In a November LIVE session webinar, Boxoffice Pro partnered with cinema advertising company Spotlight Cinema Networks to launch a discussion on the current state of the art house market. A panel of experts from the art house and specialty space provided candid insights into the impact that Covid-19 has had on the way the indie sphere operates, from shifting relationships with streamers to attempts to bring in younger demographics. Below, we share a condensed version of that very important conversation.
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Presented by Spotlight Cinema Networks
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- Paul Serwitz, President and COO, Landmark Theatres
- Tori Baker, Salt Lake Film Society, President & CEO
- Dylan Skolnick, Cinema Arts Centre, Co-Director
- Barbara Twist, Director of Partnerships, Vidiots Foundation
- Barak Epstein, Aviation Cinemas / Texas Theatre, President
There’s a narrative outside the industry that the theatrical experience is in danger of going away, and that the art house / specialty scene in particular is in a precarious place. What do you have to say to that? And what is some of the programming that has performed well recently for you?
Barak Epstein: I think art house theaters are the ones that are being the most innovative during this, because they’ve done so many things to figure out how to engage their audiences in these past couple of years. At the Texas Theatre, we did a big renovation while we were closed. We built another theater, so we could show more movies. Most of what we do at the Texas Theater, we call it “event-based cinema.” When we say event-based cinema, it’s not just playing the Nick Cave movie—which we like to play—but we have something live happening. A live performance, a live speech, somebody from the movie. What’s been really popular for us recently is, with a lot of these people who are coming around touring with their films, often with appearances at conventions and whatnot, we get those people to come to the Texas Theatre and show a movie. Just recently, we had Malcolm McDowell here for a 50th-anniversary screening of A Clockwork Orange. 700 people came to that. Just two days ago, we showed Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. We had Sheryl Lee, Sherilyn Fenn, and Harry Goaz. Sold-out crowd for that. When we bring in people to see the films that they want to see with people [from the film] talking after them, that’s our signature thing.
Now that we have the second screen, we do that in conjunction with playing mainstream films, which we used to not be able to do because we couldn’t do runs of them. The one that’s done the best for us has been The Green Knight, as a regular first-run movie. Filmmaker David Lowery lives in Dallas, so even though it wasn’t shot here, people wanted to see it around here. People wanted to see it everywhere. But [the local connection] did help us.
Paul Serwitz: I’ll second what Barak said. We’ve tried to tap into Q&As and personal appearances and introductions as much as possible. That’s been a big driver to get a lot of people back into theaters. It’s helped smaller movies that otherwise didn’t have a great theatrical life. Those kinds of special events and personal appearances really do help drive audiences back, because it’s something out of the ordinary. You can’t get it at home, and you can’t get it in general at movie theaters. So that’s been a big piece for us. We continue to pursue that as much as we can to be part of that restart of the business.
For us, [Landmark Theatres is] a hybrid circuit, although we lean heavily to the specialty side. It’s been sort of like two windows: The commercial mainstream side really started to bounce back in April, and certainly with Memorial Day and through the summer. [But it wasn’t] the most fertile ground for specialty in the summer quarter. It was a struggle on that side, and the core art houses really struggled for a while. Even though there was volume of content, so much of it was playing day-and-date. That certainly undermined their theatrical runs. But there’s been a slow, incremental increase. Obviously, of late, The French Dispatch has been the big breakthrough title. It’s exactly what we needed and hoped it would be to sort of break the ice for the specialty side and those audiences, much the way Godzilla vs. Kong did [for mainstream moviegoers] seven months ago.
Some of the [highest-earning] titles for us—admittedly, the bar has been low. It’s taken a longer period of time for the older adult, specialty audience to really start coming back in any significant numbers. But pictures like The Green Knight, like Barak mentioned, [bring in audiences]. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain was certainly the high point of the summer for us. That was the indie release that had the most traction. Pig was pretty good. We had titles like Zola, Summer of Soul, that were better than most, for sure, but not nearly what we’d hoped they’d be. The Card Counter was one of the better titles we’ve had. But all of it, in comparison to The French Dispatch or some of the other pictures coming out, now that we see audiences starting to come back and some momentum building, have been pretty small. We’re certainly headed in the right direction.
