Sunday, October 19, 2008

Is Cinema the Poor Man's Art?

Until recently, I hadn't been to the National Gallery of Victoria for about 15 years, and it wasn't planned. With the missus, I'd intended to take my 8-year old son to the theatre at the Arts Centre during the school holidays, but we just turned up and found it booked out. I didn't bother booking ($7 online booking fee seemed a bit outrageous); hey, how the hell are they gonna fill 400 seats at $30/head? Big mistake. They did.

So, quick change of plans and we walked up St. Kilda Rd. to the nearby NGV. The couple of hundred metres or so was quite a challenge. It was wall-to-wall people. We get to the NGV and there's a queue something like 3 kilometres long snaking all around the inside foyer to see the Art Deco exhibition. I swear I'm not exaggerating. So, one of the gorgeous volunteers suggests we become members and jump the queue. Now, I'm not a materialistic person, but I do value my time. So we paid the annual fee (we can go back again, we figure) and went in the members' entrance without delay. How good is that?

Hah, what a joke! The exhibition was in its final weeks, the weather was gorgeous and every man and his dog (well not his dog, but you get the idea?) was there. Some 4,000 - 5,000 people must have attended that single day. I started to get some perspective why this precinct was so congested.

I've been thinking about this for the last few days. Now, I'm no expert on attendances at the arts that I'm not particularly acquainted with, but I have been watching 100 or more films a year for a long time now (for 2007 and 2008, it's approaching 300 per annum). With the exception of MIFF and the French Film Festival, it's almost alien for me to see such huge numbers of people attending any screening I go to. In two and a half years of being a member of Melbourne Cinémathèque, I think we've filled up all seating at ACMI maybe twice, and on both occasions, it was because we used the smaller Cinema 1 (from memory, it holds 200 or so, compared to 380 in Cinema 2, the regular venue). A typical night at Cinémathèque, there's say 100-200 people and 300 is busy.

I've been to a session at the Kino and been the only person there. I've often been to various arthouse cinemas and been one of a very small handful. Then I'll take the kid to the latest blockbuster at Hoyts Melbourne Central, and I find it staggering to see hundreds and hundreds of seats filled in one of these huge cinemas (and there's about a dozen of 'em). Something like Wall-E will show on two or more screens in the opening weeks.

Now, I don't want to get too much into the "art house is dying" argument. Not only is Lynden Barber doing a much better job of it than I ever could, it's not really my point. I'm wondering why a family would spend $100-$300 for a day or night at the theatre. Not just a family, but many, many families. And other than Saturday nights, the arthouse cinemas are struggling. Lynden seems to think they're dying a slow death.

It was certainly dispiriting to see the Lumiere close down a couple of years ago. With Kino's association with Dendy and Nova's association with Village, the Lumiere was the only true art house cinema left in Melbourne (not counting ACMI, which is a different kettle of fish). Of course, the Lumiere had issues with service and facility. Who wants to go to a shitty looking cinema when they're all dressed up with their partner on a night on the town? Well I would, because for me it's all about what's on the screen, but I acknowledge that others place more emphasis on other criteria. And the service attitude was terrible. But the story of the Lumiere is for another post.

When I look at the strangers I find myself talking to at MIFF, it seems a whole different class of film-goer than I see during the year at say the Kino, Nova or Como cinemas, and certainly different to the ACMI clientele. I've spoken to people who attend 80 or more films over two weeks, but then don't see another film for the next 50 weeks. For the rest of the year it's the other arts. This seems to be the same upper middle-class demographic that also flocks to the French Film Festival.

What is it about these two events? I think it's at least partially about social stature. MIFF and FFF appeal to the status of some people. Sometimes it seems that this type of audience are less interested in the films themselves, but rather the social event. I've never seen (or rather, heard) so many people chatting during a film as I do at the FFF. And of course, the Como with its relatively recent pseudo-bourgeois decor perfectly caters to this market. Don't read this as a criticism of Palace Cinemas at all. I like the Como, as kitsch as it might appear to some. I was there last night and happy to find myself in new seats in Cinema 3 (though take note that Cinema 1 still has the old-style seats). By the way, the film was Towelhead, and I enjoyed it. More in another post.

I think my line of thinking should be reasonably apparent at this stage. I'm thinking that some arts are flourishing and some are floundering. I received my NGV magazine in the mail the other day. It's called Gallery and it's very flash. It costs serious money to put a magazine like this together. This is all funded, either by government, business and/or philanthropists. It seems that some people will support some arts because there's a prestige attached to it. They'll attend an event that costs $30, $50 or $120 per head, but not a $12 event. Maybe it's beneath them. Maybe cinema is just the poor man's art, the entertainment for the masses. Maybe cinema is not even seen as art, but rather just the way the less civilised entertain their families.

I recently learnt that ACMI received about $6M of funding for the remodelling that's currently taking place. In the same round of government hand-outs, the Art Centre received something like $140M to extend. That's one year of funding, with additional funding over subsequent years. Man, what ACMI could do with that kind of money. That's serious moolah!

Now, this is not a journalistic treatise but rather, just an expression of lingering thoughts that won't go away. A lot of money is spent on the arts, and as far as I'm aware, they don't really make money. They prosper because of the support of others, from the support of sponsors, and that support results in audience support.

While we can't expect sponsorship of commercial cinemas, we could see greater support for ACMI, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. As far as commercial cinemas, Palace has cottoned onto this idea by catering upmarket. And as far as I can tell, they seem to be succeeding where others have failed. I'm very interested in others thoughts on the matter. So, any ideas? Thoughts? Suggestions?


