Why the Arthouse Needs to Engage Diverse Audiences (column)

For art and essay to survive, it must adapt new strategies that allow more viewers to see themselves.

Fall is in full swing with celebrations of movie magic, from Steven Spielberg’s autobiography “The Fabelmans” to “Empire of Light,” Sam Mendes’ romantic ode to old movie theaters. But the most incisive statement about the state of the movies is already there.

It comes from Jordan Peele’s “Nope,” which confirms the filmmaker’s ability to generate suspense and awe in very unpredictable places – but this Western sci-fi showdown also doubles as a meditation on how film history marginalizes key characters and, more crucially, assesses how the industry continues to alienate key voices. And, intentionally or not, it’s also a window into the need to diversify arthouse audiences.

I won’t go into “No” spoilers, but it’s brilliant conceit for Peele to imagine the Hollywood horse wrestlers who are at the center of the film as the grandchildren of the black jockey who sat at astride the horse in one of the very first moving images ever captured on film. Generations later, the family still hovers on the edge of Hollywood as spectators to the greater machine, unsure of their place.

It’s a stark allegory not just for people of color in Hollywood, but also for overlooked audiences, and a good excuse this column could ask for to explore why arthouses need to evolve. As Hollywood reinforces longstanding diversity concerns, a much bigger challenge faces independent exhibitors. They serve a fickle audience that has become even more fickle during the pandemic, but many of these theaters are chasing the wrong demographics. The arthouse cliché is that older white viewers provide its basis, but that perception comes at the cost of attracting more audiences who want to see themselves on screen.

Sure, the success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is a watershed moment for Asian American cinema – but its popularity owes a lot to A24’s huge resources and a release strategy that feels more like a big movie. public than at a specialized outlet. If arthouses — and the distributors who rely on them — want more diverse audiences, they need to embrace programming that engages those audiences first and foremost. And for that, they have to work together.

This is the founding principle of Art House Convergence, but in recent years this consortium of exhibitors has had to face a desperate situation on its own initiative, due to all kinds of internal policies that are not worth the worth reviving here. Now, the organization has Sundance as a fiscal sponsor and a transition committee focused on creating a board of directors and expanding membership to address past diversity issues.

Jessica Green, a member of the transitional working group Art House Convergence, told me that AHC’s new identity will be tied to a transformational approach to the future of arthouse itself. “There was a sense of what arthouse was, what an independent film, that was pretty whitewashed,” she said. “It didn’t work too hard to center the non-white experience.”

Green, who is the artistic director of the Chromatic Black Collective, also manages the Ida B. Wells fund, which invests in short films by emerging black filmmakers that the collective will market and distribute. As the former director of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival and the Maysles Film Center in Harlem, she has spent years working to engage audiences of color with the bold, thought-provoking kind of filmmaking that keeps local film culture alive and inspires the new generations of cinephiles with an adventurous taste. .

“The demographics are changing,” she said. “Right now, it’s transform or die. The space must completely change to accommodate these demographic shifts in order to be viable in the future.

Green said AHC wants to add members from places and conservation projects across the country that haven’t been so well represented in the past. “We are really trying to broaden our membership to have a representative base from which we hope leadership candidates will emerge,” she said.

She underscored the need for film festivals, societies and other organizations to work to “get out of geographic artistic ghettos” and “go straight into communities”. That’s essential, but it goes hand in hand with serving those audiences with programming that excites them in a way that the art house scene hasn’t always been able to do.

Saul Williams, co-director of this summer’s Afrofuturist arthouse release “Neptune Frost,” told me he recognized those barriers during his days as a burgeoning moviegoer in New York City. “I had to go through a lot to find foreign art films that didn’t star Juliette Binoche or Isabelle Huppert,” he said. “The public is ready to ingest more than the system gives them. Our game is, how we dance through a system that wants to think, ‘Who is this movie for?’

