Thursday, August 31, 2006

The importance of the art house cinemas

Ever week the latest barrage of films from Hollywood will make their appearance at the chain cinemas across both the United States and United Kingdom. However, there is an alternative to multiple screens and Hollywood fare.

Just around the corner or tucked a few streets away from the local multiplex is a smaller theatre, an art house theatre, showing independent and art films.

“Art houses movie theatres are a vital part of the lifeblood of American cinema and American art,” says filmgoer Judith Grophear of Greenfield, New Hampshire. “If you’re lucky, you walk out of an art house thinking about issues and tapping into an area of thought that aren’t being presented by what the mainstream studios put out.”

These so called art house theatres are run and owned by those with a genuine love of cinema and who want to show the best films made outside of Hollywood.

Independent or art films, whether in the US or UK, typically only receive what is known as a limited release. Films will open in major cities like New York, Los Angeles and London and then slowly go to other corners of the country.

“Most of the demographic of people that want to watch those kind of films, educated, affluent, middle classes are living in and around London,” says Adam Hodgkins, a film professor at the University of Westminster and the former programmer for the Plymouth Art Centre. “Once you get outside of London they start getting fewer and far between.”

The same is true in the states, but there is an oasis where indie cinema can flourish. They are known as college towns. Areas with a university or college in them typically feature the sophisticated audience Hodgkins described.

The Colonial Theatre in Keene, New Hampshire, is one such theatre that benefits from having a college nearby and the theatre executive director Alec Doyle plays to this audience.

According to Doyle the theatre is able survive because the theatre has “a small, devoted audience who love what we do and come to a lot of films and then occasionally we draw a much larger crowds when we are able to land a March of the Penguins, Sideways, Fahrenheit 9/11, etc.”

In the U.S. it is a purely a commercial conflict, but for Hodgkins he had to deal with being subsidised by city, county and national funding bodies.

“Firstly, I need to consider the existing art centre audience and their tastes because I have to turn over a certain amount of money to keep the art centre in the black and secondly, I have funding bodies,” says Hodgkins of his experiences as the programmer of the Plymouth Art Centre.

These considerations often meant having to make compromises to make money and to keep the backers happy.

“I wanted my audience to see the latest, most up to date and the most marginalised of film culture,” says Hodgkins. “I didn’t want them to see Shakespearean trained actors loving it up in costume. I showed those films because they made me money, but they were also showing in the mainstream cinema in Plymouth so I wasn’t adding to the cultural value of the city in which I was working.”

Hodgkins explains that often people would come to see a film playing at his art centre that was playing down the street at the multiplex because it made them feel as if they were arty.

“They wanted their art centre to show those films. They wanted to sit in a cinema with worse seats, worse sound to watch those films that were already playing in the Odeon down the road because it makes them feel good.”

For Brenden Denehy of Brookline, New Hampshire he attends art house cinemas to support something independently owned rather than a corporate entity. Denehy’s theatre of choice is Wilton, New Hampshire’s Wilton Town Hall Theatre because of its atmosphere and cheaper tickets and concessions.

“Most of the time when I go to the chains I don’t buy concessions, but when I go to Wilton I make sure to buy something,” says Denehy. “With a ticket price of $5 and cheap concessions, I can feel like I'm doing good and being cheap at the same time.”

Denehy also believes there’s more of a sense of community at the Wilton Town Hall than at other theatres.

“I’ve tended to notice that the audiences at Wilton seem to have a sense of ‘belonging’ to the theatre, more so than when I’m at other theatres,” says Denehy. I’ve actually gotten into conversations with other patrons before the show, and listening to people talk to each other, it’s clear that many of them make the conscious choice to watch films there.”

For the owners, providing these venues and films for audience can prove to be a challenge.

“With the exception of a few metropolitan centres, I'm not sure that being an indie/art house is ever easy,” says Doyle.

There are some cases though where the art house cinema may be better than the local multiplex and therefore can secure a bigger audience. This was the case of Conway, New Hampshire’s Majestic Theatre.

“We had the only 8 track digital system in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. We had the largest screen in Northern New England and the best lens in the world from Schneider, we had all the bells and whistle to run any mainstream film, says Joe Quirk, the owner of the Majestic.

Occasional the Majestic would run a blockbuster and it would often do twice the business than when the film played at the multiplex because according to John Favreau the owner of Brunswick, Maine’s Evening Star Theatre, a partner theatre of the Majestic, the competing multiplex is in poor condition.

“Joe tends to want to show more commercial type films. He’d try to get Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings type things, I don’t even try for those things,” says Favreau.

In the wake of a fire that destroyed much of the theatre, Quirk has had to start over. A smaller 50-seat auditorium was built next to the out of commission 400-seat theatre as well as a cafe/deli. Though this is a set back for Quirk he has not changed the way he programs.

“We tend to have a social conscience, as I say we have a judicious blend of films,” says Quirk. “We’ll get what we call the first run commercials, commercial art and art. We tend to run a lot of commercial art, art and an occasional commercial film.”

The method behind the selection for the Majestic, Colonial and Evening Star is similar. Using a booker or a film trade journal, the owners or directors of the theatres would research months, even years in advance, what films are in production.

“We try to tune into what the story line is, who the producer is, what actors are in it and then you can get an idea of how the picture is going to come out,” says Quirk.

Favreau has a similar process in addition to which he also read reviews of upcoming films. Favreau is doing research so far in advance it is hard to know what will hit or not. In the case of Fahrenheit 9/11, which he booked for political reasons, the film went on to be the Evening Star’s highest grossing film.

“I knew it was a political documentary, that could’ve just as soon been a dog, but it turned into this phenomenon,” says Favreau.

As for Doyle at the Colonial, while he says he would not say no to the occasional more broad appeal films, he realises that with only one screen they could never be the main venue for mainstream movies in Keene.

“Our mission dictates that we provide the public something else, an alternative to mass culture and mass marketed product,” says Doyle.

Another factor that the owners and programmers of art house cinemas have to deal with is being locked out of getting first run films because they are not part of a cinema chain.

“Typically distributors just don’t care,” says Favreau. “If they know they have a multi-screen that is going to take everything they have to offer including their garbage films they will just send them over there.”

This is the nature of the system and those behind the art house cinemas know this. Their job is to provide an alternative.

“That’s just the way the game is played. After 10 years of doing this you just stop fighting and you just take what you can get,” says Favreau.

It is not always easy, for the Favreau’s, Doyle’s and Quirk’s of the world, but it is too their credit they struggle on. They are the keepers of the magic of cinema. If not for them, audiences would be stuck with the latest cookie-cutter Hollywood film.

“With an art house it’s much more of an intimate setting,” says Grophear. “Time sort of melts away and you’re transported to another place when you walk in the door. They have old time music playing, the a/c is humming and you can smell real butter from the popcorn maker. All of a sudden you realise, with relief, you’re not in Kansas anymore.”

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