Arthouse Exhibs Find Success With Community-Focused Programming

International exhibitors gathered at Berlin’s majestic Kino International on the eve of the Berlin Film Festival on Wednesday to discuss challenges and innovative concepts that are pulling audiences back into theaters.

Opening the Berlinale edition of Cinema Vision 2030 conference, Christian Bräuer, chairman of Germany’s AG Kino – Gilde e.V. cinema association, which organized the event, said the country’s cinemas were “still suffering from the effects of the pandemic and we still find ourselves in a world in crisis, we feel the consequences of the war, such as the massive increase in energy prices.”

He therefore welcomed the opportunity to hear about new ideas and business models that could bolster the sector.

“You are here today to tell us German exhibitors about your experiences and thoughts about the cinema of tomorrow,” he said, noting that the market was in a state of “rapid change.”

Guest speakers Claire Binns, managing director of the U.K.’s Picturehouse; Christian Grass, CEO of New York City’s Metrograph; and Élise Mignot, director and curator of France’s Café des Images, located in Hérouville-Saint-Clair, near Caen in Normandy, offered very different examples of unique exhibition experiences that nevertheless shared similar approaches in focusing on films and community.

Picturehouse, which operates 26 cinemas throughout the U.K., offers special events, such as annual Eurovision parties and live broadcasts of opera, ballet and theater productions in addition to curated film showcases, such as the current Weimar Cinema series.  

Binns stressed the importance of having access to the right films through its distribution arm. “We are absolutely committed to cinema globally as well as locally. … We distribute films that are relevant and interesting in a meaningful way that respects them as art and not content.”

The company’s roster of directors includes auteurs such as the Dardenne brothers (“Tori and Lokita”) as well as “some of the most exciting young talents working today,” like Alice Diop (“Saint Omer”), Audrey Diwan (“Happening”) and Marie Kreutzer (“Corsage”), Binns added.

“The distribution arm is really important for us in that we can get some films to fill our cinemas with. I think one of the problems there is at the moment, and there are many, is that there’s just not enough good films. It’s very hard for us to run cinemas when we don’t have films that mean something for our audiences.”  

Metrograph, a two-screen cinema located on the Lower Eastside, has similarly found success by curating its own programs and showcases in addition to having a popular restaurant, bookstore and special events, Grass said.  

Its special series include the current Valentine’s Day lineup: Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”; Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Lobster”; and Wong Kar-wai’s “Happy Together” and “In the Mood for Love.”

Another current showcase, Strange Fruit, curated by writer and filmmaker Brandon Harris, commemorates Black History Month with a collection of eclectic African-American movies stretching from the end of the silent era to the beginning of the Vietnam War.

Noting Metrograph’s efforts to education young people about films, Grass recalled a Blake Edwards retrospective in 2019 that included a screening of “Victor/Victoria” attended by Julie Andrews. Taking part in a Q&A, Andrews asked the audience how many people had seen Edwards’ films and only about 10% of the people raised their hands.

“To see the communal reaction of an audience to movies the way they are meant to be seen is amazing,” he added.  

Café des Images likewise seeks to present its activities as a community experience, according to Mignot. Located in a multi-cultural, low-income area, the cinema is a hybrid non-profit venue that also serves as a film education center and a café offering homemade cuisine. Arthouse films account for about 90% of the cinema’s program, described by Mignot as “local world cinema.”

Serving a demographically diverse clientele that is also actively involved, Café des Images also boasts a weekly chess club, workshops, concerts, language programs, cooking classes, karaoke evenings and even a vegetable market on Tuesdays.  

It’s a place of constant innovation and also a community builder, Mignot explained.

Other scheduled guests at Cinema Vision 2030 included Henri Mazza and Sarah Pitre of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain in the U.S.; Berlinale toppers Carlo Chatrian and Mariëtte Rissenbeek; Keith Bennie of the Toronto Film Festival; Florian Weghorn, Berlinale Talents program manager; Elysia Zeccola, national festivals director of Australia’s Palace Cinemas; Jean-Marc Quinton of France’s CinéZéphyr; and Hélène Amblès of France’s Culture Pass program.

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