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Russ B. Collins on Forging a Future for Arthouse Cinemas Around the World

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Photo: Ann Arbor Film Festival

Russ B. Collins

Russ B. Collins has served as executive director of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor since 1982. The restored 1920s-era movie palace is a participating venue of Sundance Institute’s Art House Project and Sundance Film Festival USA. Collins teaches film studies at Eastern Michigan University and hosts weekly radio show Cinema Chat. He also runs Art House Convergence, an annual conference of nonprofit arthouse cinemas.


Filmmakers, we love you! We want you to join us in a dialogue about getting your films exhibited.

I express this love and make this invitation on behalf of my independent cinema exhibition colleagues everywhere. Neither filmmakers nor exhibitors get much love or understanding from fickle audiences and the corporatized movie industry. So, if nothing else, always know that your neighborhood community-based, mission-driven arthouse loves you, and we want to work with you to build a new model for theatrical exhibition. A model based on the long established and market tested example of the music industry.

Arthouse operators are generally passionate about all aspects of film (digital cinema too). Every day, we celebrate cinema in elegantly restored movie palaces; in state-of-the-art cinemas built a part of a cultural center; in hole-in-the-wall spaces on college campuses; and in abandoned theaters revived by passionate film lovers in towns and cities in every part of North America. We ain’t the multiplex, we ain’t really interested in being part of mega movie monolith thinking—in fact, many of us are nonprofit businesses that rely on community philanthropy.

However, for some reason entertainment journalists, even industry leaders and pundits, portray the movie marketplace as essentially a blockbuster singularity—a movie market monolith.

Music audiences and the music media understand the differences between music market segments. No one expects a new music release from the jazz trio The Bad Plus to sell as aggressively as a new release from Lady Gaga. We know that the audiences for jazz trios and folk duos are relatively small, but they are distinct and sustainable market segments of the music business. A logical direction for the cinema, I think, is creating multiple layers of sustainable cinema markets—similar to the many, long established sustainable markets for music.

The fragmentation of the film market has already occurred. However, our distribution and exhibition models have not embraced the benefits of this fragmentation. We need multiplexes and major commercial distributors, but their business practices impede the growth of multiple, sustainable cinema segments. Major distributors and exhibitors continue to embrace rather monopolistic practices.

The internet, video-on-demand, Netflix, AND community-based, mission-driven arthouses are antidotes to monopolistic behavior. The arthouse is a dynamic, sustainable civic center in cities large and small. The key word is sustainable and let’s face it having your film shown at a theater filled with cinephiles, presented spectacularly on a big screen, is probably the best artistic format in which to experience your film.

The digital age created tools that allow filmmakers to capture, edit and promote films very affordably. This has caused and will continue to create an explosion of films that need viable outlets.

Digital distribution can play a role, but as was highlighted in a recent IndieWire article, “Ironically, a vast, intangible digital landscape of endless innovation provides the ideal setting for [essentially only] the smallest stories. …it reinforces the idea of digital distribution as a no-man’s-land for anything but the most obscure and usually disposable works. However, that’s hardly a put-down; “disposable” cinema in this context actually has aesthetic criteria of its own. …[online technologies] may sustain the illusion of instant change [in the movie marketplace], but cinema at large continues to trickle along, one movie at a time.”

Filmmakers, we love you. We want you to know that running an arthouse, like making a film is hard work with little financial reward. Arthouses and filmmakers must work together to get our arts based industry to stop thinking in monolithic terms, and to get the industry and the public to start thinking in terms of multiple, sustainable markets for diverse films. I invite you to come to the Art House Convergence this coming January, just before the Sundance Film Festival, to participate in a dialogue with independent arthouse operators that we think you will find most beneficial.

Thanks for being motion picture artist! And thanks, in advance, for the love.

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Sundance Institute Piloting Direct Individual Support for Mediamakers Through the Sundance Institute | Humanities Sustainability Fellowship

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work. 

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