20 février 2012

The myth of an arthouse circuit in the USA

American reviewers all have a heartfelt story to tell about that ONE arthouse where they used to watch artfilms, foreign films, or OLD Hollywood films (even if nowadays they stopped attending such places, and stay at home to watch DVDs). That's so sweet. But I'm afraid this is just a urban legend they like to tell themselves around the firecamp of nostalgia... This never existed. The stats don't corroborate it. 
When Americans come to visit Paris, they don't watch French films, or the great variety of rare foreign films we can see on the big screen... what they ask for is where they can watch old classic Hollywood movies, because these aren't screened in their homeland anymore.
Well, there are several reasons to this collective hallucination : these memories only belong to a very narrow caste, quite limited geographically and largely overblown, they can't tell the difference between Cannes and the Oscars, they mismatch the role of American Festivals with that of an arthouse exhibition circuit, and their definition of an "artfilm" is basically anything that isn't a blockbuster.

‘Plexes, whether multi- or mega-, tend to look alike. But art and rep houses have personality, even flair. [..]
Most of these theatres are in urban centers, some are in the suburbs, and a surprising number are rural. Most boast only one or two screens. Most are independent, but a few belong to chains like Landmark and Sundance. Some are privately held and aiming for profit, but many, perhaps most, are not-for-profit, usually owned by a civic group or municipality.
What unites them is what they show. They play films in foreign languages and British English. They show independent US dramas and comedies, documentaries, revivals, and restorations.
In the whole market, art houses are a blip. Figures are hard to come by, but Jack Foley, head of domestic distribution for Focus Features, estimates that there are about 250 core art-house screens. In addition, other venues present art house product on an occasional basis or as part of cultural center programming.
David Bordwell; Pandora’s digital box: Art house, smart house (30 January 2012)
Figures are hard to come by? That explains why I can't find any stats, and why this figure is always left blank  for the USA in the worldwide surveys I consult.
How hard is it to count 250 screens, to survey them, to track their attendance and keep in touch with their development? Can't you get together with the specialty distributors who know where their films are accepted, and find out once and for all? Can't you CREATE a society, a union, or a statistical center, dedicated to the "art house circuit" if none exist yet after a century of cinema history????
Why the EU can count them, track them, organise them, watch over them, nurse them, promote them, subsidize them... and the USA (a bureaucratic nation supposedly committed to transparency and freedom of information) can't? Don't you care about your art film circuit? Wake up! Go out and find out.

THIS IS NOT NORMAL. You can't always justify everything by blaming the average American movie goer, or the Hollywood taste domination. If there was a marginal market for artfilms in the USA (and there is no believable reason why it shouldn't) it MUST be a much bigger fraction than a mere 1%. Don't go crazy like France and reach 40%... but 10 or 15% (at the lowest level reached by a European country) would give an existence to this artfilm niche. At 1% it does NOT exist, commercially or culturally. It barely amounts to the demographic fraction of movie reviewers...

There has been NO ONE to find this fact DISTURBING and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT since 1895??? I just found this out recently (and it explains a lot), but you guys had more than 100 years now... I think the effect of surprise is over, you may start to consider ACTION, don't you think? How long will it take the USA to build and secure an arthouse circuit, protected against the merciless competition of commercial cinema??? Here is a worthwhile survey to carry out for the "Cultural Studies" departments of your universities. Where are the reports/theses?

I know Hollywood doesn't mind about the art-house circuit and they certainly will do everything they can to keep it subdued under the pressure of their untold hegemony (officially there is no monopoly, but it's just a coincidence that it's the only Western country where foreign cinema is statistically invisible on the balance sheet)... but can't you get things done by yourself in a free country like the USA, and defy the Hollywood studios authority? Can't you make an effort for the sake of art film distribution in your country?

On the Sundance Buzz, Day 1 podcast [Film Society Lincoln Center; 19 Jan 2012; 55'], Tim League mentions the Art House Convergence (16-19 Jan 2012) where 285 delegates ("most of the independent arthouse operators, from big city arthouses to the very small mom-and-pop rural art houses, plus independent distributors") met (apparently for the first time in the history of American Independent Distribution!). So that's it. There are 40000 screens in the USA, and the indie sector can't fill a conference room of 300 people... That's what the art film circuit is in the USA : a miserable ghetto.

