The Case for Microcinemas

By Darren Hughes

February 3, 2015

With apologies to Charles Dickens and to haters of cliché everywhere, 2015 really is, for cinephiles, the best of times and the worst of times. Thanks to the growing number of video on demand services—iTunes, Netflix Streaming, Amazon Instant, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube, Vimeo, Fandor, Mubi, Redbox, and on and on (not to mention the less legal modes of distribution that can be found online)—we now have immediate access to millions of feature films, documentaries, television episodes, avant-garde works, short films, and videos. So many videos. They all live in the cloud, neatly arranged on some virtual bookshelf and accessible via relatively inexpensive monthly membership fees or rental charges. They’re all right there, all the time, never further away than the click of a trackpad or a Roku remote.

I can only imagine what someone like Henri Langlois would have made of all this content. After founding the Cinémathèque Française in the 1930s, Langlois devoted his life to scavengering film prints, one reel at a time, storing them wherever he could, including, famously, in his own bathtub.

As a result we’ve become resigned to the whims of streaming technology, which flows at varying bit rates, pauses occasionally to buffer, and rarely matches the particular beauty of a film print (or even a Blu-ray disc). In the best case scenario, I invite friends over for a movie night and we enjoy a flawless, uninterrupted HD stream of a film that would have been impossible to see even a few years ago. Almost as often, though, I sit down alone in front of the TV after finally getting my kids to bed, spend 30 minutes browsing through those millions of pieces of visual content, and then give up, which usually means rewatching an episode of The Wire.

Too much of a good thing

For several years, film critic Mike D’Angelo has kept a running tally of every movie that plays in a New York City theater for at least one week. That one-week window is significant because it guarantees the film a review in The New York Times and qualifies it for consideration during awards season. Over the seventeen years since D’Angelo first began making his lists, the annual volume of NYC theatrical releases has increased nearly 150%, from 409 in 1998 to 1,011 last year. By my rough estimate, only about 150 of those new releases make it to Knoxville each year.

The rising volume of theatrical releases owes mostly to rapid advances in digital technologies on both the production and exhibition sides. The most dramatic spike in the chart above corresponds with Lena Dunham winning the Grand Prize at the South by Southwest Film Festival for Tiny Furniture (2010), which was among the first of the now countless independent features to be shot with a consumer-grade digital camera (the Canon 7D now sells for about $600 on eBay). At the same time, more and more theaters were installing digital projectors in order to exhibit DCPs (digital cinema packages), a low-cost file format. Freed from the expense of creating and shipping 35mm prints, filmmakers suddenly had new options, including independent distribution. (Peter Broderick’s “Welcome to the New World of Distribution,” from September 2008, remains a useful overview of this seismic shift in the industry.)

Before digital, the history of cinema was largely a story about production. The Hollywood studio system evolved to improve efficiency and profitability. Independent cinema evolved to discover new modes of financing. State-supported systems evolved (in other countries, at least) to preserve and contribute to national culture. In the previous century, filmmakers faced the dilemma of getting their films financed and produced. In 2015 there are many ways to make a movie (although financing is never a cakewalk); the new struggle is getting the work seen—and seen as it was intended: on a big screen, in a theater, with an audience. (This recent article helps to explain why filmmakers such as John Waters, David Lynch, and Steven Soderbergh have gone MIA or fled to television.)

So, why The Public Cinema?

Relative to other cities its size, Knoxville is a great film town. Regal Cinemas, which is headquartered here, dedicates eight screens to feature films from midsized distributors (The Weinstein Company, Focus Features, IFC, Music Box, Lionsgate) and boutique divisions of the majors (Fox Searchlight, Sony Picture Classics, Paramount Vantage), along with occasional Bollywood films and of-the-moment social and political documentaries. Because of Downtown West, Knoxvillians are guaranteed, at the very least, a chance to see most English-language Oscar contenders. The same can’t be said of many of our neighbors throughout the southeast.

Regal is also a corporate sponsor of the Knoxville Film Festival, which is one of several small local fests that spotlight regional filmmakers, no-budget indies, and genre films. Knoxville is home to The Scruffy City Film and Music Festival and The Knoxville Horror Film Festival, and our most prestigious music fest, Big Ears, always has a compelling film component. Also, The Tennessee Theatre hosts a classic film series in the summer, and The Knox County Public Library sponsors Movies on Market Square every fall.

Despite our situation, however, Knoxville still screens only about 15% of the films that play in NYC, and hidden away in that other 85% is much of the finest film art being made today. Every fall Film Comment magazine polls more than 100 critics for its annual best films list. As far as these lists go, Film Comment´s is the gold standard, I think, and of their 250 favorite films of the past five years, only about 110 have screened publicly in Knoxville.

Microcinemas—that is, small, non- or just-barely-commercial cinemas and screening series—provide a new experience, and new opportunities, for moviegoers. With streamlined operating costs, microcinemas encourage risk-taking. They’re free to move from venue to venue, finding the right space for a particular work. At their best, they give moviegoers a precious sense of intimacy, community, and ownership in the moviegoing experience.

Microcinemas are a growing movement in America because, while home video distribution is splintering into hundreds of niche channels, more and more of our commercial movie screens have become dedicated each week to the same small handful of major releases. This isn’t a cranky old man rant–“They don’t make movies like they used to!” Just the opposite, in fact. They do still make movies like they used to—movies for and about adults, movies that push the limits of film form, movies filled with complex ideas and complex emotions—but it’s become increasingly difficult for movie lovers to find the wheat amidst all of the chaff, and it’s become almost impossible to see these films as they were meant to be seen: on a big screen, in a theater, with an audience.

The Public Cinema was launched with the simple goal of finding compelling contemporary films and sharing them with Knoxville. We hope you’ll join us.