Introducing IND/EX: Independent Cinema Gathers in Chicago

Chicago's Music Box Theatre, a venue at this year's IND/EX. Photo courtesy Music Box Theatre.

Today’s moviegoers require variety, not just in what they see, but in the cinemas they choose to patronize. In partnership with Spotlight Cinema Networks, Boxoffice Pro is proud to present Indie Focus, in which we explore the wealth of experiences that cinemas—from the high-end luxury theater to the beloved community art house—offer their audiences.

At the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, representatives from 14 independent cinemas gathered in Utah to share their experiences and build community, taking the first steps towards what in 2008 was officially founded as Art House Convergence (AHC). In the years since, AHC has continually connected, advocated for, and inspired the independent cinema exhibition community in North America. AHC’s efforts culminated in an annual trade show (also named Art House Convergence) that ran from 2008 to 2020 in Midway, Utah. In 2014, the community was expanded and strengthened by the addition of the Film Festival Alliance (FFA).

Now, AHC’s conference is back in action—with a new name, a new location, and a renewed commitment to strengthening the independent cinema community. Now called the Independent Film Exhibition Conference (or IND/EX), AHC’s flagship event is reborn in Chicago, Illinois, where attendees will enjoy four days (June 25-28) of insightful programming and opportunities to foster relationships between cinemas, film festivals, distributors, and vendors. Back in the mix, too, is Spotlight Cinema Networks, which has been a key supporter of the show since its inception. With the first IND/EX approaching, Boxoffice Pro sat down with Kate Markham, managing director of AHC; Barbara Twist, executive director of FFA; and Spotlight Cinema Networks CEO Jerry Rakfeldt to get the scoop on the new show.

The last time AHC hosted a show was in January 2020. In the years since, AHC has really reinvented itself, first with a new board and now with IND/EX. Aside from the new name and location, are there any substantial differences between IND/EX and the old AHC events?

Kate Markham: In a sense, it’s the same thing. You’re going to see a lot of familiar faces. We’re going to be touching on a lot of familiar topics. But [now] we are fully in partnership with FFA. They had a presence at AHC in the past, but this is a more integrated partnership. We are really doing this together, because the independent film exhibition landscape requires the cooperation of film festivals and art house cinemas on a very regular basis. They go hand in hand.

We’re working on this together and to demonstrate that we changed the name to the Independent Film Exhibition Conference. We’re making it very inclusive. It’s for film festivals and brick-and-mortar cinemas, microcinemas, pop-up cinemas. If you are an independent film exhibitor, you are welcome at this conference!

I like that, because when you say “art house cinema,” a lot of people just assume you’re talking about these highbrow, inaccessible movies. But the world of independent cinema exhibition is so much wider than that.

Barbara Twist: Absolutely. In the independent film sector, we’re not all only playing extremely independent films. We often play bigger titles. We play a lot of classic films. Really, [IND/EX is] less about programming and more about our ethos and the community-based, mission-driven perspective. We are independent in that we are all independently run. Most of us are non-profits, both on the cinema side and the festival side, which means that we have dedicated boards overseeing us. We often derive a lot of our funding from our communities in the form of memberships; donations; and local, state, and federal grants. In that sense, we’re not beholden to a group of shareholders. There’s no “What is the head office doing over in Los Angeles?” That being said, we have members on the film festival side and on the art house side that are for-profit. But their ethos is similar, in that we are all community-based. We don’t care so much about what your tax status is so much as, “Are you invested in this sector?” In the past, [AHC shows were more oriented around] capital-A art house—the independent, international films, anything Sony Pictures Classics puts out. Now, it’s that plus.

As cinemas and festivals dig deeper into audience development, which is something we’re going to focus on at the conference this year, we are discovering new ways of bringing in audiences. And that naturally means that we’re seeking out other types of films to show and other types of events. Not just films, but films with music, films with Q&As, things that eventize regular screenings.

Everyone is welcome. In the past we’ve had folks from multiplex exhibitors attend. The only thing that we expect of you when you show up is that you are willing to share your experience.

Jerry, Spotlight Cinema Networks is the only in-theater ad company that is exclusively dedicated to independent exhibition, which includes dine-in and luxury cinemas in addition to your independent and art house theaters. There’s a lot of variety in this space. Can you give us some background on how Spotlight got involved with AHC?

Jerry Rakfeldt: What is most interesting about Spotlight—and our predecessor, the Art House Marketing Group, which first went to the conference in 2009—is that, as we built our models, basing them on the needs of art house cinemas, [we found that] they care a lot about what they put on the screen. Everybody does. But let’s say that art houses care perhaps more than other types of cinemas. They have particular needs. They’re small organizations. You talk to the owners. You talk to the executive directors. A lot of them are family businesses. And their passion for creating and sustaining these types of theaters and exhibitions of art over the years is very evident.

