11 April 2011

Low attendance for art-house films? Don't blame Philadelphia audiences

I wouldn't say I'm having fun reading it all, so let's say rather that I'm feeling some validation that I'm not the only cinema enthusiast in this town who's had it up to here with the sad, sad state of independent, artistic, and repertory film in Philadelphia. From the Cinedelphia blog in the past few days:

Prince Music Theater: EPIC FAIL - A festival screening of a Sundance award-winning film, with the filmmaker in attendance, had to be canceled after everyone (including the filmmaker) had shown up, because the projectionist failed to come to work and nobody at the Prince knew how to run the projector and sound.

Cinefest continues to prove its lameness . . . UPDATED - Politics and internal conflicts ahoy at TLA and the Philadelphia Cinema Alliance threaten the continued presence of knowledgeable, talented programmers for the festival.

The Philadelphia Cinefest starts this week . . . - "[M]any of the festival's guests (John Carpenter, Lucky McKee) will be appearing via Skype rather than in-person[.]" That's a quote that speaks for itself. Even the industry doesn't take the Philadelphia film festivals seriously.

The city film festival used to be a full-contact sport for me. Now it's split into two separate festivals, plus separate weeks for films with an LGBT, Asian, and Jewish focus. It's a waste of time and duplication (quintuplication?) of effort to reinvent the wheel five times per year for all these festivals. All the festival participants -- the organizers, the venues, the filmmakers, and the audiences -- lose when we have, essentially, single weeks of recognition that aren't big enough to draw sponsors, media, and more important films. Philadelphia won't have a world-class festival until the organizers decide they want one world-class festival and work together to make it happen.

One last note on a comment in the "continues to prove its lameness" post referenced above. Joseph Gervasi of Exhumed Films is quoted as saying, "Our pals at Ibrahim Theater @ International House have all kinds of stimulating film programming all year round. The state of cinema isn't sad in our city; it's the state of attendance for the events of worth." You know, I love the I-House. The projection is great (unlike the woefully and embarrassingly underpowered projection and lousy, lousy sound at the Prince); the seats are great since they put the new ones in; and they bring so many great films around that I wish I could spend my entire weekend there. But you know what? That's the problem. In order to see all the films you want to see at the I-House, you have to spend your entire weekend there. When they bring a repertory film in for a screening, it's for one single screening. If you're not free at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday 23 April, for example, you will miss the sole screening of Harlan County USA that they're putting on. A couple of rarities from Lindsay Anderson and Ken Russell will screen one time only at 7:00 on Thursday 28 April. And Todd Haynes' Poison, a very important film in the American independent film movement of the 1990s? One screening, 7:00 on Friday 6 May.

Other repertory cinemas around the world get a print for a week and show it several times from Tuesday through Sunday. One scheme I've seen is to alternate the film with another by the same filmmaker or with other films of the same genre. It can be like a miniature thematic film festival every week; or it can be as simple as running the film once per night for three or four days, plus a Sunday matinee. But the I-House, after going through all the trouble of getting these fantastic new Janus prints and running them in their newly refurbished archive-quality booth, offers just one screening of every movie they get. And the blame goes onto the audiences?

It's like the vicious circle you can get in public transit ridership. You don't have a full train, so you cut the number of daily trains that run on that line. So fewer commuters take the train, because it doesn't run at a convenient time. So you run fewer trains because it's inefficient to run a train that isn't full. So fewer commuters take the train, etc.

Blaming the audience for the lousy state of attendance at venues like the I-House is a little rough. The I-House makes me decide between a single screening of a repertory film and a huge number of other entertainment choices in town. It really kind of killed me to miss Warhol's The Closet and Derek Jarman's Blue this past Friday, for example. I would have attended if there had been another screening -- but I had a professional commitment that directly conflicted that night. On Saturday I met friends for live music, so I missed Wakefield Poole's Bijou. I would have dragged alongbrought a guest, too, so that's some $24 or $32 the I-House didn't make last week.

Now, I don't know the screening agreements the I-House makes with its distributors (is it a fee per screening, or a fee for unlimited screenings while they have the prints?), and I don't know how much it costs to open the house (more than my $8, of course). And I know that they use the theater for other events, like live music, lectures, and summer bar exam prep. But as an entertainment lawyer and a non-profit arts attorney, and as a businessperson, I can confidently state that the I-House makes zero dollars when the theater isn't used at all. And I understand the issue, because I've been to screenings at theaters in the U.S. and in Europe where it's been myself and maybe two other parties in the house. But give audiences a break. Film screenings aren't the only "events of worth" in Philadelphia; but even when they are, they'd compete better if audiences had more opportunities to attend them.


Anonymous said...

Cinedelphia really digs your blog and we'll be linking to it in a post in the near future...keep it up!

Travis said...

Eric directed me to your blog, which I've found pretty addictive this evening. And I'm in agreement with many of your thoughts about film programming. Sadly.

Glomarization said...

Eric - Thanks so much! I appreciate the work you're doing at the Cinedelphia blog, especially now since the local weeklies don't consistently or thoroughly print repertory film listings any more. I guess I'll need to seriously start writing more about film!

Travis - Thanks for the support!