Art House Theaters U.S. and Germany

by Sydney Levine
September 27, 2011 3:20 AM
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Cinerama Dome at the Arclight, Hollywood

As I went to the beautiful Arclight Theater in Hollywood to see The Debt, I was surprised first at the price (why so high?), then by having to choose my reserved seat, and then taken aback when a woman walked to the front of the theater and addressed the audience. Being addressed by a human being in a theater (especially before a popcorn flick) is hardly what I was expecting, but the Arclight is what is known as an Art House Theater, and in Hollywood (as opposed say, to the Vista in Silverlake) this means High Art. And it is, though I'd rather pay less to see the films I want to see and would consequently to go AMC, Sunset 5 or Landmark, I do love the Arclight for its beauty and all it offers - its seats, screen, store, its cafe, its location.

All this is by way of seguing into the current attention on a larger trend taking place nationwide—a concerted, if still numerically small, effort by art house theaters to come together as a community and raise their profile in the film world.

Today's L.A. Times' front page story highlights a key issue as it describes the fight between Palm Desert's Palme d'Or "the desert's premiere address for cinephiles," whose owners themselves have impressive show business credentials including Bryan Cranston, the Emmy-winning star of the television series "Breaking Bad"; Alise Benjamin, co-producer of the Oscar-winning film "Ray"; and Steve Mason, a nationally known host of an ESPN radio talk show in Los Angeles. They find themselves locked in a legal battle with Cinemark, the Texas-based movie theater chain with some 3,850 movie screens across the nation.

Earlier this year, I reported about the fourth annual Art House Convergence conference and its notable moments, held this January in Midway, Utah and I will be reporting on the upcoming one just before Sundance Film Festival 2012. Every art house is unique, naturally, but they all face similar difficulties both in terms of competition with nearby multiplexes that tend to favor big-budget crowd pleasers and generating interest in the community for their more unique fare.

Hollywood is, of course, notoriously demographic-focused—witness any number of movie trailers you might catch before a summer thriller that seems devised by a room of executives to be perfectly packaged for the 16-30 cohort. How, then, do art house theaters maintain viability without caving to these marketing pressures? In Los Angeles, the art house niche is filled largely by family-run Laemmle art house theaters. With eight locations around the city, the Laemmle’s were called “the gates to the promised land” by The Wrap’s Steve Pond. But it also has some great Landmark theaters like the Nuart, the Arclight, The Beverly, The Vista, Cinefamily and probably others I'm forgetting here.


When aspiring filmmakers want to get into the Oscar race, they often do so by securing an extremely limited showing in one or more of the Laemmle locations; in fact, even HBO sometimes uses the tactic to get its short documentaries into the race.

But even if art houses like the Laemmles make it possible for filmmakers to get their product out in some capacity, one of the most significant problems for these theaters is of course attracting a diverse, wide-ranging audience. Walk into a Laemmle in L.A. and you will more often than not find a crowd of 15-25 viewers, with an average age range in the 50s (if not higher).

Russell Collins, head of the Art House Convergence and owner of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, calls art house theaters the folk and world music to multiplexes Lady Gaga—they just don’t reach the same youthful audience that the pop phenomenon does. Collins sees the future of art house theater in a turn towards non-profit strategies that emphasize regional community over broad, cookie cutter appeal. These efforts are not soft or non-specific; in fact, the Convergence arms itself with data supplied by The Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

Aside from competition for the top art house titles like The King's Speech with the multiplexes, one of the most significant challenges facing art house theaters as the film business transforms in the digital age is technology. Multiplexes are well equipped to outfit their theaters with 3D and digital projectors; for an art house, this investment is more difficult.

Last week, Variety took up the digital conversion dilemma facing in an article examining the German art house market, which met from Sept. 19-23 in Leipzig as part of the Filmkunstmesse conference.

Digital conversion costs German art houses between $110,000 and $123,000. Even though the conversion could theoretically free theaters from buying expensive analog prints of films, the initial conversion is simply too expensive for the venues to pull off without government assistance. In Germany, such assistance is available to a significant extent—federal subsidies are helping 25% of the most vulnerable “criteria cinemas” [*what is this?*] stay afloat. Many of these theaters have installed one or more digital projectors.

Though the ultimate predicaments facing German and American art houses may be similar (especially in the realm of technology), it seems unlikely that independent theaters in the U.S. could turn to the government to survive financially. Given the current political climate, arts funding is far from a priority at either national or state levels.

Perhaps, then, American art house theaters will forge a path along the lines of Collins’s vision. Where German art houses have looked outward by turning to the government for support, their American counterparts will no doubt be more successful if they look in, focusing on the specific needs and tastes of their specific audience.

The situation isn't completely dire, however. As The Economist noted just last week, the financial perfect storm of 2008 and its resulting fallout has created an opportunity for resurgent growth in the independent film business. New buyers have entered the market looking for fresh material; films are still cheaper to produce thanks to competing subsidies offered by jurisdictions around the world. As The Economist put it, "the post-financial-crisis independent film business is both more independent and more focused on film than before."

The same may be said of the art house community moving forward. The foundation exists for art houses to take advantage of the current independent film climate, think differently from the big-studio run multiplexes, and carve out a niche more specific to their needs. Next time you roll your eyes at yet another slick teen film trailer, don't despair—the type of films you're looking for may be just around the corner.

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More: Exhibiton, Distribution

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