The Art House Convergence conference, which runs alongside the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, started in 2006 with 14 American art house theatres in attendance but has since grown to include over 600 attendees annually, with delegates from festivals across the globe. ICO’s Partnerships Manager, Jemma Buckley, spoke about the ICO’s work with film festivals at the January 2018 event.
With barely time to catch my breath after the Christmas break, I was lucky enough to be heading across the Atlantic for this year’s Art House Convergence. I knew very little about this annual conference, but when I arrived at Salt Lake City Airport I was fortunate enough to be paired up with one of the conference organisers for the shuttle to the resort some 45mins away. Stephanie Silverman, from the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, explained some of the event’s history, including how it began with a small group of exhibitors brought together at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the Sundance Institute’s Art House Project in 2006. After two years of meeting at the Festival, the group decided to formalise and expand these meetings, hosting the first Art House Convergence (AHC) conference with 25 attendees. This year saw over 600 delegates in attendance.
Stephanie explained that although AHC has developed into a year-round organisation with several staff members, it still relies heavily on volunteers to coordinate, plan and deliver the conference events and programmes. When she explained where the volunteers were based – all across the country as opposed to one organisation in one location – I was more than a little impressed. In the UK, collaborating with colleagues from organisations in different regions to deliver one event can sometimes feel a daunting prospect. Doing this with a largely voluntary workforce and in a country as varied and vast as the US seems an almost impossible task, and the size and scale of the event is testament to the commitment of the individuals involved.
The conference is now delivered in partnership with Film Festival Alliance (FFA), and offers programming and events especially for festivals. The ICO had been invited by the FFA to present our first-ever North American focus group, discussing the particular needs of FFA members and what they feel film festivals need for the future. I was delighted, if a little overwhelmed, when over 80 people turned out to contribute to the discussion and learn a bit more about the ICO’s work, including findings from our groundbreaking film festivals training programme, Developing Your Film Festival (DYFF), run annually since 2011.
In many ways our challenges are the same – funding, strategic planning, time management, audience development and all the other usual suspects. It was interesting to hear about the current political landscape in the US and the dramatic, sometimes immediate, impact it can have on arts projects due to state versus federal funding. The disparities in the role of the state and the differences within and between them made for an interesting discussion highlighting an extensive array of experiences.
I came away inspired by the enthusiasm of the people in the room, with a feeling that there is much we could learn from our US counterparts – not least in the area of funding, where they are years ahead of us in terms of sponsorship and philanthropy due to a rooted culture of charitable giving (and a tax system that goes some way to encourage it), and also in how quickly many are embracing newer technologies such as crowdfunding to fill gaps left by more traditional funders. Given the desire expressed by many present to forge connections with festivals and exhibitors outside North America, hopefully we will have the opportunity to work together and indeed learn from each other in the future.
So, with my Focus Group duties over I was free to enjoy the rest of the conference, and there was much to choose from. In many time slots there were at least four different panels, which unfortunately meant I missed out on some of the sessions I would have liked to attend, most notably ‘Politics in the Arthouse’ which I heard was one of the mostly popular, and lively, panels of the week.
I instead largely followed the Development track (the programme was helpfully divided into tracks so you could identify which sessions would be most relevant for your area of work), which offered sessions on making stronger cases for General Operating (Core) Costs, generating stronger patron relationships, harnessing philanthropy and small shop development. As my ICO colleagues will attest, I absolutely love schedules, structure and spreadsheets so it will come as no surprise to them that this is the train I boarded, nor that my vote for favourite presentation goes to ‘National Data from Avenue ISR and DataArts’. It takes a certain sort of person to find this stuff exciting, and I’m not ashamed to admit I am that person.
However, the discussion that has most stuck in my mind since the conference was one that I originally thought had little relevance for me. At the end of the FFA Dinner (where I was sat on a table with two wonderful folks from Cucalorus Festival – I’m already writing the rationale for why the ICO must pay them a visit), we were to remain in our seats for ‘It’s a Natural Disaster: Pivoting in the Wake of Mother Nature’ – which saw Florida’s Naples and Key West Film Festivals explain how they picked up the pieces from the severe damage brought about by Hurricane Irma shortly before their events were due to take place. They were joined through Skype by Alexander Valley Film Festival, which recently endured the destructive Northern California wildfires.
Weighing up in my head the possibility of these events occurring in the UK and what I would learn from these experiences, I had originally intended to make my excuses following the dinner and head over to the AHC Opening Party. But as the panellists began to speak I realised this was less about unforeseen catastrophic events and more about the significance of film festivals, and indeed art house cinemas, for the individuals who run them and the communities they serve.
The descriptions of the immediate experiences of the panellists in the wake of the disasters were emotive, yet mixed with humour and recollections that resonated strongly with the audience in the room – ‘we had the clothes on our back, and I grabbed the festival tote’ went down particularly well. While forced to evacuate the area and stay with friends and family, on return the panellists explained how they leaned into what they know how to do best – creating a space for the community. Celebratory elements were removed, and many events became fundraising conduits. There was a strong awareness amongst all the speakers that this was a key moment to offer themselves as tools of community support, while being careful not to seem opportunistic. As a result all three festivals were changed, both in terms of how their community views them and how they view themselves. It seemed that this distance gave them some perspective, a chance to take a breath and realise that in the grand scheme of things sometimes film festivals aren’t that important. And sometimes they really, really are.