Festival Travel: Art House Convergence 2017

It has been a long ten days. It feels good to eat three regular meals a day and sleep in my own bed again.

Early last week I attended Art House Convergence in Midway, Utah. This was like Sundance-light. Lots of networking and conversations not based around “what have you seen?” or “what have you liked?”. It was more “what kind of work do you do?”. It was refreshing. Attendance for this conference nearly doubled from last year. If this trends continues, I may be hard to hold the event in the resort again. The Film Festival Alliance hosted panels within Convergence, many of which I attended.

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The view from my Midway hotel room. (brr!)

Most of the panels were nothing to write home about. The topics were often too broad to get into the nitty-gritty of problem solving or discussion. The “Cultivating Your Audience” panel was particularly frustrating. All the panelists were over 45-years-old and two of them programmed venues on college campuses. The panel failed to even discuss what they defined as “younger” from the beginning: High school students? College?  26-year-olds? Finally one panelist said “anyone who hasn’t had kids yet”. But even this is a wide gap. I am in a very different lifestyle from my 23-year-old sister-in-law, but we’re both considered “younger” by that definition. My frustration grew. Panelists focused on “throwing more parties!” or “students don’t want to see movies, so you need to include them in the work”.  No fresh ideas were shared. As someone who is on the older edge of the millennial generation, it was insulting, uncreative and very disappointing. After 30 minutes, I got up and left. (Apparently, some of the other, younger attendees were frustrated too and spoke up as the panel was ending.)

Other panels on programming discussed the ecosystem of the art house cinema industry, but many of these conversation turned into people airing frustrations towards distributors. Again, nothing fruitful here.

One night I attended “Art House Tales”, a presentation of managers/programmers from seven different art house theaters speaking about their theater’s history and programming for seven minutes. To hear from an eclectic group of theaters on how they are working in their communities and their personal success stories was quite interesting. Note to self: Next time I’m in Chicago, I want to check out the Music Box Theatre!

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Dinner at Art House Convergence 2017.

The better experiences were the more intimate conversations with fellow theater managers and programmers. After a panel that discussed the numbers from three different festivals – ranging in age from start-up to 15+ years old – I spoke with moderator and friend Matt Bolish (from Film Society of Lincoln Center). While informative (I had no idea a particular regional festival had a $4 million budget!) this two hour panel was dense. Matt and I discussed how it may be better to have mentorship like meetings with those you want to learn from based on a person’s years of experience and scale of festival operation. Hearing what the board members of FSLC pay to that organization is VERY different from what board members from a second year festival may commit. There’s so much context to share and details to unpack, yet little time to go deep. I’ll be sharing our ideas with the Film Festival Alliance and hope that something more structured and intimate can be created within the conference. I finally met a few distributor reps I’ve only known through email for years and other festival directors that are starting small, niche festivals. While the meals we chatted over were bland (hotel food, sigh), the conversations help create a stronger understanding and bond. That’s how this conference was successful.

On the final night of Convergence, I walked through the Ice Castles behind the Homestead Resort with my friends from the Seattle International Film Festival and Cleveland Film Festival.

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In the ice castle at Midway, Utah.

Apparently these ice castles are a very Utah thing, but I’ve never been to one before. I wasn’t expecting much, but it ended up being very fun. We each went down one of the slides made of ice and immediately felt like a kid again. It was 15 outside and I stayed as long as I could before my hands started to freeze.

I’m unsure if I’ll attend Convergence in the future. Adding those three days to my Sundance trip took a toll. By day three of the festival, you are actually on day six and your body feels it. I’m curious to see what both Art House Convergence and Film Festival Alliance plan for the future. Depending on how the program changes and grows, it may be worth another trip.

Once the conference ended, it was on to Park City and the Sundance Film Festival. Check back next week for more thoughts on this year’s fest and films!

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