Jake Wilson said...

The question of the class status of cinema in comparison to other arts is an important one, and not often raised openly. As you can see by looking round at discussions online, even today many local pundits take for granted that cinema is an industry first and foremost, and that it's simply a waste of public resources to support films that don't make money.

It would be interesting to compare the budgets of ACMI and the Australian Cinematheque at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, which has run some extraordinarily adventurous and ambitious programs -- and the screenings are nearly all free! I'm sure the programmers are frustrated they don't attract bigger crowds, but it's also evident that the AC gains from alignment with the prestige of a fine arts institution, which bears out your main point.

Commercially speaking, ACMI has done well with events like the Jim Henson retro and the Pixar exhibition (which must have attracted numbers comparable to anything at the NGV). I just hope the resources go where they're really needed -- for instance, ACMI at present does almost nothing to promote contemporary avant-garde or non-narrative cinema, which should be a key part of its mission.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for dropping by, Jake. Perhaps an artificial differentiation between film and other art forms is that the former is seen more as entertainment than art, though it exists as both. We have the Andrew Bolts of the world decrying local films that make no money, but some films should be made and supported, whether they make money or not. Governments (and other bodies) support other arts, why not cinema?

Your example of Australian Cinematheque is very pertinent to my point. It appears to be because AC operates under the QGMA umbrella that it receives a degree of funding (which must be in 7 figures) that otherwise would not be possible. They have a level of programming of specially imported prints that makes Melbourne Cinematheque look puny. I'm not criticising this at all; au contraire, I think this might be a model that could be adopted more broadly.

As for ACMI, the Henson and Pixar retros/exhibitions did well and were heavily marketed. Because of the popularity of their respective contents, they must have been relatively easy to market. That giant lamp on Flinders St. said it all.

The current Kiarostami-Erice exhibition - which is free, by the way - has had such poor marketing, both in quantity and quality. Who the hell (outside of a few cinephiles) even knows who these guys are. Borrowing from the type of marketing the NGV uses, this could have been marketed as "The Two Masters in Conversation". "The Two Masters"... something like this has a mystique, something to pique the interest of those who pride themselves in being involved in the cultural activities of Melbourne. I think marketing needs to be a bit more imaginative and appeal to people in this way. Exhibitions like Pixar are fantastic, in that they introduce a whole range of people to ACMI that otherwise may not have known about it. I think it's important that ACMI covers a wide spectrum, but it does need to make more effort with the lesser known exhibitions.

C.F.Kane said...

Lets not forget how much money ACMI has actually gotten over the years. The build was $100 million +. Operating costs are $squillions each year. They never declare how many staff they have in their annual report - why not?? ACMI has recently picked up another $6-$10 million over the past couple of years for improvements. And where is it going... a MUSEUM. Now, thats not my recollection of the original idea. It was supposed to be a complete celebration of the MOVING IMAGE, not a MOMA re-born in Melbourne via Yorkshire or Bradford. Pause for a few moments and think of what anyone else around town could do with the money that ACMI gets each year - just their wages for the shop alone would allow Jim Schembri to run a noisy Festival of some sort, the wages of some admin staff would keep the Astor going for a few years, the costs of the film program team and manager would allow MIFF to expand to regional screens or it could allow MUFF to be a mega event.

Talking of EVENTS, that is why the French Festival and MIFF do okay. they are presented as events. Now Palace has year long events - courtesy of the changes in classification requirements some years ago. They can HYPE the events and that works. Hype is what it all about now. Thats why the queue at NGV or at ACMI's imported events (Kubrick, Pixar etc).

I guess a measure of ACMI would be - what they do when there are no big events as such, if you take the hirers (Cinematheque, MIFF, other Festivals etc) out of the equation, how does ACMI stand up on its own multi-million dollar feet?? Hummm.

This might seem a bit of a spray (it is), but lets pause for a moment to remember all the blood sweat and tears that lots of people have put into the Melbourne film or screen culture scene before there were the ACMI fatcat salaries and their need to have a meeting to decide when to have the next meeting so they can sort out the next meeting!!!!

Paul Martin said...

CFK, the gist of your post is a valid discussion topic, but not the point of this post. The issue at hand is whether cinema is considered the poor man's art. It's not specific to ACMI, but is broader. Sure, what about MUFF et al?

As for the money ACMI receives, I mentioned that the $6M is dwarfed by the Art Centre's $140M+.

I'd be happy to see MIFF get a couple of hundred mill to develop a new purpose-built site, with their own theatres. I don't see that happening any time soon.

Lynden Barber said...

Paul, there's so many ideas and threads in your post and the two lengthy repsonses that it's hard to know where to begin.

But to answer your core point, yes, I do think that cinema is seen as the poor man's art. This may have something to do with its origins in fairground attractions (I'm thinking here of Edison's kinetoscope and even earlier pre-cinematic presentations of the moving image). There again theatre was long seen as a disreputable, lower-class form. It's certainly not see that way now.

Cinema-as-art has always had to struggle - in some cultures more than others though.

Part of the equation is the extreme expense of film production. Its supporters have to work hard at justifying something that will only be seen by a handful of people when it cost several millions to make - especially if much of that funding comes from tax dollars.

That's why the UK system of using National Lottery funds for film funding was a smart move - ditto the French system of a tax on cinema entry.

I see cinema-as-art as not unlike democracy and political freedom - its price is eternal freedom, because the forces wanting to see it snuff it out never sleep. It's an eternal battle - to befought again and again and again. Which is not to say that it can't be won - at least for extended periods.