President’s Report on March 27 Town Meeting
A rescheduled meeting rarely gets the best of turn-outs. Momentum is lost, the buzz is down. When a snowstorm forced us to reschedule our first-ever Film Forum Town Meeting from March 19th to the 27th, we feared our numbers would take a dive.
Every seat was taken, and folks were standing in the back.
And a very thoughtful and on-the-ball crowd this was, too.
I opened up the evening with a few remarks on how a second-run indie art house like ours gets by: how we cover our expenses, how we look to blockbuster “Indiewood” movies to float the less remunerative parts of our program; how many seats we need to fill to just break even (and for those of you who think we “belong” to the Arts Center, we don’t—we pay a room rental fee each time we screen a movie); and how we have reckoned the impact of Bow-Tie’s program on our balance sheet. The point wasn’t to demonize Bow-Tie Cinema—we’re all thrilled we’re going to have a first-rate movie house in our downtown. But Bow-Tie’s opening will profoundly change our programming, and we wanted to show how. The first-run indie films that will show on Bow-Tie screens next fall will mean big changes for our line-up. We need to get prepared.
No longer will the Film Forum be showing movies like Midnight In Paris, The Iron Lady, Magnolia Hotel, or Silver Linings Playbook. We won’t be showing them because Bow-Tie, a first-run theater, will get them first, and by the time Bow-Tie is done with them, our local market will be saturated. Right now these kinds of profit-making films comprise half or more of our regular program—the same half that pays the rent.
So how do we fill the gap? Or should we try to fill it at all? Is this the moment, after 20 years, to hang up our hats and say, go to, Bow-Tie, we’re passing you the torch? Or does Bow-Tie’s arrival suggest an opportunity to refresh our mission so we move away from mainstream indies and more towards a less commercial, more edgy and adventurous, “value-added” program?
This was our big question for our Town Hall audience. Booking terrific offbeat movies is no hardship. The challenge is staying in the black. Is there sufficient public interest to support this move? Can we rely on friends and patrons to stay committed to the Film Forum if our line-up isn’t as familiar or commercially accessible?
The ready show of hands in favor of the Film Forum hanging in there with a reinvigorated mission was gratifying, but to be expected. People tend to be more frank on paper, so the answers people gave us on written questionnaires held, I felt, more weight. In answer to this question, “With Bow-Tie screening indies downtown, do you feel our work is done?,” not one person suggested that the Film Forum shut its doors. Nine out of 10 would support our program if it shifted from widely known indies to “lesser known movies, documentaries, classics, foreign films and special events.” Eighty-one percent believe that “value-added” movies (with post-film talks, performances, presentations) should be central to our new mission. A majority indicated they would support a subscription series for films in certain genres.
The flexibility of our supporters also extended to their views on our venue. While great affection for our old theater space was evident (and relief at the future installation of theater seats from Wilton Regal was palpable), most people indicated they could see us occasionally showing movies elsewhere, too—like Skidmore, UPH, or at Bow-Tie.
For our board, our staff, and our volunteers, this strong show of support for an expanded, more aggressive mission was welcome and emboldening. It’s the mandate we were hoping for—but how much better to hear it from our friends and patrons than to impose it “top-down” from a board!
Nor did the usable input stop with general support. “Town Hall” participants came up with a busload of very specific, good ideas to diversify our program. Show movies during August to take advantage of the tourist presence. Launch movies with a PRE-film conversation to privilege the “forum.” Introduce high-quality streaming to our theater. Show great videos and shorts before our features. Follow movies with a concert! Go for foreign films a little off the beaten path. Package more events with local businesses—bookstores, restaurants, coffeehouses. How about more silent movie with live piano accompaniment? Promote a series dedicated to emerging film makers in our region! Work with other regional film festivals—Lake Placid, Chatham, Williamstown—to rent or borrow festival programs whole-cloth, or to come up with our own, a long-time objective of the Film Forum whose time, perhaps, has finally come. Book not just to our own local tastes but reach out to wider film-savvy audiences!
With this eager feedback from our Town Hall participants, we are ready and game to bring some real creativity and daring to our programming for fall and beyond. You’ve got our back, and we’ve got yours. The Saratoga Film Forum will not go away.
So thanks for coming, thanks for sharing, and if you couldn’t make it, please contribute to the ongoing conversation about our future at our website. We remain indebted and grateful to our moderator, Dale Willman, who deftly fielded the conversation, and thrilled with all of you who turned up to ponder our changed future with such great ideas and good cheer, and grateful, too, to those of you who couldn’t make it but who wrote in anyway with notes of concern, support, and encouragement.
President, Saratoga Film Forum
April 10, 2013