Imagine that your favorite restaurant asks, “We’re giving a huge dinner party for the community – would you choose courses from our menu?” Or the band you love invites you to select the playlist for a concert in your hometown.
This was my opportunity when the Virginia Theatre asked me to curate the Arthouse Experience - a monthly series of Arthouse movies that kicks off September 29, 2021. (COVID-permitting…) For those not in Urbana-Champaign: the Virginia is a gorgeously restored movie palace celebrating its 100th year in 2021! (see the picture above, or for more: https://thevirginia.org/the-virginia-experience/history/) Watching a movie there is a top-shelf experience, like flying first class or staying at a luxury hotel. It’s also home to the best movie festival in the world: Ebertfest http://www.ebertfest.com/ And if you’re reading this and thinking, “Why did they invite an IT Director to pick the movies?” then please see Note #1. (Notes are below.)
I’m incredibly excited about the series, but I feel compelled to explain my criteria for selections because movies are endlessly fun to debate. So read on (below the trailers) to see why this film, and not that film.
Here's the list of movies, with trailers: https://blog.tectonicspeed.com/p/the-arthouse-experience-film-list-2021.html
The Subtle Art of Film Programming
The first selection filter is the fundamental one for a series called The Arthouse Experience. The cliché of an Arthouse film might be a costume drama, but it’s not limited – there are Arthouse comedies, Arthouse horror, Arthouse sci-fi, and so on. The classification “Arthouse film” is a squishy one. Much like another genre that used to play at the Art Theater, the best one can say is “I know it when I see it.”
The definition I chose for Arthouse was that the film required a “Limited Release” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limited_theatrical_release), which is generally defined as less than 600 theaters. (The opposite is a “Wide Release” that opens on thousands of screens on the same day – like a Marvel movie.) Back when movies were released on 35mm film prints, this strategy allowed a distributor to keep costs low by printing fewer copies for movies that didn't have major studio backing. Those prints would be released to a known community of Arthouse theaters - in major towns first, then passed on to mid-sized cities, and finally to smaller ones. This model had something for everyone. Distributors could test the waters for a film’s success and maximize their profits by passing the same prints through multiple towns. Quality films had time to find an audience over several weeks of a gradual release. Arthouse theaters thrived on the handful of limited release successes, especially when they had an exclusive on the film in their area. (The few hits let Arthouse theaters eke it out on the rest of the films...) Of course, the whole industry has changed in the last ten years. See my thoughts in Note #2 on why Limited Releases have ceased to exist.
My second filter was quality. No matter what type of film, was it good? As mentioned above, a benefit of the Limited Release strategy was nurturing lesser known, but excellent films. However, our remembrance of movies is clouded by the context of the release, or our memories of when and how saw it. There were several films in consideration that I rejected after re-watching.
My final criterion was selecting films to maximize the audience. I’m not ashamed of this - this was how I ran the Art Theater, at least once I learned my lessons on film programming (For more on my education: https://blog.tectonicspeed.com/2016/04/boy-was-i-wrong-about-that-one.html). I learned that film programming is not about selecting MY favorite movies; it’s about selecting movies the audience will want to see.
Hopefully, people have one of three reactions to this list:
- “I never saw that movie, but I heard it was amazing and I’ve always wanted to see it!”
- “I love that movie! I’d like to bring my friend/partner/kids to see it with me!”
- “What the hell, I’ll see any movie at a fabulous place like the Virginia!”
Programming Arthouse films is a delicate balance between commercial appeal and exposing the audience to films that are off their radar. In this first year (and I hope the series continues for more years) I leaned more heavily on familiar titles because it takes time for an audience to gain trust in the programmer’s selections. With that trust will come a greater willingness to experiment.
One complaint about programming this series that I’ll vent here: I tried to include more films that were recent releases, especially ones released during the pandemic, but many of those were distributed through the streaming services… and aren’t available for theatrical screening! This was frustrating because I tried to avoid making this simply a “Greatest Hits” parade of popular Arthouse films. (For example, we’re showing none of the top 20 best performing Limited Release films - https://www.the-numbers.com/box-office-records/domestic/limited-release-movies/cumulative/all-time) It's shocking how much the industry has changed in the last ten years.