His partner and co-manager Anisia Uzeyman joined him on the roll call and jumped in. way from Cannes to NYFF to Sundance, the rare film to do so. “The response was always, ‘It’s not commercial for us, because it’s not our audience,'” she said. “They forget that the public is us too.”

“Neptune Frost”

IndieWire Exclusive Kino Lorber

The film ultimately earned $171,000 in limited release in the United States ahead of its VOD release in January, but Williams and Uzeyman said they felt validated by the diverse audience reception they experienced. That’s partly because they traveled beyond the bubbles of New York and Los Angeles to find it, and found an essential partner to do so.

While Kino Lorber was distributing “Neptune Frost,” he received help from DEDZA Films, a boutique distributor started by a young executive named Kate Gondwe focused on marginalized artists. (In her day job, she works in marketing at Neon.) Any small marketer wanting to expand their audience base would be wise to call her, as Gondwe focuses on survival tactics which, as noted noted Green, are essential to the survival of art and essay.

Gondwe received a Sundance grant to support marketing costs associated with the film, and focused on visiting filmmakers in overlooked markets like Philadelphia and Baltimore that cater to black audiences. She told me that opening weekend viewership for “Neptune Frost” at BAM was over 50% of BIPOC as a result of additional promotional efforts.

“At the end of the day, it’s about whether the public is aware of these films,” she said. “A lot of it is marketing and awareness, but also exhibitors engaging with a diverse audience from the get-go.”

Gondwe saw “Neptune Frost” as a success under the precise conditions laid down for him from the outset. “You have to look at what kind of movie it is and what movies it’s compared to,” she said. “We felt that the key markets we identified performed well, and that also helped the PVOD exit.” Going forward, she added, geographical diversity would remain at the center of her concerns. “It’s something that’s often overlooked,” she said, “that’s how our industry is organized.”

The responsibility also lies with the distributors themselves. “That’s why acquisitions are so important for these films,” she said. “A lot of diverse audiences don’t see each other.”

Daniel Kaluuya in Nope, written and directed by Jordan Peele.

Daniel Kaluuya in “No”

Photo credit: Universal Pictures

Which brings us back to “No”. It’s a total blast, a dizzying satirical action rush with a lot going on. The film’s finale – still no spoilers, I promise – digs deeper into the power of representation, and in particular what it means to capture an image that has never been seen before. This is the enigma of art and essay in a nutshell.

This column is meant to highlight opportunities for sustainability, but I’m sure there’s more work going on to diversify arthouse than the examples highlighted above. I invite readers to send us their own ideas: eric@indiewire.com

My previous column urging streamers to strike more output deals with smaller distributors elicited strong responses. No surprise there. Here are some of the comments I received.

“If only corporations were required to do public good!” If only they thought quality mattered. It may be an initial way to grab attention quickly, but it’s not the predictable fruit at hand that’s the easiest investment. …I suspect we’ll move to short-term licensing via direct supply relationships – this might be for the same distributors who know how to launch and market tough titles, but that’s what streamers need (positioning) not libraries. It’s a business of the new and the past is for those who can juice leftovers.

—Former head of distribution (anonymous)

“It’s riskier to take bigger bets on MGs and marketing spend without a guarantee of a good TV or SVOD deal. For example, even though our movie ‘Corpus Christi’ was nominated for an Oscar, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. all passed on the film (and aired it AFTER it was nominated).

—Michael E. Rosenberg, Motion Picture

“I don’t have access to any secret information here, but I’ve spoken with executives in the past who have told me they’ve looked at past data for many of these types of movies – watch times, views and more importantly, whether he wins or keeps subs – and he was close to zero.This was also apparently true for many classics you would see on Netflix (or Hulu) in the past. that people would put them in their queue but never watch them, and when they were removed from availability they wouldn’t watch the other things less or leave the service Of course, an old art movie and trial might not correlate with a new one, but look who they have release deals with today, and that’s the most “mainstream” of distributors. And I’d be surprised if those people maintain these offers much further into the future.

—Brian Newman, consultant, subgenre

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