By Barbara Twist
In the last six months, I’ve found myself discussing the future of art house cinemas and the future of moviegoing with just about anyone who will listen. This includes discussions with my fellow filmmakers and my professors at Columbia University, as well as distributors, art house programmers, and even my therapist, a Hinge date, and the woman sitting next to me at the nail salon. It is a never-ending debate regarding cinema’s impending demise, its vibrancy, or its utter irrelevancy.
As a producer who spent the last six years working in the art house industry, most recently as the Managing Director at Art House Convergence, I am compelled to shout from the marquees that cinemas are not only relevant and vibrant, they are faithful champions of independent film; and most importantly, cinemas are critical to developing and supporting our film culture at large.
Last month, I attended the Europa Cinemas Young Audiences Seminar in Bologna, Italy. The conference was titled From Spaces to Places: Making the Cinema a Place for People and Communities. 35 film exhibitors from across the European Union (including the United Kingdom) came together to discuss “space” in all its forms with the following mission:
The focus of this year’s Lab is on place making for the future through more inclusive approaches to community building, experience design and audience development. We all know that the audience makes the cinema experience; but how can we ensure cinema spaces remain places that people feel connected with, whatever their age, preferences, backgrounds or access needs? And what can we do better to capitalise on our communities’ assets, inspiration, and potential in a context of ever-increasing abundance of content and platforms and shrinking resources?
Every single theater attending the seminar spoke about their challenges and their commitment to cinema, whether it was an organizational or a personal mission. Their stories revealed the hard work and thoughtfulness that goes into their cinemas every day. For example, in Hungary, the Apollo Theater was saved by its employees after the cinema operator abandoned them. The former employees rallied the local cultural organizations under the tagline: A Kultúra Általad Él (Culture Lives in You) and have kept the theater running ever since. In Bristol, UK, the Watershed Cinema reimagined their marketing, projection technologies, and staffing to allow deaf and hearing-impaired patrons better access to their cinema.
While each presentation renewed my faith in the theatrical moviegoing experience, the presentation that stood out to me as being the most forward thinking was given by Daniel Sibbers, the Director of Marketing of Yorck Kinogruppe, an art house theater chain in Berlin, Germany.
In the last five years, Germany has seen a 50% audience drop in the 16-25 year old demographic. The German cinema industry realized they must address young moviegoers overall and not just focus on young audiences at their own cinemas. Commercial and art houses joined together with the Ministry of Culture and created a national promotion for young audiences, Das Kino, in order to bring young people back to the cinema. While most cinemas use social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to advertise upcoming films and their events, Das Kino took their campaign much further by implementing a national audience marketing campaign united across thousands of movie screens and using dozens of companies’ social media channels. The social media posts and trailers referenced current films such as JURASSIC WORLD and contemporary events like World Cup in its marketing strategy.
Das Kino also conducted extensive surveying of the 16-25 demographic with researchers concluding that young audiences actually enjoy going to the cinema and desire the ability to ‘unplug’ from social media and from their smart phones. The challenge ahead for cinemas is how to re-establish the habit of moviegoing in this demographic.
What I found unique about Das Kino was that both commercial and art house theaters participated in the campaign, even though the campaign’s targeted 16-25 demo is not the make-up of the traditional art house moviegoer. However, art house theaters decided to take part in the campaign with a holistic approach in mind. The thought was that while the younger demographic is more likely to frequent the commercial theaters to see the latest Star Wars or Disney movie, their moviegoing tastes will evolve as they grow older and they will eventually seek a new kind of content. If we can make these young filmgoers aware of art house programming, and the diversity of cinema beyond franchises and sequels, they will be more likely to seek out the art house past the age of 25, making the campaign beneficial to both commercial and art house theaters.
As I listened to one presentation after another, I began to think about moviegoing habits in the United States and the struggle that art houses and multiplexes face. I believe the primary issue we need to address is our national film culture: the habits, the attitudes, and the discussions we have (and don’t have) around the movies we are either watching or avoiding. A healthy film culture happens when filmmakers, exhibitors, festivals, distributors, critics, and archivists all work together to promote one another, whether it be a studio or independent film. If we can develop and support moviegoing culture with a holistic approach in mind, as Germany did, we can build a more sustainable industry.
Here are some ways in which we as an industry can build our film culture from the inside out:
- Continue supporting voices of color. With SORRY TO BOTHER YOU already at $10.2 million and BLINDSPOTTING opening with a per screen average of $23,750, these films stand out in an already spectacular summer for independent films.
- Lift the barriers indie film critics face. Film criticism has been crucial in developing and sustaining the film culture, yet their impact has been minimized in recent years. Outlets for critics who review independent films are becoming more limited and with film critics being predominately white males, film criticism is not reaching the wide or diverse audiences which independent filmmakers are seeking.
- Become a patron of your local independent cinema. Art house cinemas are doing the hard work to grow the moviegoing culture. From first run screenings to repertory series, independent exhibitors function as a communal space for people to gather and discuss movies. As filmmakers, it is necessary that we support the spaces that develop our audiences. Become a member of your local art house theater, offer to host a Q&A or filmmaking lecture, volunteer at theaters who don’t have staff support, and/or get involved and help grow your local cinema to be more inclusive.
- Support archives with funding. Despite having deep catalogues, archives are often underfunded and understaffed so they cannot always share the good preservation work they are doing. Without the work of archives, we would lose much of our cinema history. Filmmaking is an art form that builds on the work of its predecessors; it is vital that we be able to access those works. With proper resources, we can sustain existing archives and support new archives and archivists looking to widen the preservation field to include more voices in our cinema history.
- Be an active participant in your film’s distribution, particularly festival and theatrical. Cinemas all over the country want to engage with filmmakers. They work to coordinate Q&As in conjunction with their screenings, but they often are not top priority for the publicity and marketing campaigns. Even more, the Q&As are usually booked by regional marketing companies who tend to overlook the independent cinema or festivals in favor of the mid-size specialty chain or the multiplex. As a filmmaker, demand to be part of your festival and theatrical releases and carve out time to do in-person Q&As, video Q&As, and even pre-recorded segments.
The recent revival of the video store, the ubiquity of streaming platforms, the local film discussion group, fan clubs, campus cinemas, and so on, are all participants in the promotion of a film culture. As producers and filmmakers, we need to think about the ways we support a national film culture. Setting aside market share and box office grosses, what are our films worth in cultural currency? In community value? How can we shift the transactional thinking to a more holistic approach to the film community overall?
Moviegoing is an American pastime. It’s quickly growing to become an Earthling pastime. No matter how people watch movies (though I always find the movie theater to be the best experience), as filmmakers, we need people to engage with movies. We need to revive and strengthen our national film culture. We need to make movies a place for all people and every community.
For an in-depth look at Europa Cinemas Young Audiences Seminar click here.
Barbara Twist is a filmmaker based in New York City. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Producing at Columbia University. Her most recent film, ARTICULATE, screened as part of the University of Michigan’s 3C-Screens Bicentennial Celebration. She is the former Managing Director of the Art House Convergence, an international organization for the art house and independent theater community.
She was listed on Celluloid Junkie’s Top 50 Women in Global Cinema in 2017, featured in BoxOffice’s “Women in Exhibition and Distribution” October 2015, and has participated on many festival and conference panels on contemporary exhibition issues and micro distribution strategies. She is on the board of the Ann Arbor Film Festival and Cinema Lamont. She is a member of Detroit-based Final Girls: a women’s filmmaking collective and recipient of a 2016 Knight Foundation grant. She served as an NEA Media Arts Grants Panelist in FY2017 and FY2018.