Art House Convergence 2015: The Keynote Speakers

Keri Putnam, Executive Director, Sundance Institute


by Daniel Loria

Keri Putnam's passion for the stage led to her career working for the big screen. The executive director of the Sundance Institute left the theater to embark on a film career that has included stints as the executive vice president of HBO Films and the president of production at Miramax. Putnam's current role at the Sundance Institute requires her to oversee the organization's many programs to aid filmmakers as well as the latest edition of the Sundance Film Festival. Putnam spoke with BoxOffice about the Sundance Institute's commitment to independent cinema and theatrical exhibition. 

Art House Convergence wouldn't have existed without the support of the Sundance Institute. Can you tell us a bit more about the Sundance Institute's support of independent exhibitors and an event like AHC?

Art House Convergence grew out of the Art House Project, which was something that originated with the Sundance Institute several years before I was in this role. I want to credit John Cooper as well as our former managing director, Jill Miller, who together saw there was an amazing resurgence of independently owned art-house cinemas. That team created the Art House Project, which first gathered in 2006 on the 25th anniversary of the Sundance Institute. It has since grown out of its Sundance roots and exists independently, serving 500 delegates this year. To all of us, the growth of the convergence represents a real need for this gathering of community-based and mission-driven theaters to come together. There have been so many changes happening in the distribution business and in the way people are consuming films that I think it's all the more important to have the collective wisdom of the community come together. 

We hear a lot about the rise of VOD among independent and foreign titles, yet we continue to see box office success among indie and foreign titles across art-house cinemas nationwide. What role do you think theatrical exhibition plays for films that come out of the Sundance Institute and the festival?

We've seen a lot of changes, a lot of new platforms for people to see movies, but I think all of us at Sundance believe that theaters continue to play a critical role on a number of levels. It's not to say that there aren't going to be films coming from Sundance that are also released on VOD, but I think there is first and foremost something quite irreplaceable in the shared experience of seeing a film with an audience and seeing it in that collective setting. The communal experience of watching a film is core to why people love going to the festival and why they love going to theaters. I believe you can see movies in many different ways, but the cinema will always be important. On a business level, we see that the movies playing in theaters is the way the media business is structured-at least in the foreseeable future. The press cover films that have a theatrical run, and this can give a film visibility on a national level and set it up for success on digital platforms further down the line. At Sundance we believe in seeing movies in every way possible, but certainly we celebrate the theatergoing experience as one that we really believe in. We've seen a lot of the top-grossing indie films come out of Sundance, and we're super proud of that, but we love indie films doing well in theaters regardless of what festival they come from. 

The Sundance Film Festival is known for being a great curator of documentary films, discovering talent, and launching careers. Outside the festival, however, most people do not get to see documentaries in a theatrical setting. Do you believe documentaries have a future in theatrical exhibition, or will the only opportunity to see a documentary on the big screen be at film festivals?

Over the past number of years we've been seeing how incredibly popular documentaries have become in our festival. We know there's an appetite for audiences to see documentaries at a cinema. Many documentaries are financed and produced by television outlets, but we've been seeing many of those companies partner with distributors to provide theatrical runs for their documentaries. We also see the popularity of documentaries in the festival-going setting, which relates to the sort of events that cinemas around the country are creating for their own audiences. I think the key thing with documentaries is that you have an opportunity to bring people together to see a film in a theater and have a conversation about it following the screening, precisely because it's a communal experience at a theater. That's something you can't achieve watching a documentary at home. It's so important to look for that added value of conversation and community that documentaries can provide, which is so core to the art-house experience anyway. I'm hopeful, based both on the popularity and the way the business is structured, that documentaries will continue to be shown in theaters and occasionally break out when they become widely distributed.

As we approach the Academy Awards, we're seeing titles that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January continue to receive critical plaudits. To what do you attribute your dependable record for award nominations?

