Counter-Programming – The Simple Pleasures of Art House Cinema

art house cinema

When we go to the movies, we above all are looking to be entertained, and it is usually expected of Hollywood to deliver on that front.   However, even with millions of dollars invested and hundreds of man hours spent in production, there’s still a good chance that whatever Hollywood puts out from week to week will still fall flat.  You could probably chalk that up to the homogeneous nature of the business, where studios try to copy one another’s success and few chances are taken.  How many loud and vacuous action films are we presented with every summer?  Eventually, the movie-going public grows tired of the same old thing and wants to look for something new on the big screen.  This has led to a special niche market in cinema called the Art House scene.  An art house cinema is usually a small venue, sometimes made up of only one or two screening rooms, that presents films  made outside of the studio system, and/or are usually made on a smaller budget.  Commonly, an art house cinema is the only possible place in your local community that screens international, foreign release.s  Also, if you are an up-and-coming filmmaker, an arts cinema might be where all your hard work will finally receive it’s first viewing.  I believe what makes art cinemas special most of all is the fact that they provide a welcome alternative to the multi-screen cineplex experience.  While it may be quieter and more classy, it’s still no less of a place to be entertained.  Art House Cinemas gives us the ability to discover and enjoy something new, as well as to serve as a welcome communal ground for both cinephiles and casual viewers alike; bringing the idea of cinema alive in ways that the big guys can’t.

Art House Cinema has been around for a while, but it didn’t become a common thing until the later half of the last century.  The studio system more or less kept all theatrical presentations under their strict control up until the 1950’s.  Up until that time, all movie theaters were contracted to release only whatever the studios were making. In addition, back in those days, movie-going experiences were more of a casual experience, with people coming and going as they pleased, not caring if they’ve seen the program in it’s entirety.  But, with the dissolving of the old studio system in the 50’s and 60’s, local cinemas were freed up to showcase whatever they wanted.  Most often they would still showcase a studio film, but if the demand was there, a community cinema could show something out of the ordinary.  Usually this would be an internationally acclaimed film from a foreign land, like the works of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa or Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.  But also at this time was the rise of the independent film.  Independent cinema became a great way to tap into the changing cultural landscape that was happening in America and spread it across to multiple markets.  While most Middle America cinemas stuck with the same old studio releases, many local theaters in big cities and college towns across the country started to specialize their programming around audiences wanting to see these new, progressive films.  Thus, did we see the beginning of specialty, art house theaters.  Some presented films that you could instantly classify as art, while others were clearly geared towards exploitation.  Despite whatever class of audience these theaters were catering to, there’s no doubt that it was a change that would never go away.

There was, however, a time where art house cinema did see a decline.  In the 1970’s, Hollywood began to embrace independent filmmakers and brought them more into the mainstream.  No longer were the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese working outside of the system; in these years, they became the system.  Cinema as a whole changed dramatically during this time, and the line between independent film-making and studio film-making became increasingly blurred.  With the arrival of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in the late 70’s and early 80’s, we began to see the rise of the blockbuster, with the phenomenal premieres of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977).   This era again changed the way that films were presented, with the beginnings of the multiplex business.  Now, it was commonplace for one venue to present multiple movies at the same time, sometimes on 10 screens or more, depending on the demographics of where you lived.  Unfortunately, with the arrival of the multiplex, we saw a rise in movies made within the system and a diminishing of the independent film market.  Exploitation films all but vanished during this time and foreign releases began to become much more of a niche market; becoming increasingly harder to find in smaller communities.  Multiplexs would certainly dominate the film-going experience in the years to come, and the convenience of their availability would keep Hollywood secure in their ability to reach audiences all across America.  But, the art house was not blotted out completely, and it would come back in a big way.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, independent film-making made a comeback, as cinematic tools and knowledge became more accessible in the years since the last independent boom.   New voices from the likes of Richard Linklater, Gus Van Sant, Kevin Smith, and Quentin Tarantino rose out of this movement, and even though their popularity has earned them spots in the mainstream, they still maintain their independent spirit to this day.  Also in this time period did we see the rise of the festival circuit, which started largely with Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival; a showcase primarily meant to highlight independent filmmakers.  What is great about the independent film festival circuit in America is that it’s almost entirely hosted by these art cinemas across the country.  Sure, Cannes and Toronto have hosted film fests long before Sundance, but those showcases haven’t tapped into the art house experience in the same way.  In many ways, you do need that intimate atmosphere of an arts cinema in order to really appreciate an unique, independent art film.  Sundance brought that to the attention of Hollywood, and in the years since, the studios have actually invested in the art house cinema market by creating their own independent off-shoots, like Universal’s Focus Features, or Paramount’s Classics, or Fox Searchlight, or Warner Independent.  Not only are film festivals and art house premieres a great place to show off something unique, but they are also great places to try out a potential awards winner.  In fact, many of the recent Best Picture winners at the Oscars have come from the Art House market, like 2011’s The Artist.  It’s one of the reasons why Arts Cinema has matured to the point of being a permanent fixture in the cinematic community.

