The edgy denizens of the indie film business, having survived a year of daunting disappointments, are now ready for their moment in the sun. Theaters featuring specialty films are packed once again and media attention is focused on once-ignored indie filmmakers. At Globes and Oscar time, a star like Matt Damon suddenly sheds his Bourne identity and is out there hustling Manchester By The Sea.

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The surprising strong performance of Manchester is one reason for the cheer. Excellent numbers are also being rolled up by La La Land and Moonlight, among others. Newer players like A24 (Moonlight) and Amazon with Roadside Attractions (Manchester), Bleecker Street (Eye In The Sky and Captain Fantastic) and a re-invented Focus (Loving) are enjoying more of the bounty than veterans like Sony Classics and Fox Searchlight, and newcomer Amazon, too, has nudged its way into the awards scene. And of course the ubiquitous Harvey always looms large at this moment — virtually every member of the Academy has received emails prodding them to visit his Lion.

If indie producers and filmmakers are an edgy fraternity, so are their brave exhibitors. Art-house theaters seem to keep closing all over the country (they’re hard to find even in Manhattan) but stalwart film buffs here and there keep opening new ones. Landmark Theatres with 275 screens at 69 locations is opening theaters in Coral Gables, FL and Miami, as well as a new one in Manhattan (Landmark runs studio films on some screens to bolster its indie menu). Billionaire realtor and film buff Charles Cohen will open a new Quad multiplex in Greenwich Village come April with four screens and unique accouterments, and also is scouting the Silverlake area of Los Angeles for prime locations (Cohen, a lover of French cinema, will also distribute as many as 12 films next year).

Another promising signal: The number of indie exhibitors and distributors attending the annual Art House Convergence in Utah on January 16 has grown from 12 to 633 over the past decade. Many attendees, like Mark Fishkin, represent the expanding ranks of nonprofit cinema, a fortunate description given the state of the art-house business. Fishkin runs the Mill Valley Film Festival, which just completed its 39th year, as well as presiding over art house screens in Marin County. While film lovers are stalwart, their numbers have nonetheless been steadily depleted by what Fishkin refers to ominously as “the forces of disruption,” which will be high on the menu of discussion at the Convergence.

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl
Image courtesy Fox Searchlight

To the art-house community, “disruption” entails that mix of factors ranging from release windows to streaming to the “golden age” of cable television — trends that may entice millennials but threaten art-house cinemas. Fishkin, like his confreres, believes fervently in the theater-going experience, but notes that “we have to work harder, be more imaginative and spend more money to entice the same number of filmgoers.” Disappointments like Me And Earl And The Dying Girl a year ago are reminders that even nonprofits have to spend more on promotion and overall showmanship. “We must aim our marketing at the millennials in order to create a sustainable landscape for venturesome filmmakers,” he states. The most loyal audience for art house films remains the 50-and-older crowd, to be sure, and this demo, too, is displaying a growing responsiveness to social media, says Fishkin.

Promoting art-house movies is itself as an adventure, as distributors well understand. Birth Of A Nation represented a major disappointment this year to specialty exhibitors, who attribute its meager numbers to bad press and tepid reviews. By contrast, Hell Or High Water was an upbeat surprise for specialty exhibitors — a film that he audience discovered over time as word of mouth grew and media attention was stepped up. As one art-house exhibitor points out: “We don’t have the budget to ignite an instant audience response. We need the critics and we’ve got to be lucky on timing.” He adds: “At least many of us admit that we’re nonprofit. We don’t have to surprise our investors with that reality.”