I think it's a combination of things. The Sundance Institute is the umbrella organization for the festival and a number of other programs. Over 30 years we've been established as a place where artists can come in the earlier part of their careers to get support: get a documentary financed or maybe get their script developed at one of our labs or receive producing mentorship, and so on. We have a natural and well-established pipeline of people coming through our doors, and a great network of alumni that recommend other people. We really feel there's an open submission process based on our reputation, where we get to see some of the most exciting work. And we also have this great network of alumni that come back with their new projects. I think Sundance is the perfect window for filmmakers to launch themselves into the cultural dialogue, knowing that, since it's in January, it will give them time to find the right distribution for their films and time to find the right strategy to release their films. We have a proven and visible platform to launch a film and bring talent in, and we really believe in our filmmakers. The intangible thing is the remarkable taste and skill of our programmers; they see 12,000 films every year to select a program of around 200. It's not just what's coming through the door, it's their process of taking the time to watch and talk about films together. We have a track record of making good choices, which is a testament to our whole programming team.

What would you say are the challenges facing independent cinema and its theatrical exhibition today?

Off the top of my head, I would just mention two things. First is the challenge of finding ways to make going to the theater a vital, exciting thing for younger audiences. I'm not talking about children. I'm talking about people who are 18 to 25, who are going to be looking forward to a lifetime of endless entertainment options. I think a huge challenge for art-house theaters is to reach out and develop this new generation that can really care about cinema and experiencing it in a theater with one another. Our audience is aging; it's something we need to look at. Second is that going to the theater has to, whenever possible, feel like an event. People need a reason to go to the theater instead of watching films at home, and that reason may be embedded in the film, but in the case of some smaller films, it might have to do with the community of people they're seeing it with and the program that's around it. A community can make cinema something exciting to share and talk about.  

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by Daniel Loria

In this series of interviews, BoxOffice and Art House Convergence recognize some of the most influential members of the non-profit art-house community. 

You've set up screenings in a wide variety of sites and contexts. Has there ever been a project that made you step back and question if you could actually figure it out?

My favorite phone calls are the ones which start with someone saying, "They tell me this can't be done, but if anyone can do it, you can." Among the most challenging was organizing Abel Gance's Napoleon in Francis Ford Coppola's vineyard in 1995-outdoors, with an 80-piece orchestra and an 80-foot widescreen. Figuring out how to do that one was kind of a challenge. I travelled with an orchestral presentation of Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, and figuring out how to go to a place like the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, where we had to put the film up in two screens, run them in-sync off-set with audio and music. Doing Cinerama in a high school gymnasium in Telluride was also a challenge. In that one, the Cinerama projectors were the machines used by John Ford in his dailies work for How the West was Won. Having to figure out how to do a show in a field in Doha, Qatar-where the 80-foot widescreen had to move out of the way so the Qatari symphony orchestra could play music before the screening. To me they're all fun; it's all about knowing what works and what doesn't work and figuring out a way of making work what doesn't work. 

I'm very impressed that you've actually set up screenings for Abel Gance's Napoleon; that requires a projector set up on a triptych-a very early forerunner to Cinerama and, more recently, Barco Escape. That must be one of the ultimate experiences for cinephiles. Watching that film in its original format-it's a bucket-list item that many people don't get a chance to cross off. 

I'm sure you and others will get an opportunity-they still drag it out of mothballs every once in a while, the last time being in Oakland a couple of years ago. Given the fact that the last general, "big" release was back in the early '80s, there's a new generation of people out there who have only heard of it. Even with the show in Oakland, people came from across the country and around the world to see it. 
You might see it come out again sometime in the next couple of years. Part of the problem is that it's a mighty expensive show to do. The live orchestra goes into overtime the moment the intermission starts, and there's still two hours of movie left to play. The rehearsal and orchestra costs are just astronomical. There's a lot of interest in it, and it's something to be really experienced. 

Exhibitors are working closely with providers to ensure the latest technology helps the cinema experience stand out over home entertainment. How do you and your company, Boston Light and Sound, make sure you're up to date and comfortable in working with the latest technology?

