“There’s a certain kind of passion that exists in art houses that draws people to them,” says Russ Collins, executive director of Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater and founding director of Art House Convergence. Taking place January 19–23 in Midway, Utah, the annual conference gives art house professionals across North America the forum to discuss the challenges—and the rewards—of running art house theaters (as well as film festivals, museums, film societies, cultural centers, and the like). This year—as in every year since 2010, the first year Art House Convergence accepted sponsors—the show is being sponsored by its main benefactor, Spotlight Cinema Networks.
In that first year, Spotlight Cinema Networks was months away from becoming Spotlight Cinema Networks; it was later in 2010 that the then-named Arthouse Marketing Group would join forces with Landmark Theatres to form Spotlight. Its mission, providing in-theater advertising to independent and art house cinemas, made a partnership with Art House Convergence a natural fit.
“My relationship with AHC started in 2010, before Spotlight Cinema Networks was founded,” recalls Jerry Rakfeldt, CEO of Spotlight and the owner of Arthouse Marketing Group at that time. “My exhibitor partner, Kathy Staab from the Jane Pickens Theater, mentioned she was going to attend the AHC and encouraged me to go. After learning more, I contacted Russ Collins, introduced myself, and asked how I might be able to contribute to AHC’s mission. With AMG being a steadfast supporter of art houses, it was a natural course of action for AMG to become an inaugural sponsor, thus beginning our longtime partnership with AHC.”
Over the past several decades, various industry professionals have tried unsuccessfully “to launch a professional society for American art house cinemas,” recalls Collins. One of those professionals was Collins himself; his International Society of Specialty Film Exhibitors and Distributors (ISSFED), created in the ’90s, was short lived. In 2006, the Sundance Film Festival was host to the first Art House Project, attended by representatives from 12 theaters, among them Collins’s Michigan Theater. The attendees “so enjoyed meeting and sharing our tales of woe and success that we vowed to stay in touch to continue to share.” That ongoing communication resulted in a second Art House Project at the 2007 edition of Sundance, “where our camaraderie and enthusiasm for continuing contact and professional support grew.”
The next year, Art House Convergence was born when the Art House Project split off from Sundance—though not too far, as the conference still takes place right before the festival. “The AHC conference grew from 27 delegates in 2008 to 75 delegates in 2009. In 2010, we moved to the Homestead Resort in Midway, Utah, and 125 delegates attended—all theater operators,” says Collins.
Rakfeldt first attended in 2010. He recalls being “pretty much unprepared for what was to follow. It was a very comfortable and communal environment. There were only 125 people, so it was easy to meet everyone. I also had a number of my current exhibitor partners there, which helped me get acclimated. As an ad guy at an art house conference, I was a little apprehensive about my presence, but everyone treated me warmly. But most of all, it was an amazing learning experience. To listen to and take in the challenges and successes of each exhibitor was instrumental in helping me to better understand my business partners and what I needed to do to support their efforts.”
By 2013, there were 350 attendees; last year, there were more than 700.
Collins attributes part of the explosive growth of Art House Convergence to timing. The early years of the conference coincided with the transition to digital projection. “There was a lot of anxiety about the digital transition, and there was a lot of information that needed to be communicated about how you deal with that. Speaking art house to art house, you felt more comfortable getting that information through Art House Convergence than you might have in other ways.”
The digital transition is behind us, but challenges still exist. For any business—even nonprofits, which Collins estimates make up around 80 percent of AHC’s participating theaters—one of those challenges is financial. “A nonprofit has to make money and look at its revenue streams in very creative ways.” Alternative sources of money include paid membership programs, donations, and “a sponsorship dynamic, where you go to your local business and say, ‘You know, we’re doing this special series for Christmas. Would you like to be a sponsor for it?’” Though Spotlight works for nonprofit and for-profit businesses alike, Collins clarifies, it meshes well with nonprofits that rely on these sponsorships. “That’s part of the really nice thing about Spotlight: They’re flexible. If you go out and sell an ad to the restaurant next door, you can run your recognition of that restaurant and run the Spotlight ads, and there’s no conflict between them.”
The flexibility that Spotlight offers—the ability to customize in-theater advertisements to each theater’s individual community—is particularly important, given AHC’s philosophy. “We think of our theaters as community art spaces focused on cinema,” Collins explains. “We must be successful businesses, too, but we are mission-driven community enterprises rather than a profit-driven industry. This is a concept which the commercial movie world and entertainment journalist have a difficult time understanding. The movie business in the USA is so deeply rooted as an entertainment commodity, that thinking about cinema as an art form to be cherished, appreciated, and celebrated by community-based organizations is not easily understood by ‘Hollywood’ industry wonks or the mainstream media.”
From the art houses to the massive chains, the exhibition industry is in a time of flux. (Which is not, Collins notes, anything new: “Change is the only constant.”) The Paramount decrees and theatrical exclusivity windows are likely to be topics of conversation among attendees at this year’s conference. But, Collins argues, “You can only focus on what you can control. As much as I’d like to, I can’t control what Disney or the federal government or other corporate and government entities are going to do. The National Association of Theatre Owners does a really thoughtful and good job of lobbying and advocating on behalf of movie theaters.” Independent theaters, he cautions, “should always pay attention” to larger issues—“But if you worry about things that you can’t control, and you don’t worry about things that you can control, then you’re going to get into trouble. You can control how your message is spread in the community. You can control how you treat your customers. You can control the creativity that you use in your programming. And that, for an independent theater, can overcome some of the larger industry machinations that happen.”
Rakfeldt, for one, is inspired by the sense of community on display every year at AHC. “Being around so many people who are passionate about film and the importance of their organization within their local community really helps remind me that the revenue stream we provide is important and has purpose. I leave each year more dedicated than when I came, and that helps me grow Spotlight.” Spotlight’s contribution to AHC has grown, too. The company started out with a breakfast sponsorship and has grown to be the AHC Leadership Sponsor. Spotlight holds a seat on the board of AHC and presents the Annual Spotlight Lifetime Achievement Award, which “recognizes an individual whose commitment to the theatrical experience and successful track record has made a major contribution to the history of art house.”
In addition, “based on feedback from the AHC participants, we have created other programs that focus on benefiting this group,” says Rakfeldt; among those are the CineLife app and the Spotlight Support Program with the Film Festival Alliance.
In its ninth year, the partnership between Spotlight and Art House Convergence is still going strong. The two groups “to a pretty significant degree grew up together,” says Collins. “We minister to specialty cinemas, and Spotlight focuses on specialty cinemas. So, it’s kind of a marriage made in heaven.”