Film Cut
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Film Cut

Do cinemas have a future? Criterion Channel may have an answer

Movie theaters are facing an uncertain future.

Cinemas didn’t need a worldwide pandemic to experience an existential crisis, but it sure didn’t help. As movie theaters experience seismic shifts to the standard business model, I keep watching these short original features on the Criterion Channel and wonder if the future of the cinemas lies within this series.

“Art-House America” is one of the many hidden gems on the Criterion Channel, the film-driven streaming service that celebrates all aspects of the medium. The series highlights independent theaters across the country as they survive and thrive in a changing world. Each episode examines the creative marketing and original programming the theater owners use to draw crowds from New York City to Omaha, Neb.

The Loft Cinema in Tuscan, Ariz., often hosts themed nights (sometimes with costumes) while using a mobile movie screen to travel around the state for outdoor screenings. The Doris Duke Theatre in Honolulu leans into cinematic celebrations of the local culture of Hawaii. The Roxy Theater in Missoula, Mont., mixes creative film programming with live performance spaces and partnerships with neighboring businesses.

It’s pleasing to see these smaller theaters take the initiative to add more unique experiences to the filmgoing audience that can’t be replicated at home. For more than a century now, movie theaters remain one of our best and most accessible spaces for communal entertainment. These features explore the opportunities beyond the movie.

Corporate theater companies have also changed offerings, such as recliner seats and subscription-based memberships, but there is little initiative to engage in movies beyond the primary feature. Programming events like panels, retrospectives, and even costume contests can build brand loyalty from movie fans in the community and help make theaters an entertainment and cultural destination for locals.

Whether you’re participating in a midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or hollering at the premiere of “Avengers: Endgame,” there is something magical about collectively bonding with a film and riding the wavelength of the friends and strangers around you. It’s the kind of energy that doesn’t dissipate when the movie’s over, so theaters should continue to find innovative ways to allow them to socialize and enjoy the conversations that come from a shared experience.

These three episodes of “Art-House America” illustrate the scope of what’s possible. Several of these features are accompanied by a selection of movies that have been screened at individual theaters.

“The Roxy Theater” This film community center has a long history in Missoula, Mont., dating back to its origins in the 1930s. The theater burned down in 1994 and lay dormant for a few years before a local university’s International Wildlife Film Festival purchased the Roxy to host their events. The Roxy resumed regular operations in 2014, mixing new works, essential cinema, concert films, deep cuts, and cultural programming as they maintain a valiant effort to “keep Missoula weird.”

“Belcourt Theatre” is one of the original silver screens in Nashville, Tenn. (and former home to the Grand Ole Opry). The Belcourt is a non-profit film center that runs new movies, repertory programming, and various cultural and educational events. Watching the Criterion Channel feature is an inspiring lesson on how a theater complex can become a vital cultural hub in a community.

“Northwest Film Forum” Located in Seattle, Wash., the Forum’s executive director Courtney Sheenan maintains this space to stay in line with the culturally diverse and vibrant neighborhood. The Forum offers programming that includes acclaimed classic films and works from regional filmmakers. The forum hosts parties and mixed media events, including live comedic entertainment.



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Mark Ciemcioch

Mark Ciemcioch

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