When I first went [to AHC] in 2009, it was really eye-opening. To see the growth from 2009, when there were 75 attendees, to 700-plus people in 2020 has been amazing. In addition to Spotlight, there’s a whole microcosm of vendor partners out there who also know that art houses depend on a different type of relationship with their vendors and partners. It’s collaborative. We have to talk. We have to create products and services that are unique to the art houses. And then you add in the Film Festival Alliance. Film festivals have a whole different set of needs. There are many, many partners [who have worked with film festivals and independent cinemas] over the years who understand the value of art houses and the need to tailor services to them.

BT: What we’ve found [through collaborating with AHC] is just what you’re saying, Jerry: Some of the operational needs are different. Film festivals don’t have year-round venues. When we think about cinema advertising, it’s a different framework. It’s so much more condensed. You have a lot of people coming in over, say, two weeks. It’s a lot of eyeballs, but it’s not the same consistency.

Where Kate and I are really aligned is in the idea that the film festival is a space of discovery. It’s about getting audiences in. People are inclined to buy a [festival] pass and just see whatever. It might get them [to watch movies] outside of what they would normally consider. And once you have that, then you have the art houses, which are doing the heavy lifting year-round of getting people in consistently, showing them things they might not consider, but also showing them things that are aligned with their tastes. The two really work hand-in-hand, and you can’t have one without the other.

When you do have one without the other, you miss out on either the discovery or the habit-building. When they’re together—looking at cities that have both, whether it’s within one organization like SIFF [Seattle International Film Festival] or Milwaukee [Film] or something like that, or a city like New York where you have a bunch of theaters and a bunch of film festivals—you see people being more well-rounded moviegoers. And that ultimately lifts up our industry.

This first IND/EX show is in Chicago, which has a really robust cinema scene. What are IND/EX attendees going to be seeing of that?

KM: The nice thing about IND/EX moving out of Utah is that we really get to highlight our venues. We’re going to be at the Music Box Theatre on Tuesday night. It’s stunning. In person, it is truly an experience, and that’s one of the reasons people like to visit. It’s not just about going to the movies. Same thing with the Gene Siskel Film Center, which has been a stalwart in the art house circuit and has built a reputation over many years as a very trusted source of independent cinema. They host film festivals that show amazing films that you really cannot see anywhere else.

The conference events run very heavily on Tuesday through Friday, but we will have some stuff on Monday as well. Folks can come early, the weekend before, or stay a little bit after. Chicago’s film culture is really fantastic. There are so many things to see: There are art houses; there’s Facets [one of the longest-running independent cinemas in the city]; there are art houses out in the suburbs that you can visit; there’s the Chicago Film Archives. So many things were filmed in Chicago; you can just look for classic film locations. There are so many things to do. If you can stay [beyond the run of the show], I highly recommend it.

As Jerry pointed out, vendors that work with independent exhibitors and film festivals need to meet their specific needs. Are those needs different now than they were in 2020? A lot has happened since then, obviously, but at the same time, a lot of the conversations we’re having now as an industry—the importance of eventizing, of community engagement, of being creative with your programming—are things that independent exhibitors were already doing before the pandemic. What are the needs of the independent exhibition community now?

BT: I’d say the biggest thing is gathering in person. Something that was really beautiful about past gatherings was being in a room full of people who understand this totally wacky, weird space that we’re in. It’s nice to be amongst people who understand this unique space that we occupy and the challenges that go into that.

Something that is very different this year is our programmatic approach. We have a really fantastic programming committee. There’s a really large number of people thinking about, “What are the challenges we’re facing as a community?” Not just on the granular level of, “I’m frustrated by this ticketing platform.”

Really specific things can be talked about at the bar after the day’s programming.

BT: Exactly. [Our programming this year is] a little bit more focused on soft skills. For example: We don’t have the best track record for HR in our industry, whether [that industry is] film or non-profit work. We’re subject to what’s called the “passion tax.” We are passionate people who are excited about doing what we do, and that naturally leads to [the creation of] more work than can actually be handled—or more work than can be paid for. A lot of the sessions this year are focused on those deeper structural issues that we need to address as a field so that we can get healthier.

We’re going to talk about some larger ecosystem issues. We’ve all felt the decline of print journalism. We’ve felt the decline of film criticism. Those have real impacts. Those were tried-and-true avenues for getting folks in. These days, movie theaters are the only people advertising [the message of], “Go to the movies.” Everyone else is saying, “Watch this movie,” but they’re kind of platform-agnostic. So what do we need to do as a field, as film festivals and cinemas, to get people excited about coming into our spaces? And it’s not just “Let’s get new lounge chairs and offer 10 different types of popcorn.” It’s the hard work of community outreach and audience development and advocating on behalf of our industry.

