A history of microcinema
The term “microcinema” can be traced to the filmmakers Rebecca Barten and David Sherman, who set up a cinema in the basement of their San Francisco apartment building in 1994. They called it the “Total Mobile Home MicroCinema”. As the first part of the name suggests, the project also involved a mobile cinema in a vehicle that was able to show films on any street corner or parking lot. But it was the concept of the microcinema as a fixed venue that would soon find imitators elsewhere, until it eventually became a generic term.
Barten and Sherman’s cinema was tiny, with only 30 seats; the audience sat on narrow benches and admission was $3. The film programmes were curated – by guest curators, filmmakers or the organizers themselves. David Sherman was still working at the time for the non-commercial distributor Canyon Cinema. The microcinema showed mainly short and avant-garde films – the kind of films that didn’t stand a chance of being screened at a conventional movie theatre and wouldn’t feel at home there anyway with its popcorn-munching audience. The filmmakers featured in the early years, most of whom attended the showings, included Luther Price, Steve Anker, Owen O’Toole and representatives of the historical American avant-garde. In the inaugural year, German films made the line-up with surprising frequency. In addition to shorts by Caspar Stracke, feature-length films by Alexander Kluge, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Rainer W. Fassbinder and Werner Herzog were presented in 16mm prints, all authors whose works were otherwise not available for viewing in San Francisco at the time.
The underlying concept soon spread to other American cities and then to Europe: namely, regularly public screenings, in private rooms or borrowed public spaces not really equipped for this purpose, of aesthetically important films and cinematic milestones, or works by the new generation of filmmakers that were spurned by the commercial cinema. Personally curated and projected using rudimentary or non-professional technology, the films could be viewed for a low admission fee. A key feature that would ultimately be vital to the success of this form of cinema was the opportunity for discussion – as an introduction to the programme, talks between filmmakers and the audience, or casual conversations among the filmgoers.
Just how many microcinemas sprung up in the 1990s, or how many currently exist, is impossible to tell, because some operated only for a short time or changed their location and name. Some of them extended their local activities to include film rentals or developed international film dissemination networks. One such successful organization was Microcinema International (MI). Founded by Joel S. Bachar und Patrick Kwiatkowski, MI developed into a network for filmmakers, curators and festivals. In addition to monthly screenings in San Francisco, MI offered programmes and films in more than 40 countries – most of them short films. In 2003, a DVD distribution company was also founded, under the label Blackchair. Microcinema International unfortunately ceased operation in May 2014.
It is not easy to explain how microcinemas are able to survive economically – particularly as each one seems to have come up with its own unique strategy. One way they keep costs down is by bypassing intermediaries, i.e. film rental companies. As a rule, microcinemas make agreements directly with filmmakers, offering them a set fee or a share of the box office receipts. But this only works if the filmmakers or curators live under similar conditions and ideally take their films on tour themselves. Beyond this “film tramping”, where filmmakers cannot expect to earn much more than their room and board, independent film rental organizations have also developed to which microcinemas can turn. Another cost advantage is that microcinemas do not need to provide the kind of technical equipment that a multiplex audience would expect and can therefore save on the substantial investments required (4K projection, Dolby Surround Sound, cushioned armchairs, etc.).
That microcinemas nonetheless function and attract audiences is attributable not only to the extraordinary films they show, but primarily to their discursive ambience and the social skills of their organizers. In this key point, which gives cinema a unique advantage over other forms of film exhibition such as television, the internet and mobile players, microcinemas are hard to top. They have something that not even the best-equipped cinema around the corner, a TV channel or a video-on-demand platform can compete with: they offer direct encounters between filmmakers and the audience, discussions with experts, conversations following the film and social contacts. In describing this social aspect, Andrea Grover, founder of the alternative cinema Aurora Picture Show (Houston) aptly pointed out that: “Microcinemas are extremely social spaces. In contrast to giant cineplexes, which try to isolate you from your neighbor, microcinemas are often hubs of conversation and hanging out. They share more of a kinship to cafes, bars and nightclubs than to movie theaters. Microcinemas appeal to an audience that is tired of technology-induced isolation.” (MovieMaker Magazine #41, 2001).
Pop-up cinemas in unusual places
Microcinemas have often sought out and occupied unusual spaces and exotic places. They reclaim public spaces or take advantage of vacancies in crisis-ridden inner cities. In the USA, they have often found a home in former churches (for example in Houston and Cape Cod), in Belgrade in a former gunpowder factory, and in Paris on a barge on the Seine (“Batofar”). The so-called pop-up cinemas take this impulse to extremes. Unlike microcinemas, they are not tied to a specific locale and do not have a fixed programme schedule. Originally conceived as socio-cultural neighbourhood initiatives in areas without a cinema, most pop-up cinemas are today commercial ventures. They look for offbeat spaces or attractive backdrops for individual film screenings that have the appeal of an event. This might be a factory, mine, swimming pool, castle or palace.