We're involved in the planning and implementation of screenings at CinemaCon, and that's always a challenge because every manufacturer wants to show off their newest wares. We were there when the digital revolution began and the early presentations were done; we provided the side-by-side comparisons between film and digital cinema. In having that role, we've become early adopters on a large scale for things like advanced frame rates, 4k, laser projection, and so on. That has kept us at the forefront of understanding what's happening with the technology. As a company, even though we started as an analog operation in 1977, one of the challenges we've met is having kept our analog capability while moving into the digital realm by using the same kind of vision and technique and need for quality presentation as we've done previously. 

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by Daniel Loria

In this series of interviews, BoxOffice and Art House Convergence recognize some of the most influential members of the non-profit art-house community. 

One of Gary Meyer's first jobs in film programming was in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco where, as a college student, he booked a daily grind-house double feature. Meyer's career took off from his early days in San Francisco, and he eventually co-founded one of the premier art-house cinema chains in North America, Landmark Theatres. Meyer left Landmark in 1996 and has since dedicated his career to film programming and curation as a consultant to art-house cinemas across the country, and in a stint as the co-director of the Telluride Film Festival. He recently launched a web magazine called Eat Drink Films, which will expand to a food-and-drink-related film festival this October.

BoxOffice spoke with Meyer about the lessons he's learned in a lifetime of booking films. 

What were some of the challenges in launching Landmark Theatres?

The original three partners were Steve Gilula, Kim Jorgensen, and myself. Kim had taken the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, and we wanted to take over the UC Theater at Berkeley. We joined our efforts, and at the second Telluride Film Festival, we formed our partnership. We didn't expect to have a circuit, but the UC Theater opened, and friends from Sacramento called me and gave us the idea to open a location there. It snowballed from there: San Diego, Pasadena, and more. Kim went home to Milwaukee for the holidays one year and came back and said, "We have to take over the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee." He just wouldn't let up, so we went to Milwaukee and the theater was just stunning. The owners of the building were contractors and electricians, and they had completely restored the theater stunningly, but they didn't know anything about the movie business, and their bookings and grosses were terrible. So we talked ourselves into taking this crazy leap across the country with the Oriental, and it was a success, but we also knew we had to have other theaters in the Midwest so we could appoint a district manager who could look over what we were doing there. We found theaters in Madison, Minneapolis, and then Chicago, and we just kept on growing. Initially they were repertory houses, but as home video came along, we needed to get more adventurous in our programming. 

How did you address that threat from home entertainment?

One of the things we thought was very important was to develop marketing strategies that would allow our local managers to do the promotion in a manner that would get them attention in their particular markets. We said to our managers, you are the spokesperson to our brand; you are the face, and what we're going to do is create a marketing program where every new, first-run art film opening in our theaters will include marketing guidelines with ideas that you could do to get attention. You're required to have a press screening and get the film reviewed in the daily papers-if you get a photograph with that review, that's worth $50 for you, the manager. If you get it on the front cover of the entertainment section, that's worth $100. If you get a feature piece, whether it's a wire service or phone or in-person interview, we'll do anything we can to get those set up; that's worth money to you. Tie in with a business, get a window display, tie in with the local PBS or NPR station, the college station, and so on-we created a price structure for what all these things were worth for every manager as bonuses. It was incredibly successful, because we had built-in incentives, and we only hired people who loved movies. 

What can independent movie theaters do to gain an edge in the current exhibition market?