If we come together and talk about these issues, we can ensure that [the responsibility of coming up with solutions] doesn’t fall on each individual theater and that it doesn’t feel like a burden. Instead, it’s an acknowledgment that these are issues facing all of us. Together, we can advocate and use our power collectively to help make a shift so that we can access more resources.

Can you give us some more examples of the subjects IND/EX will be covering? Is there anything in particular that you’re most looking forward to, programming-wise? There are so many issues to pack into one week!

KM: Truly, there’s so much to cover. The programming committee had to set aside some things that we really wanted to talk about, and I’m sure that FFA and AHC will continue those conversations on other platforms. Like Barbara said, human resources is a big one. We’re going to have “Meet the Distributors,” which is always a big hit. [The same with] 
“Meet the Vendors.” There are so many people out there—like Spotlight Cinema Networks—innovating solutions for our folks. As Jerry alluded to earlier, [meeting in person and] having those conversations is where we really build solutions.

I’m very excited for every single one of our programs, but in particular, I feel like I could learn a lot from “No Platters Need Apply,” [featuring a tech rundown from] a group of really fantastic, talented projectionists and technicians. I’ve always been in front-of-house or fundraising, and I don’t know all that much about the technical aspects, so I’m really looking forward to that session.

BT: A couple of sessions I’m really excited about: We have what’s almost a miniature accessibility track during the conference. We are going to be addressing the how and why of accessibility and talking about the audience that you’re leaving out when you don’t create an accessible venue. And then [we’ll be] digging into best practices by looking at the New Orleans Film Festival, which has invested heavily in accessibility and has seen growth in audience.

I’m also looking forward to “Metrics that Matter.” One of our big conversations is around data. We’ll be really digging into “Why is data important? How should we be capturing it? What should we be capturing?” And it’s not about taking in data and then only being informed by an algorithm. We’re always considering data: “How hot is it out? What should I wear?“

“Data” has become a buzzword encompassing so many different concepts. It can be intimidating.

BT: [Our panel is about] taking the scariness out of data. What is the information that we collect every day that can help us to make better decisions and increase revenue [in a way that aligns with] our mission? That’s what’s really beautiful about nonprofits, or at least community-based, mission-driven organizations. Yes, we need to make money. Even if you’re a nonprofit, you still need to make money to be able to strengthen your organization and pay people and things like that. But the success of an organization is not just whether it makes a profit. What’s the impact on your community? Were you able to bring in filmmakers? Did your audience have a great time? There are so many other elements to it, and data can really help us to make those financial decisions and help us understand what success looks like.

JR: The programming is great. But over the years, the value to everybody there is [knowing that] you’re not alone. There have been a couple [of past attendees] who wanted to start an art house or an independent theater in some smaller town, and they don’t know where to start. If you’re a future cinema owner, this is where you go. This is a collaborative, helpful environment. You will cut to the head of the line by going here and listening because everybody’s willing to share their experiences. For growing the community, it has been instrumental. There have been many cases where people I’ve met [at a past event who were curious about starting a theater] come back a few years later: “We’re operating!”

The meetings are great. Sitting down and talking is essential. Not feeling alone. For me personally, [past shows have been] sort of my EV quick charge. You get burnt out. But I would go [to AHC], and I would listen to these organizations and come out charged and refreshed and ready to go. It’s a halo effect of coming together. We’ve missed it. I think it’s going to be great for theaters and film festivals to come together. It’s going to be great for vendor partners [to have these conversations], so we can figure out what the challenges are, how to do more with less. We have a responsibility to try to find solutions or help develop those solutions.

BT: I 100 percent cosign that, Jerry. The programs are great. But there’s also the in-between. It’s the standing in line to pick up your lunch. It’s the conversations that happen here and there. While Kate and I are very excited about the program, and we think there’s a lot to learn, there’s also a lot of downtime. It’s just going to be a lot of fun.

We have “Art House Tales,” where five cinemas and festivals present little bits and pieces of their history and exciting programs that they’re doing. We have this really fun event called “Trailer Wars,” where cinemas and festivals submit trailers either promoting a film series that they’ve created or the festival [itself], and we do a bracket-style tournament with one winner emerging. We’re doing film trivia. We have our closing night party, sponsored by Spotlight Cinema Networks.

There are going to be so many fun events. We really hope it’s a recharge. We hope that you learn something, but more important, we hope that you make those connections and [feel that spirit of] celebration. We are all working so hard year-round. IND/EX is really a celebration of our field and of the work that we’re doing. And then we all go back the next Monday and get back to work.

JR: I truly believe the development of community is going to sustain art houses and film festivals. It’s very difficult to survive in the business world in general, but even more so now as information is hyperexchanged. You have to build a community. You have to have followers. And [in-person gatherings are] the core of building communities within the exhibition world.

Chicago's Music Box Theatre, a venue at this year's IND/EX. Photo courtesy Music Box Theatre.
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