250 art-house screens for a population of 313 million inhabitants? That's about 5 screens per state on average; and 1250 thousands inhabitants per arthouse screen. This is ridiculous. A country of the size of the USA could have this number of venues to showcase EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA to an elite audience maybe, but Art-Cinema isn't that obscure and selective (not even in a lowbrow culture like the USA). Art cinema isn't an alternative choice in the margin of the shallow entertainment business in the USA... at this point, it is a LUXURY, a rarity, a Grail. A needle in a haystack. If you didn't figure out yet, HERE is the problem you need to solve!
I bet The Netherlands or Belgium have more art-house screens than that.
In France the proportion is 29 thousands inhab/arthouse screen (40 times the USA ratio!). If France had as few arthouses as the USA, proportionally, there would be only 50 screens nationwide, instead of 2235 screens in total (in 2010). This isn't a mere superiority due to the French "Exception culturelle"... The USA isn't a distant second behind France (because of all the "unfair" subsidies the government pours into the cinema industry). No. The USA, world's economic leader, ranks last on a world stage, because they can't finance their arthouse circuit at the modest level a country 5 times smaller like France can?
If you ask the CNC, you could know how many art houses there are in France, their screens, seats, audience, labeled art films, box office numbers, demographic shares, geographical location... If I go to the website of the union for the French art et essai cinemas (AFCAECICAECNC [PDF]SCAREEuropa Cinemas), I could list the exact address and telephone number of each cinemas too, and it's free!

At what point do you start thinking : "well maybe we need a bit MORE arthouses..." ? I don't care if there is "no audience" for it to make a profit... I don't care if the taste of the average movie goer is weak... I don't care if Hollywood tycoons put pressure on distributors and exhibitors... I don't care if you prefer to keep tax-payers money out of the equation... There is enough money to come by in Hollywood, enough of a moviegoer base, more than enough existing screens. don't blame it on "CAN'T", because if nothing happens it's only because you "DON'T WANT IT".
I don't think Americans are fully aware of the actual starvation of their artfilm circuit (until they are forced to compare with the practice of another average country). And they delude themselves thinking that the DVD market probably makes up for the lackluster theatrical distribution (even though the specific data for foreign/indie/artfilm bought/rented on DVD is nowhere to be found either). Do you think that we never buy/rent DVDs in France?
And it's not because there are too many (second-hand) International Film Festivals throughout the USA, which allegedly substitutes for the arthouse circuit... Because there are as many (second-hand) film festivals in France, and it never stopped the audience to go watch artfilms at their local arthouse.

Afterall, I suspect the happy few arthouse exhibitors to maintain this glass ceiling in place, this commercial status quo in the dire straits it's in, because rarity makes their screening soldout immediately. It's not profitable for distributors to market a release on 6 screens nationwide... but for those 6 arthouses, it's garanteed sold-out cinemas at every show for more than 2 weeks. Imagine 1 single screening in a megapole like NYC... of course you will find 2000 (art-friendly) people per day willing to watch an exclusive film amongst the 19 Million inhabitants of the metropolitan area (urban cosmopolitan culture). But why don't you care about all the Americans who won't be able to see it on the big screen, or not see it at all?

Are there only 250 film lovers in the USA who want to invest culturally in non-commercial, niche cinema to show America the wonders of American indie cinema, world-class Foreign cinema and repertoire titles?


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8 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

"Community-based, mission-driven art house theaters exist for the love of cinema and the cultural enrichment of local communities nationwide. The annual Art House Convergence Film Theaters Conference is designed to be a stimulating gathering that encourages art house operators to get to know one other and share successes, challenges, anxieties, as well as hopes and dreams.

Between January 16-19, 2012, just before the start of the Sundance Film Festival, you can join independent film exhibitor colleagues from throughout the nation at the Art House Convergence – a highly productive gathering of Art House theater professionals. Presented in cooperation with Sundance Institute, this annual conference features inspirational speakers, informative sessions and enlightening panel discussions by industry leaders. Learn productive tips about programming, marketing, fundraising, technology and industry trends that are sure to improve the quality and effectiveness of your Art House."
Art House Convergence (16-19 Jan 2012)


"Fresh from this week's Art House Convergence, an annual gathering of art house theater owners and programmers from around the country, Tim League sat down to talk about some of the big issues facing independent theater owners today. The move to digital, at the expense of 35mm cinema, was a hot topic.

League runs the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX, a festive indie chain of movie theaters that has developed quite a following for its unique programming and fun atmosphere. He's here in Utah looking for films for his new distribution label. He said he likes to find movies that some might call trash. For him and his colleagues, they are treasures."
Podcast : Sundance Buzz, Day 1 podcast [Film Society Lincoln Center; 19 Jan 2012; 55']