Tori Baker: We’re still in the early days of telling [what films are bringing audiences back], because we opened on October 22 at the Broadway [Centre Cinemas], and we’re still renovating the Tower [Theatre]. We had hoped to open both, but renovations and supply chain demands, which everybody is dealing with right now, are slowing things down. So we’re learning right now. We made a conscious decision to open later, rather than earlier. We talked about it with the board early in the year and chose the October date. It felt very shocking to some of our patrons and people that are engaging with us. But we knew we needed an on-ramp. We knew we needed time. And the summer movies were looking like the bigger studio films, and less of the specialty films were coming through. So we felt like we had the time to build the on-ramp and especially take care of the staff. Because when you’re doing events at the cinema, the manpower that it takes and the energy that it takes to pivot back to that from doing our big @homeArts [virtual cinema] project, that was a real consideration for us as well.
Barbara Twist: [Regarding what you said about] the narrative always being pushed about art houses dying. I want to add to that I think community spaces are often positioned as dying or not doing well. And that’s what art houses are. For me, I think it’s more that we are, in some ways, fearful of community spaces doing well, because they’re out of the box, because they’re run by the people. They’re not corporatized. They don’t have clean lines around them. There’s not an obvious profit motivator center. And that’s something that’s really brilliant about the art house space. And I actually think that when art houses get too boxed in, too clean, too easy to categorize and identify—“Oh, this is who goes there, this is what they show”—that’s when they don’t do so well. For a long time, I got really pissed off that everyone was like, “Art houses are dying.” And now I’m like, “Fine, whatever, man.” You think we’re dead? We’re constantly being reborn. We are a Phoenix every day.
There’s been a lot of discussion surrounding day-and-date and the shrinking of the theatrical exhibition window—but most of that conversation centers around how it affects major chains. How does the shortened theatrical window affect specialty theaters? And how has your relationship with streaming outfits changed over the course of the pandemic, as they move more films into the theatrical space?
Paul Serwitz: I don’t think it would have ever been any exhibitor’s choice, big or small, to see windows getting shortened, much less day-and-date availability. It has compromised theatrical business, there’s no question about it. However, the reality is, it’s here to stay. Streaming is the 800-pound gorilla, and Covid just amplified that exponentially. At-home consumption has become a much bigger thing, and even post-Covid it remains that way. The volume and quality of the content that’s available at home is a real challenge.
At Landmark, we felt like it had to be embraced in order to meet that challenge and work with it as best we could and hope, really, that distributors—certainly beyond the streamers themselves—see that, ultimately, a theatrical window is the most valuable pathway for a film’s lifeline. We’ve seen examples of that over the last six months, both on the mainstream side and on the specialty side. Where it goes from here, I don’t know. But we’ve certainly embraced the streamers and the day-and-date situation to an extent. There’s too much good content not to play [it] theatrically and try to tap into that audience that will still get out of the home and go see a movie in a theater instead of in their living room.
Dylan Skolnick: The same as what Paul was saying: This has been going on somewhat for a while. Art houses were earlier [than mainstream theaters] in booking films that were VOD or streaming, taking some Netflix titles, long before the pandemic. So this is something we’ve been wrestling with and dealing with for a while. Clearly, it is not good for us when it’s day-and-date. It would be great if we could have long windows back again. But that’s gone. So it’s just a matter of picking and choosing which [streaming titles] work for us and which don’t, and being really selective about that.
It’s important to remember that some of these streaming releases are so minimal that they barely qualify as an actual theatrical release. I work with a number of theaters around the country, including several in Oklahoma, and [there were] a number of titles where the streamers just decided that Oklahoma was not part of a theatrical release in the United States. That’s because they’re trying to have a theatrical release at the tiniest possible level, probably just to say that they got it [in theaters] and partly to assuage the egos of whatever filmmaker was involved. One of those films that didn’t play in Oklahoma, for example, was CODA. [Apple TV Plus acquired CODA out of the 2021 edition of the Sundance Film Festival for a record-breaking $25 million.] We certainly asked for it. I forgot the exact term they used. It wasn’t an “essential market” or something like that.
