn’t evidence that antimonopolistic regulation is outdated, it’s evidence that it needs to be updated, because we need it now more than ever. 

We’ve heard a lot of complaints from exhibitors concerning Disney’s decision to make legacy Fox titles unavailable for repertory runs. How big of an impact has this had on the art house community?

Art houses are going to curate amazing repertory programs, but restricted access to the Fox catalogue hurts audiences by obstructing access to an important part of our cultural heritage. The catalogue includes hundreds of titles from the silent period to the present (including gems from the golden age of Technicolor) that were intended to be theatrically exhibited. Pulling them from circulation diminishes their place in the public consciousness. Some theaters are still able to screen Fox repertory titles, and our position is that access should be protected and expanded. It is clear that making films theatrically available enhances the public’s excitement for a film library to the benefit of audiences, exhibitors, and rights holders. 

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for the art house community in the coming decade?

It is clear that just screening media isn’t enough. People can watch media on a variety of surfaces and screens. Art houses have to be places where people want to gather. They are organizations that take film presentation seriously, cultivate trust by screening films they are passionate about, and work for and with people. We can’t try to replicate the model of large chains; instead we have to find our own way by centering innovation and audience.

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