The market is constantly changing; you have chains like Cinemark and Regal doing their own programs, and doing a good job within the context of what they do. The independent art-house operator really needs to find that balance between getting some of the higher profile films-something like Birdman or The Imitation Game-that do some crossover business, but when they play, they're going to play alongside a number of other theaters, and the other smaller films. The reason to play the higher-profile films is to bring in audiences that may be new to your theater, and to generate revenue that would underwrite the riskier, smaller films. Keep it very personal; I urge theaters to have someone introducing films whenever possible. Someone who is good in front of audiences. They can't be up there afraid and reading off a script; they need to be personal and passionate-something short that thanks the audience for coming and tells them about something interesting coming up. And at the end of the show, having someone at the doors thanking them for coming. I know it can't be done every time, but on the weekends, for example, you can bring in someone who doesn't have any on-the-floor responsibilities with tickets or concessions, but rather they are an ambassador to the theater and a problem solver. Someone that introduces the film and says good night, that the audience knows as someone they can approach and ask a question. Personalizing the experience is very important.
Do some unique programming: a festival, classic movies on Tuesday nights, local documentary and student filmmakers. Do outreach to the educational community. Have screenings for all ages and bring in school groups, and if you have to give away the theater to bring them in-that's OK, they'll probably buy concessions and you're doing it in a non-operating hour anyway. And you're hopefully building new audiences. One of the dangers we observe in the art market is that we're a large part of our own audience. We became interested in this in our 20s, and we are still going to those movies in our 60s, but where are the younger audiences? They're not there in large enough numbers. We need to figure out ways to bring that young audience back. 

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By Daniel Garris

Warner's American Sniper broke out in a big way this weekend with a massive $107.21 million in its first four days of wide release. The Clint Eastwood directed Best Picture nominee starring Bradley Cooper had clearly been building up major momentum leading up to its wide release and ultimately exploded out of the gate this weekend to a degree that nobody was expecting. With a three-day gross of $89.27 million, American Sniper easily established new opening weekend records for the Martin Luther King holiday weekend and for the month of January as it outpaced the $41.52 million take of previous record holder, last year's Ride Along, by an astounding 115 percent. With the addition of a very strong performance in three weeks of platform release (which clearly helped build up buzz for the film), American Sniper has grossed $110.64 million through Monday.

In a break-out performance of this size, American Sniper clearly appealed to various audience demographics and to moviegoers throughout the country. The audience breakdown for the film skewed towards male moviegoers (57 percent) and towards moviegoers over 25 years of age (63 percent). American Sniper also received an added boost from the strong performance of its fairly last-minute IMAX release, which was responsible for an estimated $10.82 million of the film's overall gross this weekend.

With no potential blockbuster performers arriving in the marketplace over the next two weeks, American Sniper is in perfect position to continue to dominate the box office throughout the rest of January. The film received an exceptional A+ rating on CinemaScore.

It was a tight race for second place between Paddington and The Wedding Ringer this weekend. While The Wedding Ringer placed in second over the three-day frame, Paddington moved into second place over the four-day frame.

Paddington took in respective three-day and four-day grosses of $18.97 million and $25.49 million. The family film from The Weinstein Company debuted on the high end of expectations. Paddington opened just 1 percent below the $25.70 million four-day start of The Nut Job over Martin Luther King weekend last year, which was quite respectable given that Paddington didn't have the added advantage of higher priced 3D admissions that The Nut Job and most other family films have. Paddington received an A rating on CinemaScore, which is a promising early sign for the film going forward.

Sony's The Wedding Ringer was off to a respectable start with respective three-day and four-day grosses of $20.65 million and $24.04 million. The modestly budgeted comedy starring Kevin Hart and Josh Gad opened on the low end of pre-release expectations. The Wedding Ringer opened 14 percent below the $27.84 million four-day start of last year's About Last Night, but will likely hold up better going forward than About Last Night did (due in part to that film being a Valentine's Day release). Potential for The Wedding Ringer was no doubt limited at least somewhat by the breakout performance of American Sniper with adult moviegoers. The Wedding Ringer received a healthy A- rating on CinemaScore.

On the heels of last weekend's stronger than expected start Fox's Taken 3 was down three spots and a sharp 56.5 percent to land in fourth place with $17.05 million over the four-day frame. Audience overlap with American Sniper has clearly led to increased front-loading for Taken 3. The third installment of the Liam Neeson led franchise has grossed $65.84 million in eleven days. That places the film a reasonable 25 percent behind the $87.80 million eleven-day take of 2012's Taken 2. Taken 3 grossed $14.72 million over the three-day frame.

