Mission Driven: A Look at This Year’s Conference and the Important Conversations on the Horizon for the Art House Community

Photo caption: Cressanda Thibodeaux

by Barbara Twist

The Art House Convergence hosts a four-day conference taking place in Midway, Utah, each January just before the Sundance Film Festival. This year, the conference had over 700 attendees from Hawaii to Dubai, and nearly everywhere in between. With 150-plus theaters, 100-plus festivals and 60-plus film distributors represented, the conference is an annual staple for the art house and festival community.

The conference hosts panels, workshops, a trade show, and late-night screenings and events. Year-round, the Art House Convergence focuses its work on community-based, mission-driven cinemas in North America, hosting regional seminars across the country, collecting data and research on the art house community, and promoting moviegoing culture through a range of events, including Art House Theater Day.

With a new managing director, Alison Kozberg, at the helm, the Art House Convergence continued its rising streak as it put on an incredible, sold-out event. The conference opened with a keynote from Butheina Kazim, a co-founder of Cinema Akil, the first art house cinema in the Gulf region, which was well-received and set an inspirational and passionate tone for the rest of the conference. Kozberg spoke to the keynotes and the closing-day conversation with Cameron Bailey, Eugene Hernandez, Gina Duncan, Dilcia Barrera, and Bird Runningwater, when she noted, “These conversations were critical, thoughtful, and engaging … [these are] all leaders in efforts to facilitate more creative, diverse, and rigorous cinema exhibition.”

Cinema Akil founder Butheina Kazim (center) meets delegates following her keynote speech. Photo credit: Cressanda Thibodeaux

Expanding on initiatives from previous years, the organization worked to increase attendance from exhibitors from a wide variety of backgrounds. The conference manager, Makenzie Peecook, highlighted the expanded program scholarships and initiatives as successes of this year’s conference: “We had two new scholarships this year: Picture Show and Changemaker. The Picture Show scholarship is intended for existing brick-and-mortar organizations who are established in their community. The Changemaker scholarship is for a person not necessarily tied to brick-and-mortar, but rather a pop-up micro-cinema or freelance programmer who is doing work to make film in their communities more accessible, without a dedicated space.” Their Emerging Leadership Initiative, led by Peecook, is “to encourage organizations to send employees that might not normally get chosen for professional development opportunities, like front-of-house managers and staff or personal assistants in the first five years of their career in the art house world.” These types of support expand the entry points into the Art House community, which is crucial in a space that is historically white, with leadership that does not always reflect the diversity of the community. It is critical to the continued success of the Art House, and the larger exhibition industry, that organizations like Art House Convergence prioritize this support to increase access and reduce barriers to participation.

Photo credit: Cressanda Thibodeaux

This year, the conference leaders introduced four conference goals for their programming-at-large: (1) equity and inclusivity; (2) community building; (3) elevate the conversation; and (4) action beyond the conference. These goals grew out of previous conferences, industry conversations, and the work of the Alliance for Action, a working group for exhibitors, distributors, and festivals, addressing equity issues in art house/independent film exhibition and distribution. The education sessions at the conference covered a wide range of topics from programming to fundraising, but woven through all of them were these goals. The conference announced a gender-parity pledge for this year, and its lineup of speakers represented their commitment to gender equity. There were even two new working groups to emerge from this year’s conference: the Queer Working Group, led by Anna Feder of Emerson College; and a working group on content consideration, which discusses the roles and responsibilities of programmers to their audiences. “It is exciting to see that these channels of communication are open, and it isn’t something that only happens four days a year. It happened organically, and now it’s about sharing resources and making sure those resources are shared with the community at-large,” said Peecook. One of the Alliance for Action leaders, Taylour Chang of the Doris Duke Theatre in Honolulu, shared, “Many of the best conversations were the most difficult ones, the ones that made us look at our biases and areas of improvement in the face. We learned that workshop formats can be effective in encouraging introspection, brainstorming, and collective action around tough issues. We also learned that working with trained facilitators is extremely helpful and probably essential in doing that kind of work.” Now that the 2019 conference is over, the conversation turns to the greater impact of these conversations and whether they will reverberate beyond the art house community.

The tough, granular work taking place at art houses across the country isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the only space for these conversations. Larger theatrical chains, especially in areas without an art house or independent cinema, can fill that need for a community space, if they are willing to do the work. As to whether the inclusion work being done by smaller cinemas can be replicated for a larger chain, Chang remarked, “I think you will always need people on the ground, doing the work, building relationships on an in-person level. I really don’t think you can take the human component out of the work. Community relationships cannot be replicated, but you can have passionate, dedicated people across the world doing the hard work to serve vastly different communities.” For the hundreds of movie theaters across the country, it is crucial to consider the role of your staff and programmers within your community, whether you are a community-based, mission-driven art house, or a single location of a national theater chain. The Art House Convergence is committed to developing resources to assist cinemas in assessing themselves. Peecook said, “Growth is attainable if organizations are willing to do the work internally. That’s the hardest part and takes time and reflection.” The organization hopes to have more resources to support this work, including a self-assessment, available to the wider community in the coming months.

Tough conversations and challenging subjects were at the core of this year’s conference sessions, and yet the atmosphere was lively, inspirational, and joyful. There is significant work ahead, from equity and inclusivity to subscription models to expanded film education, and, still, Chang said, “it’s impossible not to be inspired by the innovative work people are doing in their cinemas, and everyone is so open to learn from each other. AHC continues to be an essential space for art houses to build community with each other, and it allows us to celebrate the innovations of art houses that we might not have noticed otherwise.” These innovations, shared during the Art House Tales program in a PechaKucha-style presentation [20 slides shown for 20 seconds each], speaks to what Kozberg refers to as “purposeful exhibition,” or cinemas that are focused on pursuing innovation, creativity, equity, and sustainability. This is part of what makes art houses unique, Kozberg said: “We are able to bring people together. We host conversations and can connect programs to the history of our communities. However, this means that as cinemas we can never rest on our laurels and must continually hold ourselves accountable and consider how we are sharing our spaces, screens, and resources to ensure that the art house experience is as meaningful as possible.”

What’s on the horizon for Art House Convergence? The Regional Seminar, June 19–20, 2019, taking place at the Michigan and State Theaters in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When asked why theaters should attend, Peecook said, “To see that you’re not alone, that we are all part of a supportive and strong community, and that art houses are alive and well.” 

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