Notes on My Selections
One of the ways I played it safe for this first year was programming Academy Award Best Picture winners (Moonlight and The Artist) and acting award winners (Adaptation and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Yet, I tried to pick surprise winners (most famously… Moonlight) that people might have missed before they won awards. Although it’s more well-known, I had to include The Artist, a film that I simply love (Note #3) and couldn’t resist showing in a theater that really showed silent films in the 1920s!
A familiarity from Ebertfest also helps, allowing me to include Wild Tales (Ebertfest 2015) and Cold War (Ebertfest 2019) - two excellent films that would be too obscure had they not played during the festival. Riding on the coattails of Ebertfest was something I did at the Art, and I’m pleased to continue it here!
Finally, with a nod towards the Slime Metric (Note #4) that Austin McCann developed while programming at the Art Theater, I selected some films for familiar faces (Emma, The Royal Tenenbaums, Big Night, Adaptation) because audiences still like to see stars… even in Arthouse films.
The one film that ticks zero of the boxes listed above is Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. However, this is the one movie on the list where I’m asking the audience to simply trust me and come see a fabulous film. Parent’s note: this movie is deemed appropriate for 14+ by Common Sense media - https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/eighth-grade. It is rated R for both language and frank sexuality.
Ultimately, I hope that the series develops an audience and continues into future years, and maybe that one day the Virginia will let me program my dream genre: a series of “Late Night” Movies!
Note #1: From 2010 - 2012 I operated the Art Theater in Champaign, IL – a now-defunct one-screen theater. (http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/1851)
As the operator, selecting the films to show was one of my
responsibilities. Now, it is a pleasure to take on ONLY this aspect for
the film series, and not worry about frozen popcorn oil, scheduling
employees around their entangled romances, or writing that damn weekly
email. If you want to read more about movie theater operations, please
see this blog on How to Watch a Movie: (https://blog.tectonicspeed.com/2015/08/how-to-watch-movie-at-art-or-anywhere.html)
Note #2: Based on current trends in theatrical exhibition, it seems like Limited Releases are done. There are several reasons for this:
- Digital prints can be copied at near-zero costs so the need to release in a few theaters is removed, which is OK because most of the Arthouse theaters have closed anyway.
- Streaming services offer an alternate platform that cuts costs both for the consumer (a monthly streaming subscription is cheaper than two tickets at a theater) and the distributor, who efficiently works through a single point of contact (the streaming service) instead of dealing with hundreds of theaters and shipping around physical films either on 35mm or DCP hard drives. Customers win on price and choice - streaming services can reach everyone with broadband; you don’t need an Arthouse theater in your area to see the films!
- There’s more competition for entertainment now. Movies compete not just with TV and streaming services, but also video games and social media. The size of the movie revenue pie is shrinking (just visit a cinema these days to see it yourself), and the majority of that pie will always go to the Star Wars and Avatar films.
- Real-time information on the Internet eliminates the word-of-mouth spread that nurtured slow-building successes like My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Juno. Movies either make a splash or they don’t – and then our fickle attention spans are on to the next thing. One interesting note: the Internet does permit a “long tail” of distribution, however, so building an audience could now take years, but it can happen.
I wrote more on this topic just before the pandemic (https://blog.tectonicspeed.com/2020/01/movie-theaters-end-is-nigh-1917-and.html) , and again during it (https://blog.tectonicspeed.com/2020/05/movie-theaters-rip.html).
Note #3: My love for The Artist is well documented:
- It was my choice for top movie of the ten years from 2010 – 2019, as discussed on UPTV 6’s Reel Reviews. (https://youtu.be/n-tp7yT_dSY?t=528)
- It was one of my top cinematic experiences, as described here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/sanfords-blog-supplemental-sanford-hess/
Note #4: Austin McCann ingeniously devised a prediction tool based on factors like reviews, subject matter, and well-known faces. Austin developed it after the surprise success of Hyde Park on Hudson and Ghostbusters, and named the metric after Bill Murray’s famous line, “He slimed me.” (To be clear, that line was *not* in Hyde Park on Hudson.)