Selma rounded out the weekend's top five with a four-day take of $13.85 million. The Best Picture nominee from Paramount was up a healthy 22.5 percent over last weekend's three-day performance. The film was helped out this weekend by the Martin Luther King holiday (Monday's $5.07 million performance represented an 86.5 percent increase over Sunday) and by its Best Picture nomination. Selma has grossed $31.51 million after eleven days of wide release. While Selma is performing softer than was widely anticipated, the film is still having a respectable run thus far with its modest price tag in mind. Selma took in $8.78 million over the three-day frame.

Four-day holiday weekend grosses for other Best Picture nominees included $8.02 million for The Weinstein Company's The Imitation Game (playing in 1,611 locations), $1.87 million for Fox Searchlight's Birdman (playing in 471 locations) and $1.18 million for Focus' The Theory of Everything (playing in 509 locations). Respective current total grosses stand at $51.62 million for The Imitation Game, at $28.59 million for Birdman and at $27.49 million for The Theory of Everything.

Meanwhile, Universal's Blackhat was dead on arrival this weekend with $4.49 million over the four-day frame. The Michael Mann directed film starring Chris Hemsworth debuted in eleventh place and opened well below its already modest expectations. The decision to open Blackhat against American Sniper (and one week after Taken 3) always seemed like a puzzling one and Blackhat simply couldn't find an audience this weekend due in part to that decision. The film debuted 75 percent below the $18.03 million start of last year's Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Long term prospects for Blackhat are bleak and the film having received a poor C- rating on CinemaScore won't help matters either. Blackhat grossed $3.90 million over the three-day frame.

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movio.pngCEO Will Palmer Nominated for "Excellence in Leadership" Award

Auckland, NZ and Los Angeles, CA - January 20, 2015 - Movio, the global leader in customer intelligence and targeted marketing software for the film industry, is a finalist in the New Zealand International Business Awards. The awards recognize companies that impact the international business community through leadership, innovation, vision and tenacity. They are presented by NZTE, New Zealand's international business development agency, with support from strategic partner ANZ, one of New Zealand's leading banking and financial services groups.

Movio is nominated in the "ANZ Best Business Operating Internationally" category. Company CEO and Co-Founder, Will Palmer, is nominated in the "Excellence in Leadership" category. Winners will be announced at the prestigious black tie awards ceremony on March 25, 2015 at Sky City Convention Centre in Auckland.

Under Mr. Palmer's direction, Movio is recognized as the global leader in marketing data, analysis, insights, and campaign creation and management for theatrical exhibitors, studios and distributors. The underlying premise driving Movio's growth is the increasing realization by the film industry that the (big) data generated about moviegoers at point-of-sale are invaluable assets.

Movio's software solutions make it faster and cost-efficient for exhibitors to analyze and use that data and execute personalized campaigns to their customers. Movio's latest development aggregates data across a region to provide film distributors and studios comprehensive market data, providing crucial audience insights.

"Our vision is to revolutionize the way the film industry interacts with viewers, increase box office revenue and improve the quality of content produced," said Mr Palmer. "We are thrilled and honored that our data-driven approach has been recognized as worthy of consideration from the New Zealand International Business Awards."

About New Zealand International Business Awards

The New Zealand International Business Awards attract a wide range of entries from a variety of industries. Past winners have included SMEs and large multinational organizations - from technology, health and design businesses, to those in the primary sector. There are few higher accolades for New Zealand companies than the New Zealand International Business Awards. The Awards celebrate the success of New Zealand businesses on the world stage, recognizing professional excellence, innovative practice and leadership through vision, commitment and success. These companies help grow and transform the New Zealand economy with exceptional export success in international markets. The Awards are organized by New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, with the support of strategic partner ANZ, one of New Zealand's leading banking and financial services groups.

About Movio

Movio is the global leader in marketing data analysis and campaign management for cinema exhibitors, studios and distributors. A company of Vista Group International Ltd (NZX:VGL), Movio's mission is to revolutionize the way the film industry interacts with moviegoers. Movio maintains real-time, authoritative data on the loyalty activity and transactions of over 30 million customers. Movio operates in North America, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, China, Vietnam and Malaysia, and is currently targeting Europe as well as emerging markets in Latin America and Asia Pacific.


Twitter: @MovioHQ



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