Anybody who’s been keeping up with Arthouse Showcase has seen SIFF and NWFF and Grand Illusion each programming independent films. Arthouse Showcase doesn’t present the full picture, however.
Seattle not only has these three indie art houses, we also have two “indie” chains, with Sundance Cinemas owning one multiplex, and Landmark owning 4 theaters. We have 24 screens of “independent” movies (though Sundance’s 8 screens are blended between indie and Hollywood). The theaters all have their niches, but they’re starting to encroach on each other.
Grand Illusion Cinema, a small single screen operation, has always focused on the farther out cinema. They regularly program extremely out there Japanese cinema like The Taste of Tea and have even had a fundraiser where they showed The Movie Orgy (which needed more people). They regularly feature VHS films from Scarecrow. Their old midnight (well, 11pm) roster was a wonder, where they suddenly became a grindhouse.
NorthWest Film Forum, a two-screen theater, runs in a similar, but artier and classier, vein as Grand Illusion. NWFF was the theater in Seattle that showed Hausu, which was a smash. It’s where I saw Ka-Boom, and Trash Humpers. They frequently act as a repertory theater showing the true arthouse films like Seven Samurai and experimental film classes. NWFF is the home to a Local Sightings film festival, a Children’s Film Festival. NWFF also has many special events with bands and experimental music. But, mostly, NWFF started out as a production house, where they were always meant to help out the local filmmaking community.
Seattle International Film Festival is the second newest kid on the block. The festival is over 20 years old, but they recently went year round. About 6 or 7 years ago, they started out in an auditorium under an opera house, which wasn’t perfectly soundproofed. The screenings had to stagger with the operas sometimes, which was a pain. A couple years ago, they gained access to a three screen movie theater, previously owned by AMC, that has sizable screens. They rent out a space a couple blocks away that has a huge theater they run on occasion. And, this year, they scored a lease to the big single-screen movie house Egyptian that had been abandoned by Landmark last year. The Egyptian is right around the corner from NWFF. SIFF runs like a scrappy participatory edition of a Landmark, where they have the usual week-long runs of higher-profile indie movies, but have cult (but not too cult) retrospectives, and live bands. SIFF was home to the Miyazaki tour that came around a couple years ago. When they were in the opera house, I saw things like all-day programs of The Cremaster Cycle and Riget, but they’ve calmed down a bit since then…sadly.
Landmark Theaters is the national chain of indie movie theaters. They have 9 screens scattered throughout Seattle, including one two-screener that is about a mile away from the Egyptian and NWFF, and a couple theaters within blocks of Grand Illusion. They show the indie films that are usually higher profile, but sometimes they get a little scrappy. They showed Tideland and Dark Horse, amongst the usual fare. They normally don’t have special events.
Sundance Cinema is the newest kid on the block, having picked up an 8-screen theater that is also blocks away from Grand Illusion and a couple Landmark Theaters. Sundance Cinemas generally runs a mixture of indie and Hollywood, trying to use the Hollywood movies to make up for showing the independent ones.
Seattle is a movie lover’s paradise if they don’t like LA. Except for our sometimes screwed up release schedule (how the fuck are we not getting Zero Theorem until October??), Seattle tends to get a large portion of the indie films, even if they’re only for 1 week. We do get a lot of hold overs, but they’re usually the more crowd-pleasing indie fare like The Trip to Italy, which has been playing for weeks at SIFF.
But, as anybody who has been watching the business side of things knows, box office is down all around the country and among all types of movies. NWFF has taken the measure to focus on special events. Their upcoming Local Sightings film festival, for instance. Or, their Puget Soundtrack, where they commission a musician or a band to perform a new score to something.
With the new focus on special events, it seems that everybody is going to start cannibalizing each other. On the same day as Grand Illusion’s annual fundraiser Some Like It Hot screening, SIFF had a second Women in Cinema festival of the year as well as a six hour dissection of The Big Lebowski. NWFF was respectfully quiet. Meanwhile, nothing special happened the weekend prior.
Special events like Q&As and live bands bring in the audiences, but not when you’re competing at the same times as everybody else. This is a microcosm of the national state of independent cinema. There are so many different indie movies coming out, for an already small slice of the pie, that they vie for everybody’s attention. The question to solve is how does one compete with each other without cannibalizing the audience, especially when there are home theaters to compete with (not to mention piracy)?
This discussion feeds into yesterday’s article about niche marketing. People want special things, but end up cannibalizing the regular market because of it. When every event is a one-time event, that cannibalizes each other. Which leaves the question: is there enough audience to sustain all of it? It makes me wonder for the future. Does this new future mean that the end of the arthouse theater is coming? I hate being a prophet of doom, but the last of my neighborhood video stores just shuttered this month, and I am worried that the arthouse scene will become as homogenized as the Hollywood scene.