So what makes going to an arts cinema so different from attending a multiplex, since there seems to be so much more cooperation between the two?  For one thing, Art House cinemas not only presents us the audience with unique, outside-the-norm films, but it also goes out of it’s way to preserve some of the old fashioned cinematic experiences as well.  Indeed, most art house theaters are actually remodeled from the old movie houses of yesteryear.   Long before multiplexes started to become the standard, films were primarily showcased in large and often ornate auditoriums, much like theaters built for stage productions.   In the years that followed the arrival of multiplexes, many of these old “movie houses” fell into disrepair and/or were re-purposed into something else; forgotten and lost to time.  But thanks to the rise of the art house scene, many of these old movie houses were spared and given new life.  Mainly with the help of independent investors and a dedicated community of movie fans, you can find many of these places preserved and maintained as a unique cinematic experience.  Because of this, art cinemas have managed to present a look at the future of cinema, while still honoring the past.  In this sense, Art Cinema takes on a whole new meaning, as the theaters themselves could be classified as works of art.  And the fact that these old-fashioned structures are used to showcase some films that could generally be seen as button-pushing is also a subversive treat.  It’s interesting to think that you may be watching something as disturbing as the new Lars von Trier film in the same place where your grandparents had watched Shirley Temple sing and dance long ago.  And for many cinephiles that is indeed one of the many pleasures of the experience.

However, art cinema is not just limited to preserving an old-fashioned cinematic treasure.  Indeed, if you have the money and the passion to create, you can turn anything into an arts cinema.  This is something that’s been true in college towns across America for years, where arts cinema has always been alive.  College students benefit largely from having a community that honors intellectual curiosity, so their demand for independent cinema has enabled film distributors to cater to this audience.  And if there is no infrastructure in place to placate this group of cinephiles, no doubt some bright entrepreneur will find a way.  That’s why in many college towns across America you will find art cinemas built into re-purposed buildings that were never meant for movies before.  These include old office space, restaurants, warehouses, and even schools.  In my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, the local arts cinema is actually built out of a defunct Episcopalian church, complete with the arched ceiling still intact.  Seeing a movie in one of these place also adds to the whole cinematic experience, given the uniqueness of the surroundings.  But, it’s not just unique places like a re-purposed church where you’ll find art cinemas thriving in towns across America.  The rise of the cineplex also led to an inevitable decline, which led to the closure of many cineplex theaters across the country.  Again, independent investors stepped in and some of these old multiplexes now specialize in art house films.  That’s become the case in Los Angeles, where I live currently, as independent theater owners like the Laemmle company have brought art films to old, defunct multiplexes.   Overall, arts cinema has become an avenue for any entrepreneurial movie fan to try out new things and make cinematic experiences unique for anyone looking to find it.

Also, art house cinema has become a perfect place to present more than just movies.  It has also become the place for communal activities centered around the movie industry.   Usually, an art house cinema is where filmmakers and movie-goers can interact, either through one on one interactions or through a moderated Q&A’s.  Film festivals commonly present these interactions, but sometimes a special appearance can be made as part of lecture within a college seminar, or a premiere screening.  If these experiences can be found in your local arts cinema, than it is a one-of-a-kind experience well worth taking.  Here in LA, there is a special program called American Cinematheque, which presents special screenings in old Hollywood movie houses complete with in-depth analyses by film-makers and film scholars alike, all with the purpose of educating the public about the importance of cinema.  It’s a worthwhile, year-long program that I recommend that people check out, and if there are similar programs held in your local community, all the better.  But unique communal experiences in an art house theater aren’t just limited to education.  Sometimes it can be a party too.  The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) has become one of the biggest cult films of all time and that’s largely due to the fact that it’s been in continuous release for almost 40 years, being a staple of the art house circuit and also an interactive experience for it’s audience.  Not only do audiences watch the movie, they participate in the action on screen, singing along and even reenacting the moments in the film as it’s happening; and this unique experience has been endorsed and promoted by the art house scene for years.  It’s also the only place where you’ll be able to find it.  Once again, one of the many unique pleasures of an art house cinema experience.

But why do we love Art Cinema so much today, even more than the tent-pole releases that come out of Hollywood?  I think that it’s because they offer a much needed alternative.  Variety is what keeps the industry alive, and indeed, when awards season comes around, it’s the small independent market that is put into the spotlight.  Even still, Art Cinema still maintains a small slice of the whole Hollywood pie, but it’s one that nowadays is central to the whole piece.  If anything has been lost in the shuffle, it’s that niche markets catering to very specific audiences have been lost.  Exploitation films have become a thing of the past, and noble attempts to try to recapture that experience, like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez’s Grindhouse (2007) still come up short.  Also, with more interactions by major studios in independent film-making, are we truly seeing movies that are as groundbreaking as they used to be?  Whatever the case, an Art House cinematic experience is still a great alternative to the same old multiplex junk, and more often than not, you’ll still watch something out-of-the-ordinary there.  What I love best are the little discoveries; like a movie that you never thought much of before, but after seeing it in an Art House Cinema, it ends up changing your life.  I’ve certainly had my fair number of experiences with these surprising gems over the years, like 2008’s In Brudges or 2011’s Drive.  In many cases, I could only have found these special discoveries if for no other reason than I just wanted to watch them on a whim, and that’s that’s the kind of specialty that Art Cinemas offer.  I don’t believe I would be the same kind of film buff that I am now had I not had a local Art House theater in my community.  So, if you’re not interested in yet another dumb Transformers movie, I recommend that you search out an Arts Cinema in your area and find something more interesting to watch.  That life-changing film could very well be in an Art House theater near you.


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