Conference Report: Art House Convergence
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Art House Convergence (AHC) is the largest annual conference of independent and art house movies theaters in the United States. A project of the Michigan Theater Foundation, AHC brings together independent and art house movie theater leadership, film festivals, museums, educational institutions, distributors, and arts nonprofits. This year’s meeting hosted more than 600 attendees over four days made up of panels, networking, and program building. AHC provides a glimpse into major trends in independent exhibition, and in the wake of sexual harassment and abuse issues at Cinefamily and Alamo Drafthouse, integrated discussions on harassment, diversity, and gender directly into its programming. While the lack of racial diversity of art house workers and audiences had been addressed in previous years, discussions were relegated to one-off panels. This year, regular integration of conversations around multiple points of diversity, allyship, and identity were foregrounded, signaling a departure from AHC’s typical conference structure.
Leaning heavily on a group called Alliance for Action (formerly Allies for Action), which was formed in 2017 to address issues of equity in art house and independent film exhibition and distribution, AHC stated that conference content was guided by four questions:
- How can the Art House Convergence be more diverse and inclusive?
- How can we include voices from outside the art house community?
- How can we elevate the conversation?
- How will panels translate into action beyond the conference?
Discussions of equity were woven into the five conference “tracks”—marketing, programming, operations, education, and development—and Alliance for Action hosted several breakout groups focused on turning momentum into action, speaking plainly about the difficulty of leveraging good intentions into mobilized efforts. Much to the credit of group members, difficult and necessary conversations were woven into many conference sessions.
Despite this success, the conference was perhaps most notable for the tension between those striving for change and the broader art house community. Several moments demonstrate this tension, which has bifurcated the community most intensely along age and gender lines. For example, an opening night speaker made jokes about millennials to a room comprised of a sizeable number of millennials. Panel speakers fell across entrenched gendered labor lines: most speakers on programming and film festival panels were men; most speakers on education, marketing, development, and harassment panels were women. Alliance for Action breakout sessions were assigned space in the conference lounge, and were regularly interrupted by individuals coming in for snacks, coffee, water, etc.
Panel scheduling and room assignments can in part be attributed to timing since it was not until the Cinefamily and Alamo events broke that the Alliance was invited to participate in conference planning, already well underway. However, it may also be partly attributed to the fact that the Alliance group members—a mix of young women, some of color, and male allies—are demanding change from an older white male art house leadership. To this end, the Alliance was required to do significant educational work around the need for equity to lay the groundwork for reformation they are demanding. The problematics that come with this type of intergenerational and intergender conflict were apparent during an Alliance closing and recruitment session. Here, discussion space was taken up by a white male member of the “old guard” who made demands of the group while offering little assistance of his own. While the tension of the moment appeared clear to Alliance members, they accommodated the individual. This is one of the thorniest issues facing those working to bring equity to the identity and composition of the independent and art house theater community: AHC’s official and unofficial leadership—primarily older white men—hold access to the wider community and its power structures, and any lasting changes requires their continued solicitation and buy-in.
A featured plenary session titled “Harassment and Intimidation Have No Place in the Art House” drove home the problematic politics around change, equality, art, and business that surrounded the conference. Moderated by Emily Best (Seed&Spark), and featuring Janet Grumer (employment lawyer at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP), Jacqueline Strayer (communications consultant), Tim League (Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Founder and CEO), and Amy Everett (Alamo Drafthouse Cinema’s Director of Family and Community Engagement), the conference program described the session as discussion of legal frameworks around harassment, developing programs to address toxic behaviors, and implementing organizational values in working environments.
In practice, the session—which did address legal structures and procedures for reporting and investigating harassment—used Alamo as a case study, with League offering a mea culpa of sorts while focusing on the initiatives the organization has undertaken post-controversy to move forward. Most of the panel, however, was a discussion of branding. Comments emphasized that moments of crisis provide an unexpected opportunity to rearticulate core values and refine a brand. This conflation of core values and brand management speaks to an enduring issue in the art house community: the tension between the assumed ethical value of the art house and the pressures of financial success. Missing from the discussion of core values was the need to reevaluate and reorient organizational cultures that may implicitly support harassment; comments were more focused on defense than offense, so to speak. This lack was exemplified in comments from panel members insisted that theaters could still have “fun” while constructing safe working environments—the implication being that ensuring the bodily integrity of employees and fostering non-hostile workspaces is a punishment that suppresses “fun.” This was a through line in the panel that was shockingly inconsistent with the movement for change happening within AHC. This incompatibility was driven home by the unveiling of a PSA at the end of the session—made by a panel member to be distributed widely in theaters—that was so out of touch with both the actual art house community and the issues at hand that it was pulled at the insistence of the Alliance and other attendees.
While still a valuable resource for the business of independent and art house exhibition, AHC 2018 marked a turning point with the integration of explicit conversations and actions around increased equity in exhibition and distribution. It is clear the organization and the community it represents are grappling with tumultuous change, and while it is a credit to the organization that it looked to a group like Alliance for Action to help integrate difficult conversations and specific call to actions into the conference, the test will be if AHC sustains its connection with the Alliance’s continued work. In the climate of #metoo, #TimesUp, and the so-called “Hollywood Reckoning,” AHC and its community cannot afford not to.
Dr. Alicia Kozma is Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Washington College. Her research focuses on women’s labor in the entertainment industries. She is currently working on a project documenting women’s labor in the neo-art house movement. Dr. Kozma’s recent work has been published Television & New Media Studies, Camera Obscura, and The Projector. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.