Art House Convergence 2015: The Keynote Speakers

Randy Cohen, Vice President of Research and Policy, Americans for the Arts


by Daniel Loria

Randy Cohen's tireless efforts in the fields of arts funding, research, policy, and community development have earned him plaudits from arts organizations across the country. Cohen is the editor of the National Arts Index, an annual report on the state of the arts in the United States, along with two other economic publications on the arts industry: Arts & Economic Prosperity and Creative Industries. He is no stranger to Utah in January either, having worked with Robert Redford and the Sundance Institute on developing the National Arts Policy Roundtable, an annual summit that brings together leaders who focus on the advancement of American culture. Cohen spoke with BoxOffice ahead of his keynote address at Art House Convergence.

What was the effect of the recession on non-profit arts organizations in the U.S.?

The "Great Recession" caused huge hardships for non-profits everywhere, and especially for non-profit arts organizations. They saw declining revenues, declining audiences, declining was a really tough go and we certainly saw some thinning of the herd as well, some organizations weren't able to make the turn. Arts organizations have been a little slower coming out of the recession than the rest of the economy overall. 2012 was when the fortunes started to change for our industry. A lot of it is driven by the economy, which helps drive philanthropy and consumer confidence -if people are worried about losing jobs and houses, they hold back on things that are not necessities. That was one of the major challenges we were up against. 

What sort of factors, whether they be political economic or within a community, enable nonprofit arts organizations to thrive?

The state of the overall economy correlates with a healthier sector, but there were arts organizations even during the recession that did thrive. It's really about how well we're connecting with a community, how well we're connecting with our audiences. The research is pretty clear about how audience engagement is changing. People are looking for more active participation versus a passive kind of experience; that business model where you have an eight o'clock curtain, put on a show, and kick them out the door they came in afterwards -that's struggling in a lot of places. Some arts organizations are letting people see what's going on behind the scenes a little bit, getting more personally involved with their community. Arts organizations need to keep up with how their audiences are changing. Look at what happened to the music industry, it's been completely turned on its head -not just non-profits, of course. Over the last dozen years the number of music and CD stores in this country has dropped around 50 percent. Remember Tower Records? Gone. People haven't stopped listening to music; 45 percent of the industry revenue now comes from digital downloads. Technology is having a big effect. The National Opera went out of business about a year and a half ago in Washington D.C. -Placido Domingo was their artistic director. Are Washingtonians just not invested in opera anymore? Maybe, maybe not  -the opera folded into the Kennedy Center- but twice a year the baseball stadium hosts what's called "Opera in the Outfield" and they do a live simulcast on the big screen and it's hugely popular. You start to hear about more and more of these kind of examples and you find that the arts aren't in trouble so much, but maybe some of the traditional delivery mechanisms are.

Engaging an audience can be a huge challenge, especially for cinemas -where marketing plays such an important role. What have you seen as being effective ways to drive in community interest in the arts?

A big part of it is bringing the arts and the culture to where the people are instead of just expecting to put up a season and hoping people show up. Are there different kinds of venues? Can we bring the product closer to the people? The demographics of our communities are changing rapidly. We need to think about how well our arts organizations are connecting to the different racial and ethnic groups in our communities. Folks want to participate, folks want to engage. I think there's so much competition for the audience's time and wallet that we have to make ourselves ultra-relevant to their lives. That can mean changing with the diversity, or addressing the different segments of your community and dealing with the important issues of our communities. It's also connecting with other segments and other leaders in the community; how are our arts organizations connecting socially, educationally, and economically? An institution can't be an isolated island, you can't have an isolationist strategy because everyone will leave you alone. I always think in terms of, how do we make the arts unavoidable in our communities? And we can do that with all the art forms, and that's what engages people -when they participate and experience the arts, and then they want to get more of that. That's when the transformation takes place: when a person attends or sees something -a museum exhibit, or a play, or a film- and you walk out and think about life a little differently. The research shows that the more of those kind of experiences you have, the more you become a cultural omnivore. 

You follow and track a variety of different arts organizations. In your view, what role do cinemas play in the cultural life of a community?

Cinema is one of our fundamental components of a healthy cultural community, it's not an extra by any means. It's an art form that can be taken so many places. We're finding that people want to create personally, they don't want to just attend -they want to be a creator, too. With technology now, film is just so accessible -probably the most accessible art creation-form that's out there after pencil and paper. A lot of us have telephones, a lot of us have computers, and we can create. It makes film and cinema central to our communities because it provides a great cultural product that we can attend and be creators of. If we want to stay relevant to our communities, if we want these vibrant art-houses and cinema organizations, these are the things we need to do. When you're relevant, you have audiences and earned income, and that's also the key to contributor dollars as well. If nobody is walking through your turnstiles, good luck getting those public and private sector dollars.    

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By Daniel Garris

Warner's American Sniper took in an impressive $9.92 million on Tuesday to lead the daily box office with ease for a fifth consecutive day. The Clint Eastwood directed Best Picture nominee starring Bradley Cooper was down just 45 percent from Monday's holiday inflated performance. After five days of wide release, American Sniper has grossed a massive $120.56 million. In addition to rocketing past pre-release expectations the film is currently running 76 percent ahead of the $68.45 million five-day start of 2013's Gravity. With daily grosses of this size and impressive daily percentage holds thus far, American Sniper is obviously looking it remain in first place with ease over the upcoming weekend.

