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Learning from The Interview at the 2015 Art House Convergence: Sundance’s Keri Putnam Calls For New Distribution System

The Interview

This year’s Art House Convergence (AHC), the organization’s 10th annual event, drew 500 delegates from art house cinemas, film festivals, and film distributors to Midway, UT to discuss the state of independent film exhibition in the United States. Over the course of the organization’s first decade, the AHC has grown from a small gathering of two dozen non-profit cinemas seeking new ways to support independent film while building sustainable business models for their theaters into something of a full-blown trade organization. Now it represents the interests of hundreds of theaters (and helps incubate the development of a similar organization for film festival professionals) while creating an annual conference for professional development, strategic planning and industry networking that has proved to be a crucial voice on the cinema landscape.

Nowhere was that vitality seen more clearly than last month, when Sony’s The Interview was moved from a wide-release platform and into art house cinemas in the wake of terror threats and the studio’s computer networks being hacked. Rallying the art house community together, the AHC created an ad hoc and surprisingly effective distribution network for the film, which Sony supplemented with an aggressive and simultaneous video on demand roll out, allowing those interested in seeing the film opportunity to find it at home and, crucially, in theaters.

The lessons from The Interview have been front and center at this year’s AHC, with nearly every keynote address discussing the power, both economic and symbolic, of the art house cinemas and the ability of the organization to bring independently owned and operated theaters together in support of the film. Speaking to the entire assembly on Tuesday night, Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam used the lessons of The Interview as a call to arms, asking AHC delegates to come together to create an organized, networked exhibition space for undistributed films.

Putnam called on the art houses to diversify their screen space, maintaining traditionally distributed films and relationships while simultaneously doubling down on cinema as a live event, with innovative screening experiences that speak to local communities supported by a national infrastructure, built by the theaters and festivals, that would allow filmmakers working outside of traditional distribution the opportunity to plug in, generate revenue, and tour their films around the country. While this network does exist on a artist-by-artist, film-by-film basis, there is no process, system, clearing house or business model in place that can replicate all of the advantages of traditional film distribution. By building a collaborative programming model, with prints, key art, booking, marketing all made available to cinemas and filmmakers, Putnam envisioned the possibility of creating a sustainable business plan for filmmakers, calling on the AHC to use the speed and flexibility of their collective response to The Interview as a clear example of how theaters can and, she insisted, must urgently respond to the distribution gap experienced by so many films.

The success of The Interview has also sparked a broader public discussion of its VOD performance, with many curious journalists covering the story left wondering why no accurate data about the film’s non-theatrical revenue can be found. As has been previously reported, The Sundance Institute has begun work on an initiative that will provide a framework for this information gathering and reporting. With interest in the numbers at an all-time high, especially for exhibitors and festivals eager to build effective business strategies that can maximize opportunity in a world filled with multi-platform distribution options, the urgent need for information has been a major talking point for delegates throughout the conference.

The AHC continues through Thursday morning.

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