The most interesting and exotic examples are found in London, a kind of capital of pop-up cinema, which may be the consequence of the closure of many arthouse cinemas and the exorbitant ticket prices in inner-city cinemas. While there are still active community pop-ups and dozens of short film evenings organized by volunteers in pubs, the major pop-up cinemas have long since been commercially “optimized”, complete with business plans. Ticket prices have thus reached the upper segment or even higher, while additional profits are made from food and beverages. Rather than six-packs of beer, as in the culturally ambitious microcinemas, some of these events even feature table service with oysters and prosecco. In an environment where music, bars, beer and food stalls have become an integral part of every event, the film itself often recedes into the background.
Examples of such events are The Nomad Cinema, Future Cinema, Secret Cinema, Hot Tub Cinema and The Power of Summer. In the summer of 2014, for example, The Nomad Cinema showed movies like “Hairspray”, “Pulp Fiction” and “Dirty Dancing” in London parks, outside Fulham Palace, at the Brompton Cemetery and at the Hyde Park Lido. Probably the most exotic of these pop-up cinemas, at least as far as the seating is concerned, is the Hot Tub Cinema. Viewers wearing bikinis and swimming trunks sit in round inflatable kiddie pools. The venue is the roof of a high-rise in Shoreditch. In wet and cold December weather, the Hot Tub Cinema moves to a platform at the Shoreditch Railway Station. Movies like “The Gremlins”, “Aladdin” and “Bad Santa” are shown – naturally with warm water for the guests in the pools. The cheapest tickets cost £35, and a private hot tub for up to 6 guests runs £190. Films are more of an afterthought here, as quickly becomes evident looking at the publicity photos of champagne-slurping bikini girls on the Hot Tub website.
A slightly different strategy is pursued by Future Cinema, a company to which Future Shorts also belongs, with its Secret Cinema events. Future Shorts has been holding party-like London short film events since 2003. Most were DVD screenings at popular clubs and watering holes in conjunction with shows and performances by bands or DJs. Future Shorts then came under fire for unfair contracts with filmmakers and due to its franchise practices. Today, Future Shorts Ltd. licences its event concept with short films from its own rental catalogue to film organizers worldwide. (see also: Future Shorts the international spread of an event model as franchise brand)
Future Cinema’s Secret Cinema events are known for their elaborate mise en scène in unusual locales. An ambience is created to match the film’s theme or setting, including costumes for the staff and scenic backdrops, thus bringing the world on film into the real world – a kind of expanded cinema, one might say. The selection of films is usually somewhat more discriminating than that of its competitors, with occasional classics and arthouse films.
After being cancelled on short notice several times in July 2014, Secret Cinema then showed in August Robert Zemecki’s film “Back to the Future”. On a site near the Olympic village in East London, a small town rose up with replicas of the buildings in the film. The viewers were clad authentically in fifties fashions – all part of the attraction of these total immersion film events. A big hit in London, the event is to be repeated in 2015 in Los Angeles. At events like this, Future Cinema sometimes attracts more filmgoers than many a cinema in a mid-sized city does in an entire year – up to 85,000, according to company founder Fabien Rigall!
Nothing about the concept is really new, except for professional marketing and the skilful combination of the microcinema idea with older strategies. Not to be petty, but this already begins with the name Secret Cinema, under which the curator Mark Webber presented experimental and avant-garde films (and expanded cinema) from 2006 to 2011, and extends to the online guerrilla marketing strategies for the events. The incorporation of the existing surroundings, architecture or landscape has been customary in the form of site-specific art since the late 1960s, and viewers already donned costumes back in the days of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975), while reconstructed film worlds can be found in any Disneyland …
Despite their many fans, such events are not universally admired. Many film lovers feel distracted from what they actually came to see – the film. In his article “The Problem with Pop Up Cinema” on the Raindance Film website, James Arden recounts his experiences at various London cinema events. Poor projection quality, subtitles obscured by other viewers’ heads, and echoing audio that is masked anyway by the noise and laughter of the audience. According to Arden, “The general attitude is that people don’t mind missing parts of the film, chat throughout, check phones and swan off to the bar because they’ve seen it already. Some pop ups just seem like an excuse to have a party and get drunk.”
It’s a paradox that at such events the advantage of cinema over other forms of film viewing, namely the opportunity to share the experience with others, are for commercial reasons foregrounded to such an extent that the actual occasion for the event – the film itself – nearly melts into the background or is impossible to enjoy. The positive features and achievements of microcinemas are adapted in such a way that their original goal is perverted.