The Wedding Ringer placed in second with $1.71 million. Sony's modestly budgeted comedy starring Kevin Hart and Josh Gad was down 50 percent from Monday. The Wedding Ringer has grossed $25.75 million in five days, which is on the lower end of pre-release expectations. The film is currently running 11 percent behind the $29.00 million five-day pace of last year's About Last Night, but should continue to close the percentage gap between the two films thanks to stronger daily holds.

Fox's Taken 3 took third place with $1.13 million. The third installment of the Liam Neeson led franchise was down 52 percent from Monday and down a sharp 66 percent from last Tuesday. Taken 3 has grossed $66.97 million in twelve days. That places the film a reasonable 25 percent behind the $89.60 million twelve-day take of 2012's Taken 2.

Paddington claimed fourth place with $1.01 million. The family film from The Weinstein Company was down 85 percent from Monday, which is a sure sign of how heavily the film is skewing towards family audiences. Paddington has grossed a very solid $26.50 million in five days, which places the film essentially on par with the $26.58 million five-day start of last year's The Nut Job.

Best Picture nominees Selma and The Imitation Game took fifth and sixth place with respective daily takes of $0.89 million and $0.71 million. Paramount's Selma was down 82 percent from Monday's inflated Martin Luther King Day performance, while The Imitation Game was down just 41 percent. Respective current total grosses stand at $32.41 million for Selma and at $52.34 million for The Imitation Game.

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By Alex Edghill

So its no secret I'm a numbers guy at heart and as such this whole social media gig here at Box Office has been a blessing over my last five+ years here. One of the things having access to some pretty powerful tracking tools is the ability to look at things at a macro-level to try to extract patterns and/or get a better understanding of trends. Today I want to spend some time looking at Hollywood distributors in 2014 and the relationship between their revenues and Twitter buzz. For the purposes of this article I will be looking at all 2014 wide release films (most limited releases and many Award films get excluded then I know). My Twitter numbers are the total tweets for each film from the Monday - Thursday before release. A third variable I have thrown in is box office per tweet - this is an attempt to gauge just how valuable each tweet was for the studios. 

The results of the dataset bring to the front some interesting patterns and discussion points. As expected Fox was out front in total tweets and box office from its 16 tracked releases - $1.8 billion in revenue and 1.625 million tweets. Pretty fitting for the box office champion to also be the Twitter champion on the year I suppose. A little closer look reveals that it got over 900k tweets from a single film - The Fault In Our Stars as it was the most talked about film pre-release in 2014. Remove that film from its lineup and it would have still led box office but been 5th overall amongst studios.

Second and third place was a close race box office wise for Disney and Warner Bros. as they both flirted with $1.5 billion from the films I tracked. Twitter also was close but Warner Bros. edged ahead with 1.256 million tweets to 1.105 tweets from Disney.

Sony, Paramount and Universal all flirted with or crossed the $1 million in revenue mark based on the films tracked but none of them could cross the 1 million tweets marked for their films. That left Lionsgate who blew past all of them in the Twitter department but lagged in box office earnings. This was thanks in large part to The Hunger Games and Divergent which were the second and third most talked about films pre-release on Twitter in 2014. Those two films alone generated more buzz than Sony, Paramount and Universal. Of course since their core demo were young girls who are Twitter powerusers generally this was no surprise. Lionsgate's problem was that outside of those two releases it didn't have anything else as its third-highest earning was John Wick which didn't surpass $45 million.

Twitter Activity by Studio for 2014

Studio Tweets Box Office # Movies BO/Twitter Average
Fox 1,625,385 $1,800,272,684 16 1,108
Warner Bros. 1,255,665 $1,484,277,935 17 1,182
Lionsgate 1,183,784 $689,779,031 11 583
Disney 1,104,781 $1,496,371,179 12 1,354
Sony 956,119 $1,182,007,465 15 1,236
Universal 665,375 $1,022,891,020 14 1,537
Paramount 515,515 $926,272,036 9 1,797
Relativity Media 170,077 $184,109,028 7 1,083
Weinstein 103,234 $110,472,673 4 1,070
Focus 63,556 $76,836,136 2 1,209
Open Road 43,600 $124,276,501 4 2,850
Clarius Entertainment 17,010 $11,704,804 2 688
Freestyle Releasing 773 $2,827,666 1 3,658
Grand Total 7,704,874 $9,112,098,158 114 1,183

My list is clearly biased towards the larger distributors since I exclude most limited release films, but with that caveat in mind the data above does have a strong correlation for total tweets to total box office. Self-fulfilling prophesy you might say? That's a valid in part as a big popular film is going to generate more buzz sure, but Twitter has proven time and time again to single out winners and losers from long before release, no doubt mirroring a lot of other social media sites and indeed distributor research as well which in turn then shapes marketing spend and theater saturation. I might just be a Twitter bigot, sure, but I believe the extra focus being paid to it my Hollywood itself is warranted and another valuable marketing tool for marketing's arsenal.

Top 10 films by Tweets pre-release (Mon-Thu) in 2014

Title Studio Tweets Box Office
The Fault In Our Stars Fox 949,852 $124,872,350
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 Lionsgate 604,795 $332,930,936
Divergent Lionsgate / Summit 431,209 $150,947,895
22 Jump Street Sony / Columbia 383,662 $191,719,337
Maleficent Disney 329,002 $241,410,378
Captain America: The Winter Soldier Disney 294,659 $259,766,572
If I Stay Warner Bros. / New Line 258,450 $50,474,843
Annabelle Warner Bros. / New Line 256,999 $84,273,813
Guardians of the Galaxy Disney 235,034 $333,172,112
Transformers: Age Of Extinction Paramount 191,573 $245,439,076

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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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