Barak Epstein: I don’t think CODA played in Dallas, either. Or if it did, it played in a four-wall in the suburbs. It wasn’t really released.
Paul Serwitz: Apple had a very limited outlook on what they wanted to get done theatrically on CODA. And they’ve been less proactive, theatrically, than Amazon and Netflix. The fact of the matter is, you’ve got several titles over the next couple of months that have lofty award aspirations from those key streamers, Netflix and Amazon. High-quality films that will have a very short, truncated window. They want to have some kind of theatrical presence. It helps their publicity, it helps press, it helps deals with the filmmakers. But the fact of the matter is, Netflix and Amazon, as examples, are attracting top-shelf incredible filmmakers, including notoriously strong specialty filmmakers like Jane Campion, with Power of the Dog from Netflix. Netflix also has Don’t Look Up from Adam McKay, and Amazon’s got Tender Bar from George Clooney, and Aaron Sorkin with Being the Ricardos. These are all major movies, high-quality films that have big award aspirations.
Tori Baker: When it comes to this topic, I really think that what’s important, and what’s definitely different about the art houses, is that it’s about the value proposition and what we’re providing as an art house. I really find the vernacular interesting, because “streaming” is such a great visual to what is really happening with what people like to say is “content” out in the world. I really dislike using the word “content” surrounding films and movies. Content is anything from my daughter’s five-second Tik Tok video, all the way up through YouTube videos to a movie, now. It’s really incumbent upon us in the art house industry to differentiate what is worthy of time. Why I think that’s such an interesting visual is because it really is this rapid stream. I’m from the mountains. You see spring streams come down, and they’re just rolling. You can dip your hands in, and you may or may not get something that’s worthy of your time. And then there’s the rare things that maybe rise to the top. But that’s happening less and less. There’s not really a zeitgeist happening around one particular film. And that doesn’t mean the industry can’t try and find their avenue for their award or whatnot. But the reality is, Netflix, even when they’re trying to get an award, they still just want to promote the next [film] and the next and the next and the next. It’s about quantity, not quality.
Where art houses can differentiate themselves in that universe in the future, whether it’s a digital screen or a bricks-and-mortar screen, is that we’re the curators. We know what the artists are making. We’re bringing the artists to talk to you about this art form. About the movies. About film. About storytelling that happens within that two-hour time frame, not some sort of extended thing where I can turn it on, turn it off. I think that that’s the real important value proposition that we offer, regardless of the title. The more that we curate, the more people trust us. Everybody wants to get off the couch at some point, right? So at the point that they want to get off the couch, you need to be a viable option for them to see something that is worthy of the quality to make that effort.
Like you say, streamers release so many movies. And even if they get good reviews, it feels like they disappear in a few days. But if an art house is screening it, that means something to the audiences that are a part of your community.
Tori Baker: Even if they watch it online. That’s a value proposition, where they’ll continue to be a donor, for example, but they might still only go to 10 or 12 movies a year on average, right? But if they see that Melancholia is playing in your cinema, you’re validating that in a way that gives them that curation. It’s starting to tell them the story about what, in cinema, is worthy of my time. Because the stream is just too rapid. It’s too big. There are too many options.
Barbara Twist: Something that I’m sure we’ll never be able to quantify, but I’m quite certain has a significant impact, is the inherent marketing that an art house does for a title. We talk about the long tail and the economic impact of shortening a theatrical window. The amount of marketing— newsletters, social media, etc., etc.—that an arthouse cinema does … As Tori was saying, even if that person doesn’t end up buying the ticket to see that film at [an art house], later on down the road when it’s on Netflix, or when it’s on Comcast, Spectrum, whatever, and they buy it, part of the reason they’re doing it is because of that art house. And that is both the power of establishing a curatorial trust with your community and the impact of a movie theater.
