by Barbara Twist, Managing Director, Art House Convergence
The first official Art House Convergence conference was held January 16–17, 2008, at the historic Peery Hotel in Salt Lake City. We had 27 attendees for the wonderful gathering, organized by the Michigan Theater, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Pickford Cinema, the Salt Lake Film Society, and Jan Klingelhofer of Pacific Film Resources. The group’s mission was to get to know one another and share our successes, our challenges, our anxieties, and, most importantly, our hopes and dreams.
In 2009, attendance nearly tripled, to 76, despite the economic struggles faced by independent exhibitors during the Great Recession. “How to Survive an Economic Downturn” was, fortunately, only a one-time session, but a session on current technology highlighted the growing anxiety and confusion about how art houses should respond to the impending conversion from 35 millimeter to DCI digital cinema.
In 2010, the conference moved to its current home in Midway, Utah, as attendance grew yet again. For the first time we welcomed allied businesses, including many film distributors. The first Art House Theater Operations Study was conducted and presented by Juliet Goodfriend of Bryn Mawr Film Institute. The study has since evolved into our annual State-of-the-Art House Report, including the theater-operations survey and the national-audience survey. Academy Award–winning documentarian Michael Moore gave a memorable closing keynote speech laying out the “Homestead Declaration,” an art-house manifesto.
In 2011, the Sloan Foundation announced its Science on Screen program at the annual conference, offering grants exclusively to art houses to develop film series with speakers discussing the science in the films and facilitating a Q&A after the films. Films from The Birds to It Follows have been presented at theaters across the country as part of this program.
By 2012, the Art House Convergence felt like a genuine movement, with 300 attendees and a very active online forum. At the annual conference, the mandatory DCI/DCP digital cinema compliance was felt in conversations, keynotes, and a pair of sessions titled simply “DCP: Part 1 and Part 2.” Yet, the passion and enthusiasm for 35-millimeter projection was equally present in a session titled “The Art House and the Archive: 35 millimeter is Not Dead (Yet)!”
In 2013, the conference celebrated the Brave New American Art House, recognizing our theaters as cultural institutions with fervent community support and committed to state-of-the-art audio and visual presentations. We faced difficult conversations about the financial and aesthetic ramifications of the industry-wide migration to DCI/DCP digital cinema. We welcomed, for the first time, our European colleagues, beginning our strong partnership with Europa Cinemas and cementing our support of the art-house movement all across the globe.
In 2014, we welcomed our film-festival colleagues with a formal session track, developed by the Film Festival Alliance (formerly IFP Festival Forum). With so many art houses hosting film festivals, it was a natural partnership and development of our education program. Our partnership has grown stronger over the years and Film Festival Alliance is now a vital partner in our annual conference program.
In 2015, the brains behind Renew Theaters in Pennsylvania brought us Art House Tales, a collection of lightning-fast talks about art-house cinemas. With over 500 attendees, Art House Tales quickly became the favorite session and has become a staple of our conference program. To see each Art House Tales presentation, visit amblertheater.org/arthouse.
In 2016, nearly 600 delegates attended the annual conference. In under 10 years, the community grew 20-fold, bringing together exhibitors, film festivals, bookers, film distributors, vendors, and filmmakers. Our State of the Art House told us that our patrons attend the movies 32.5 times per year. It also told us that while 91 percent of our theaters have DCI-compliant projectors, more than 50 percent have 35-millimeter capabilities. We celebrated this fact with several sessions on film, including how to borrow and care for increasingly rare film prints and how to celebrate the artistic virtues of movies on film. Thanks to continued support by Boston Light and Sound, we were able to offer scholarships to emerging art-house exhibitors. As the final hurrah of the conference, Art House Theater Day was announced, spearheaded by Lawren Desai and Gabe Chicoine and sponsored by the Art House Convergence on September 24, 2016.
Now, as we look to the 2017 annual conference, we expect our first-ever sell-out conference, with over 600 attendees from around the globe. We will host dialogues on inclusiveness in our programming and staffing, on green technologies at our concessions stands, and risk management from data security to everyday liability. We will welcome James Schamus as our keynote speaker, learning from his experience both in distribution and in filmmaking. And most of all, we will take a moment to celebrate our progress over the last 10 years in increasing the quantity and quality of art-house cinemas in North America. Before we get to work on the next 10 years, of course.