Also interesting in this connection is that not only independent organizations or specialized companies but also cinema chains have jumped on the bandwagon. In London, for example, the Everyman Media Group, a joint-stock company that operates arthouse cinemas under the name Everyman, organized in conjunction with Heineken the pop-up cinema “The Power of Summer” on the grounds of the shut-down Battersea Power Station in the summer of 2014. This brings us back full circle to the cinema industry. The major cinema chains have long since recognized the benefits of ambient marketing. Ordinary multiplex cinemas are thus trying to cast every film release as an event and to engage the audience (pseudo) interactively.
Not far from the scene of “The Power of Summer”, namely in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, Carsten Höller’s “Test Site” was exhibited in 2006. The exhibition visitors were invited to slide down five spiralling tubular slides – like the water slides at a water park. That similarity is not the point, however, but rather another cultural phenomenon: Höller’s works are examples of so-called relational art, a term coined by the art critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud (esthétique relationnelle/relational aesthetics). Basically, relational art creates communication zones for social encounters and interaction, where visitors are no longer merely spectators but are spurred to spontaneous involvement with the artwork as its “users”. In the Tate Papers, Mark Windsor noted that, although “Test Site” activated a “micro-community” of participants in the vicinity of the installation, this is not the main way in which the work functions on a political level. Rather, it is the user’s private interaction with the slide, and thus Höller’s agency, that generates the primary relationship.
It may sound far-fetched, but the immersive ambient media environments in pop-up cinema work in a similar fashion. Only, the “agency” here is not that of the artist through the work, but that of the film distributor, which dictates the conditions for the “cinema installation”. The point of the whole enterprise is to create value from the fun that visitors/viewers undoubtedly have. In this respect, the key ingredient for understanding the phenomenon of pop-up cinema can be found in the marketing of consumption-led enjoyment.
Pop-up cinema events have in the meantime become a bona fide industry. See for example: www.popupcinema.com.au, www.eventcinemas.com.au, www.popupcinema.co.za, www.popupcinema.ca/, www.tcmeurope.com/F/popupcinema/.
Finding fault with such depoliticized and wildly inflated entertainment strategies is certainly not easy, because anyone voicing criticism would soon be branded a spoilsport by the fun-loving audiences, so powerful is the “injunction to enjoy” (Lacan according to Zizek).
Cultural pop-up cinemas
Even former microcinema activists have, whether out of desire or necessity, turned their attention to the more lucrative event cinema and are now organizing pop-ups. The avant-garde film distributor Canyon Cinema, for example, put on a pop-up cinema with DVDs from its catalogue in a shop in San Francisco’s Mission District that was decorated to look like a video store. And across the street a microcinema has opened where 16mm films are projected and discussed.
Many international film festivals have tapped into the trend by organizing pop-up events outside the competition programmes. The Hamburg International Short Film Festival has close ties to the initiative “A Wall Is a Screen”, which has made a splash worldwide with its projections on building façades. The FilmFest Dresden showed film programmes in a gutted pre-war high-rise awaiting a facelift, thus opening this location to the public for perhaps the last time in its old state. The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen reactivated the former Kino Europa for an expanded cinema programme in 2014, and in 2013 used a temporarily vacant space at the city’s Main Station for a screening of Luther Price films.
Established cultural institutions are also taking advantage of the format these days, whether to attract attention, to bring film culture to a wider public or simply to boost their budgets. The Deutsches Filminstitut in Frankfurt has since 1995 organized a cinema week almost every summer with screenings in unusual places, such as a racecourse, a sewage treatment plant, a cider cellar and a gate at Rhine-Main Airport in 2014. The films shown included “Fantomas”, “The City of Lost Children” and “Melancholia”. In previous years, classics such as Eisenstein’s “Strike” and “Destiny” were featured. But the cinema week also once showed “Jaws” at the Titus Thermen spa. On the subject of “Jaws” in pop-up cinemas, there is an apt and witty yet thought-provoking question included in a survey of “real Londoners”: “We’re going to watch Jaws at the aquarium. Why? The film won’t be improved, and neither will the fish”!
A good example of the other initiatives in the field is Rooftop Films in New York, one of the earlier alternative pop-up cinemas which have remained faithful to their cultural aspirations. The first event was organized by the filmmaker Mark Elijah Rosenberg in 1997 on the roof of the East Village building where he lived. The projection equipment consisted of a 16mm projector and a white cloth as screen. The basic idea was to show friends short films as easily as possible, without having to rent a location. The following year, the site had to be changed because the building owner refused his permission. Rooftop Films moved on to other locations, expanding along the way. In the summer of 2001 a non-profit host organization was founded and a real underground film festival organized. The event, which had originally presented only avant-garde films from the New York community, had now gone international. By 2008, the organization already had seven year-round employees. Today, the Rooftop Film Series are shown not only on New York rooftops, but also in other attractive locations, for example on Governor’s Island and on board the Rocks Off Temptress Cruise Ship. Along with 30 feature-length independent films, 125 short films organized into thematic programmes were on view this year. (Incidentally, the deadline for submissions for the next series is 16 January 2015.)