There’s no question that the marketing surrounding a theatrical release is always going to surpass the marketing surrounding a streaming drop. It doesn’t matter how many billboards you buy. The number of people that the art house community is connected to—like, my aunt is talking to all of her friends about what they should see. And maybe my aunt’s the one person on the mailing list for the cinema, but she’s telling everyone else. I so desperately wish there was a way that we could quantify that, because that is what the studios are giving up. When they trade for money next quarter for their shareholders, they’re trading the possibility of way more money down the line, and more importantly, a stronger relationship with an audience that is going to return to see more of their films because of the work being done by the art house.
Do you get the impression that the streamers are on that same page about the positive role that an art house can play in the life of their film?
Dylan Skolnick: The people working at the streamers are very nice. We have great relationships with almost all of them. But I think they don’t think what we do is really an important part of what they do. Which is OK. What we do is so incredibly different. [Tori] was likening streaming to like a mountain stream, but it’s more like a fire hose spewing out a torrent of water of mixed quality. Some great stuff, some polluted stuff. Whereas what we do, it’s more like a mountain spring. It’s coming out, and it’s not that much, but it’s really pure. We try to make it the best we possibly can.
One of the advantages we have in working with a Netflix or an Amazon, because they, at a certain level, don’t care, is that there are very few restrictions. Sometimes you play a film for one week, and they go, “Oh, thanks!” You take out a show for a special event, and you don’t get a temper tantrum. All these things have made playing their films much, much easier. A theater I work with is open only four days a week at the moment. “Sure, you can open our film right on the break, no problem!” There is greater flexibility, and I want to give credit for that.
Paul Serwitz: There is. The streamers have an array of purpose around theatrical releases, the least of which, really, is generating box office revenue. It serves a lot of other purposes: the relationships with the filmmakers, attracting other filmmakers, keeping filmmakers, using the exposure as a marketing tool. It’s not really about the box office. They’d like to see box office, but they’re not marketing their films in such a way—nor are they providing enough of a window for a theatrical release—to really generate revenue. [Even when they put effort into a theatrical release], it’s still not the same as what Neon or Searchlight or A24 do with their theatrical releases. I think there’s a cap on what they’re willing to spend, which is ironic because they’ve got resources that never end [when it comes to acquiring the films].
Barak Epstein: During the pandemic we, like lots of people, moved to showing movies in our parking lot or outdoors. We ran a digital cinema in our parking lot on an inflatable screen. We wheeled a small Christie [projector] out there and ran power. And what that let us do, because we were doing DCP, was I started talking to studios that I’d never talked to before, like Universal and Focus. I’d never booked a Universal or Focus movie, non-repertory, before. Ever. And because they were releasing movies—with windows, but whatever, they had a lot of movies that came out last year—I looked at them, and I started talking to them. I pretty much played all the Universal and Focus movies in our parking lot. Dylan was talking about flexibility on the break—we [booked] Promising Young Woman for just one show. They’re like, “Good!” And then we kept playing it, because we kept selling out. So we ended up making five grand on it on just a handful of shows, which wasn’t bad during the world ending. But then, once we opened inside, we started playing more Universal and Focus movies inside. So that basically started a whole new relationship for our theater with those kinds of movies. We played Halloween, we played Candyman, we played The Card Counter, we played Last Night in Soho.
It’s like what Barbara was saying—an art house doesn’t have to be just one thing. There’s flexibility in what you can program.
Tori Baker: I don’t think there’s even more flexibility. I think it’s a demand from our patrons for us to meet their needs in this new technological environment where they do have too many offerings, and they don’t know what’s quality, and they don’t know what to spend their time on.
Perhaps we need to start thinking about the younger audiences and their trust of this art form. Because how many times have they shut off a really crappy streamed title—10 minutes in is really breaking the trust for the art form and that experience. The eventizing of these films can really help with that. You’ll always get quality when you see something in person. You’ll always get the extra, or that vaudeville effect, whether it’s the people talking or a pre-show that’s creative. And that will engage audiences and keep them coming back to an art house cinema, whether they continue to go back to a larger 20-plex or not.
To that point: The art house demographic tends to be on the older side, and we’ve seen that older moviegoers are taking longer to come back to the cinema. What’s been your experience with trying to get younger groups of people—and more diverse groups of people—to come to art houses?
