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Like savoire faire, arthouse fare is everywhere… sort of

by Mark Burger

For more than 25 years, the Winston-Salem Cinema Society has prided itself on bringing films to Winston-Salem that wouldn’t otherwise play here theatrically – and, sometimes despite the odds, it’s made good on that promise. Among the Cinema Society’s programs are Films on Fourth and CinemaSECCA.

This weekend’s CinemaSECCA presentation, Craig Zobel’s independent comedy Great World of Sound, will mark the Cinema Society’s final event for 2007, after which both Films on Fourth and CinemaSECCA are going on hiatus for the holidays – and both programs will undergo major overhauling before returning (in some form or another) next year. It’s simply a matter of attendance.

Although there is a fervent following that craves arthouse fare, it’s a selected following; the majority of moviegoers would either prefer to see this week’s studio blockbuster (lucky them) or wait a few months before the film is readily available on DVD.

Thanks to an ever-shrinking window between theatrical release and home video release – six months is nowadays considered an enormous window – and the ready availability of even the most obscure title thanks to services such as Netflix, the novelty factor of the Winston-Salem Cinema Society is in need of adjustment.

By the way, the Cinema Society would like me to remind you at this time that Great World of Sound will be screened 7 p.m. Thursday and 2 p.m. Sunday. The film is rated R, and tickets are still available: $7 for adults, $6 for college students and senior citizens, $5 for Cinema Society and SECCA members. For more information, see info@cinemasociety.org.

The Films on Fourth series has always been something of a tough haul. With only two or three dates a month to show a film, some distributors have been wary – because they’d much prefer a traditional, week-long run.

In order to simply break even, a Films on Fourth screening would have to attract a minimum of 250 ticket buyers and a CinemaSECCA screening a minimum of 65. In some cases, they haven’t been able to.

In addition, the construction of the Grand 18 Theatre on University Parkway has lured moviegoers away from the downtown area. What’s more, some local theaters – like the Carmike 10 on Reynolda Road – have been showing independent films that were once the exclusive purview of Films on Fourth.

Nevertheless, “the Cinema Society is not going away,” states Renata Jackson, its president and a faculty member at the NCSA School of Filmmaking. “We fully intend to continue our mission to bring films to Winston-Salem that otherwise wouldn’t play here.”

Alternate venues might be the answer, and Jackson confirms that the society is in talks with the School of Filmmaking, where its offerings were screened before the Stevens Center was re-fitted for film projection, as well with as the RiverRun International Film Festival and the Arts Council of Winston-Salem.

For those who seek alternative and independent film fare, it’s coming here – sometimes without rhyme or reason, much less advance notice. The chain’s bookers often tell the theater what they’ll be playing only a few days before opening. So an arthouse or indie film will open with as much, or as little fanfare, as mainstream movies.

Nevertheless, sharp-eyed audiences are taking note. Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’s award-winning Bella opened with no “warning” at the Carmike 10 three weeks ago – and is still playing. It’s not playing to packed houses, but is doing enough sustained business to keep it around. Michael Moore’s health-care documentary Sicko was also a top draw at Carmike 10 this year.

On the other hand, Curse of the Golden Flower wilted, and The Science of Sleep was in a coma from day one. (“It didn’t do shit,” someone quipped. No names please.)

It seems that, here in Winston-Salem, specialized films are no different from big-studio films: If audiences buy tickets, the film stays. If not, it’s gone.

At the Grand 18, the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men is currently doing boffo business – fueled, no doubt, by the Coens’ reputation and by some of the best reviews of any film this year. But Love in the Time of Cholera, based on a novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, limped along for two weeks.

According to a well-placed source at the Grand 18, the mere cache of playing arthouse fare isn’t enough to bring the crowds in. When it opened in the summer of 2006, the Grand 18 launched the “Grand Cinema Showcase,” in which one of the 18 screens would be solely devoted to arthouse fare. It didn’t last more than a few months.

As Jackson noted, the status of distribution and exhibition has changed over the last few years – which has made this rethinking of the Cinema Society’s master plan a priority. So this holiday season, while others check their lists to see who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, the Winston-Salem Cinema Society will be checking its list to see how it can best adjust to the new challenges of 21st-century filmgoing. Here’s hoping to a successful modification, because the Cinema Society most definitely falls into the “nice” category.

For questions or comments, email Mark Burger at marksburger@yahoo.com

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