Rooftop Films shows not only films from around the world, but also supports filmmakers whose works have been in the programme with producing new films, through its Filmmaker’s Fund. One dollar of every ticket sold goes into the fund. Rooftop Films in also active in youth media education and offers filmmakers equipment rentals.
As the older microcinemas continue to operate, most of those being launched today are institutionalized or part of an institution. This might be a cultural centre, media centre, university, Kommunales Kino, or an art or film museum. In the recent past, there has notably been a veritable wave of start-ups.
Many of the new microcinema initiatives fall back on even older alternative cinema concepts. One example is the Filmkollektiv Frankfurt, which presented itself to the public in 2013. It declares on its website: “We want to augment Frankfurt’s cinema offerings with daring, independently curated programmes of films that are under-represented due to their content and/or for pragmatic reasons. We want to make room for discussion, because the kind of cinema we would like to see includes communication: the right to ask questions and express opinions. We will show our film programmes in the original format and original language. In most cases, this means analogue projection (35mm, 16mm).” Films from Light Cone were shown in October. The first event put on by the Filmkollektiv was dedicated to the Kali Films by W+B Hein, which fit in well with the launch of the initiative inasmuch as William and Birgit Hein, together with the later ZDF editor Hans-Peter Kochenrath and others, started the XSCREEN experimental film events in Cologne with a similar agenda – all the way back in 1968!
New initiatives in Europe in particular tend to specialize in terms of programming and content on experimental film, projecting only analogue film footage. This focus is not without its problems. Insisting on analogue film makes programming vulnerable to museumization while also excluding contemporary film for purely technical reasons, even if its content fits the concept. These tendencies can also be seen among the microcinemas that have joined the loose association “Kino Climates”. Such initiatives are undoubtedly laudable and worthy of support because they promise exposure for important but marginalized areas of film history and make a discourse possible again in the first place. But this focus nonetheless means that only a small part of the spectrum of film culture can be adequately represented.
Moreover, relatively few alternative cinemas take advantage of the positive options offered by digitization. But there are those that do so, for example microcinemas offering high-definition projections of BluRay discs or files that they obtain off the internet or directly from filmmakers. Shared upload platforms and cinema-on-demand are other potential new forms that are currently being tested and which we should keep an eye on (but that’s another topic and would provide enough material for another article).
It would in any case be good to see more cinemas that present the entire spectrum of film culture to the public, with the same curatorial care and the same technical and social skills. Also desirable would be cinemas that create the best possible conditions for a film to be experienced. Commercial cinemas cannot afford to do so for financial reasons alone, and many arthouse cinemas fail to live up even to what would be economically feasible. Unfortunately, film culture initiatives that do engage earnestly with the medium, that offer intelligent programming and have developed the competence needed to attract an audience for films and to bring films to the audience, receive hardly notice from public cultural institutions, much less support.
This has far-reaching negative consequences for public film education and the dissemination of film-related knowledge. Producers and filmmakers – especially the best among them – are likewise at a disadvantage. The quality of a film can after all only be appreciated and enjoyed by someone who has been familiarized with the corresponding system of values. This instilling of values and information is a matter of education and relationship building – work that, incidentally, likewise needs to be learned. If such cultural educators and places of education are not available, or only exist in a few big cities, we can hardly speak of this problem as a crisis of cinema (as a medium). Precisely because of current technological developments – “connected, but alone”* – places for collective film experience are in more demand than ever. Pop-up events deftly exploit the vitality of the cinema for commercial ends by promising social contact and experiences, but with their boozin’ & schmoozin’ deliver on only half of this promise. The whole thing is therefore not a crisis of cinema, but a systemic crisis that starts with a lack of film education at school and ends up with the exclusion of film culture and its mediation from public funding. It is time to shift the emphasis!
*Subtitle of the book “Alone together” by Sherry Turkle
Links and recommendations
„The Exhibition Revolution“, Taso Lagos und Joel S. Bachar: http://www.moviemaker.com/magazine/issues/41/microcinema.html
„Secret Cinema founder Fabien Riggall on future of cinema“: http://www.screendaily.com/comment/secret-cinema-founder-on-future-of-cinema/5077742.article
„The Problem With Pop up Cinema“: http://www.raindance.org/the-problem-with-pop-up-cinema/
„A Theoretical Examination of Carsten Höller’s Test Site“: http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/art-interaction-theoretical-examination-carsten-hollers-test-site
„10 things real Londoners know about their city“: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/10598913/10-things-real-Londoners-know-about-their-city.html