Barbara Twist: Our core audience is more of a Gen X crowd. Those are folks who were going to [Vidiots’ original location] in the ’90s, 2000s and sort of evolved with us as we grew. In [L.A.’s] Eagle Rock [where the new Vidiots is opening], there’s a real mix. There are families. We have a college. There’s a lot of younger people, millennial-aged folks moving farther east due to housing prices. That’s something we’re really taking into consideration as we build out our curation team.
Something that’s very important for us is to ensure that our curatorial team and what we’re showing on screen is reflective of the community that we’re in, not just reflective of the community that we’ve previously engaged with. That is, I think, something that art houses are constantly grappling with. It’s very challenging to figure out how to retain the audience that you have. How do you develop new audiences? To Tori’s point about how younger folks are watching really terrible films on streaming, and that may be the limit of their engagement with long-form [content], anything longer than an hour, if their experience of the long form is not great, why would they leave their house to come to a space that, in their minds, is for people who are over the age of 60 and mostly white? What’s going to get them there?
Vidiots, especially as we open and as we look to bring in younger audiences, [are going to] show [older, nostalgic] titles that younger people know that they like. You bring them into the space, you work with them that way. And then, similarly, our programming team is going to be not one person, but a rotating collection of curators so that we are making sure we’re not sticking with one thing all the time. We’re trying to create some sort of synergy between all the programming, curatorial spaces that we occupy.
Tori Baker: This topic comes up a lot right now, obviously. I think that art houses, number one, have always had diverse programs that invite different communities. The challenge that we’ve always had is that we might appear a little too edified or unwelcoming as a group, in that we are “the cinephiles.” We know what film is, and we understand film history. And that is not welcoming. What we have done here at the Salt Lake Film Society is, we have five cultural tours. Those cultural tours, from the Pacific Islands film tour to our Filméxico tour, we did not demand the community come. We did not say, “These are the best of Mexican cinema happening right now. These are the best Pacific Island films being made.” But we created a task force from those communities that tell us what their community needs are. The only way that you’re really going to diversify your audience is if you’re meeting the needs of different communities. You can’t be the one that’s curating and saying that you know best, and you hope they show up just because you market to them.
Every community in the United States is even slightly different. We have a Jewish film tour. Here in Salt Lake City; our Jewish community says, “We are not interested in exhibiting films from the Holocaust. It’s something that we feel like we’re boxed in about.” But there are other communities where their Jewish communities do want to see Holocaust films. Every individual community that you work with is also regional and different, depending on where you live and the experiences that they have. They need their stories told in a particular way. And it’s your job as an art house to find those films. That’s, I think, the only way to diversify your welcoming and inclusion in your bricks-and-mortar space.
Paul Serwitz: Our group of theaters really varies in their demographic draws. Some areas and theaters really do skew more mature and older. Others have a younger draw. So it’s a mixed bag for us. But we obviously want to try to find ways to expand the younger audience, because they are the ones that are the biggest drivers right now in returning to theaters. We knew from the beginning of Covid that the older audience was going to have the most trepidation of returning. I believe that they are really starting to show up now. But there’s still a great need to diversify the audience.
It starts with the film. The film has its inherent appeal: maybe younger, maybe older, maybe a combination. Beyond that, it’s marketing, it’s social media, it’s alternative content programming. Some of the best alternative content we’ve had in recent months have skewed younger. Bo Burnham: Inside was huge for us. Some of the music alternative content: Tom Petty, The Doors, Oasis.We’re getting back to programming one-offs with Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room. Those are all things that help drive a younger audience.
Barak Epstein: We have the opposite problem. We have the younger people, we don’t have the older people. Part of it is just that we’re in a little bit of a younger, hipper, part of town. The only movie I’ve shown this year that we did get old people to come to was the Velvet Underground doc. We tried showing the James Bond movie, which wasn’t a super hit for us, because I couldn’t find the older people who wanted to come see it. But if we show [Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 horror film] Possession, I’ll sell out in about five minutes. There wasn’t anybody over 27 when we showed Possession. There’s certain repertory movies that just bring in the younger crowds. That’s what we really excel with.
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