HarryTuttle a dit…

"Throughout this series, I’ve tried to bring historical analysis to bear on the nature of the change. I’ve also tried not to prejudge what I found, and I’ve presented things as neutrally as I could. But I find it hard to deny that the digital changeover has hurt many things I care about.
The more obvious side of my title’s pun [Pandora's digital box] was to suggest that digital projection released a lot of problems, which I’ve traced in earlier entries. From multiplexes to art houses, from festivals to archives, the new technical standards and business policies threaten film culture as we’ve known it. Hollywood distribution companies have gained more power, local exhibitors have lost some control, and the range of films that find theatrical screening is likely to shrink. Movies, whether made on film or digital platforms, have fewer chances of surviving for future viewers. In our transition from packaged-media technology to pay-for-service technology, parts of our film heritage that are already peripheral—current foreign-language films, experimental cinema, topical and personal documentaries, classic cinema that can’t be packaged as an Event—may move even further to the margins.
Moreover, as many as eight thousand of America’s forty thousand screens may close. Their owners will not be able to afford the conversion to digital. Creative destruction, some will call it, playing down the intangible assets that community cinemas offer. But there’s also the obsolescence issue. [..] In any event, there’s no reason to think that the major distributors and the internet service providers will be feeling generous to small venues. [..]
First pseudo-worry: “Movies should be seen BIG.” True, scale matters a lot. But (a) many people sit too far back to enjoy the big picture; and (b) in many theatres, 35mm film is projected on a very small screen. Conversely, nothing prevents digital projection from being big, especially once 4K becomes common. [..]
I began this series after realizing that in Madison I was living in a hothouse. [..] Between film festivals, our Cinematheque, and screenings in our local movie houses, I was watching 35mm throughout 2011, the year of the big shift.
There are six noncommercial 35mm film venues within walking distance of my office at the corner of University Avenue and Park Street. And two of those venues still use carbon-arc lamps! [..]
But now I’ve woken up. We all conduct our educations in public, I suppose, but preparing this series has taught me a lot. I still don’t know as much as I’d like to, but at least, I now appreciate the riches around me."

Pandora’s digital box: From films to files (David Bordwell; 29 Feb 2012)

HarryTuttle a dit…

"The myth that small-town moviegoers don't like "art movies" is undercut by Netflix's viewing results; the third most popular movie on Dec. 28 on Netflix was "Certified Copy," by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. You've heard of him? In fourth place--French director Alain Corneau's "Love Crime." In fifth, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"--but the subtitled Swedish version.
The message I get is that Americans love the movies as much as ever. It's the theaters that are losing their charm. Proof: theaters thrive that police their audiences, show a variety of titles and emphasize value-added features. The rest of the industry can't depend forever on blockbusters to bail it out."

I'll tell you why movie revenue is dropping... (Roger Ebert; 28 Dec 2011)

HarryTuttle a dit…

"At this moment, the landscape of cinema is in the midst of a massive upheaval - so massive that ignoring it is a genuine temptation. Production, exhibition, distribution, and criticism have been so vastly reconfigured that they each bear only a passing resemblance to their former selves. [..]
Repertory cinema programming is suffering. Old prints are increasingly difficult to find, and the days of striking new prints of old movies are quickly comingt to an end, which means that many of these cash-strapped institutions have to pony up for new projection systems to accommodate the current digital standard. [..]
Those of us who love cinema can no longer afford to stand by and assume that somebody else will take care of it, whatever it is. It's time for everyone to take an active part in the safe-guarding of film history."
Kent Jones editorial (Film Comment; Jan-Feb 2012)

HarryTuttle a dit…

"The fifth annual Art house convergence, a pre-Sundance gathering of folks who run repertory (aka "community-focused, mission-driven") cinemas across the U.S. [..] suggested how widespread the unease was. Panel titles like 'The Sustainable Art House,' 'Creating viewers AND Doers,' 'Social Media for the Art House,' 'The Other way to Get an Edge,' and '35mm is Not Dead (Yet)!' aren't exactly the discussion topics of a community bullish on its long-term prospects. The death of film and the widespread, ongoing transition to digital projection will hit mom-and-pop theatres in out-of-the-way places the hardest, even though their financial hardship has been much less noted than the experienced by the major commercial chains [..]"
The Great Slide (Donald Wilson; Film Comment; Mar-Apr 2012)

HarryTuttle a dit…

"In today’s digital distribution market, which ranges from VOD, to iTunes and other smaller online outlets, the numbers are hard to find or verify. [..]
Distributors try to hide or not make public their fees or the specific revenues from VOD. Why do they do this? Simply, it’s harder to analyze and compare options. When one can do this properly, you quickly realize how excessive fees are for certain rights categories and that there are extra middlemen who often serve no benefit to the licensor. [..]
Studios are less transparent and public about data because their dealings with Cable MSOs and key digital platforms are required to be secret (I am told this is a condition of the platforms and the MSOs). So we understand that their splits / terms (with MSOs and some platforms) are better but we do not always get the exact data. [..]"
What The Film Industry Needs: Transparency (Orly Ravid; Tribeca; 9 April 2012)

HarryTuttle a dit…

For Small Theaters, the Digital Future Is Dark (Nick Leiber; BusinessWeek; 16 February 2012)

HarryTuttle a dit…

With more and more studios moving away from 35mm prints, can art house cinema survive in a digital world? (Ira Deutchman; Tribeca; 29 Feb 2012)