Article: The Inevitable Death Of The Arthouse Theater

While nothing is certain, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end.

Hey Billy Bob! How's that transition
to cable treating you?!!

Arthouse films have been dying a slow death. For decades arthouse theaters have been the place to go to see something unique. Independent films with dark and often perverse plots offered something new, enticing viewers away from the multiplex theaters. They offered more than the typical summer action movie or cookie cutter comedy. Made for a fraction of most big studio budgets, these films accomplished so much more with so much less. They were made out of passion, and a desire to tell a story rather than make a profit. The big screens had little to offer in comparison.

Things began to change when cable television and online streaming entered the picture. With complex plots and engrossing characters, these shows and original movies have been giving arthouse films a run for their money for nearly a decade. Actor Billy Bob Thornton and director David Lynch have both been vocal in their praise of the freedoms of television, with Lynch confessing that independent films are not just dying, they are already dead. Cable and streaming is where Independent films are now, Thornton said recently in an interview for Indiewire. So now, if you want to do realistic, kind of heavier acting stuff, you do it on Amazon or Netflix or whatever or HBO.

With mega franchise films dominating the majority of box office revenue, independent films are struggling in terms of cinematic presentation. This doesn’t mean the art itself is dead, but the means of how we appreciate it is dramatically changing. This transformation is similar to the independent coffee house boom of the '90s. You could go to any trendy downtown area in the ‘90s and pick from several different cafes for a cup of coffee. They were all unique destinations to experience. They offered more than the long time cup of Joe standards of Dunkin’ Donuts and Denny’s. They offered lattes, cappuccinos, and espresso, classic coffee based drink that were dominantly only enjoyed in Europe at the time. It was like walking onto the set of a foreign movie, and ironically these cafes were the place you went after watching an independent film to discuss the plot with like minded film aficionados. And then suddenly Starbucks entered the picture and changed the industry. Starbucks monopolized the market and quickly became the standard, and the death of independent coffee house was swift. Like craft produced coffee, independent films will never disappear. Yet the way we appreciate the art has dramatically changed. We can now watch unique and original programming at home on our HDTVs while enjoying Keurig made Salted Caramel Macchiatos.

This constant transformation is changing all of our favorite past times. The sports industry is also suffering the same challenges. While going to a game use to be an experience, advancements in at home entertainment in the last decade are leaving open seats in the stadiums. For many fans, having 30 camera angles and instant replay offers a deeper sense of enjoyment. There are no lines, ridiculously overpriced food and beverages, and the bathroom is only a step away. There are no parking fees, sweating or freezing in hot or cold weather, and when the game is over, you're home, rather than waiting in traffic to enter a jammed freeway.

The at home entertainment experience is just that, an experience. We have reached that point. It is no longer a trendy term used to sell the latest TV or soundbar. Movie quality home entertainment has now become the standard. We say we go to the theater or the game for the experience, but that is now being rivaled. It was recently announced studios were entertaining the idea of making films available at home via online streaming 2 weeks after a cinematic release. To be honest, I’m all for it. Wouldn’t it be nice to stay home and enjoy those Christmas Day released films critics are always calling an Oscar contender? Art and how we enjoy it is constantly evolving. Remember buying Cds, remember when there was a video store on every other corner. We no longer have to leave the comfort of our homes to experience new music or films. We’ve seen a similar evolution in film before. Remember drive-in theaters. The long time standard eventually gave way to the mega theaters, where the screen quality and surround sound where far superior. Not to mention the weather conditions and bug free environment, both which could effect the clarity of the screen projection – rain, fog, locus apocalypse, ect. Today only a handful remain, and while they are fun, it is more for nostalgic reasons today.

Perhaps the most hurtful thing effecting arthouse theaters today is a successful independent film. As strange as it may sound, if an independent film generates a lot of buzz multiplex theaters will often pick it up, sometimes weeks after its premier. This takes away viewers, business, and money from independent theaters. This practice has changed the production of some these movies, with some directors and producers looking for stars to help gain attention for their film. This takes away opportunities for new talent, who’ve relied on independent films for years for breakthrough roles. This isn’t a bad thing per say, it’s not a crime for a director to want to have his or her film seen. Nor is it wrong for a producer to want to break even or make a profit, but this new approach is another contributing factor to the decline of the independent arthouse theater. Meanwhile, billions of dollars in tickets sales are spent on giant franchise films. These premiers often break records and control the majority of the money spent on the world wide market. The increase in box office revenue over the last decade is simply staggering. There was a time when we’d only see a handful of blockbuster films a year. Today it’s practically a weekly occurrence. This puts stress on smaller independent mom and pop theaters. Outside of big cities and their surrounding suburbs, these theaters are often the only means to see new films for the residents of these communities. With so many films being released, it’s often hard for these theaters to keep up. Especially 2 screen theaters who often reserve one screen for family friendly films. The changing landscape of film is also putting these theaters at risk. Many are unable to keep up with the new standards in technology, seating, and screen format, let alone the plethora of new releases.

The money these mega films generate cause ripples that transcend throughout the entire industry. While the effects are very little when it comes to the big studios, the smaller studios and independent productions are the ones who suffer. Theaters will show these blockbusters for weeks, taking away potential screens for smaller films. Some fans of these mega films will even see second and third screenings, dissecting and absorbing every detail. The decline of independent and arthouse theaters is inevitable. The quality of new programing on cable and streaming services are causing big waves in the entertainment world. As the way we enjoy film and entertainment continues to change, it will only be a matter of time before the multiplex theaters start feeling the heat. It is a very real possibility that we will witness the decline of the multiplex theaters in our lifetime. Never fear movie goers movie fans, the future of the cinematic arts will only be a click away. 

Lee L. Lind