Notes from the Field: George Myers
Updated: Mar 29
In our 'Notes from the Field' series, we speak with artists, filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors, programmers, writers, and thinkers working across the spectrum of art and film, hearing about the ways in which they are working towards creating new ecosystems for the creation, circulation, and consumption of moving images. Keisha spoke to George Myers, General Manager at Amherst Cinema, Massachusetts about programming films during and after a pandemic, how he got his start and how he sees his role, and about the resonances between independent music and film.
Sentient.Art.Film: How are you doing generally?
George Myers: It's been a trip, and I think it's going to continue to be one. So I just try to try to live in the moment, or in the near future.
I've been noticing that it’s hard to schedule things because it just feels like people are really living week-to-week these days. Getting someone to confirm something more than two or three weeks out is pretty hard. How are you doing?
Personally, I feel like I’ve left my body. My body is something that I feed and make sure that it's exercised. It almost occupies the same position as my dog. I feel like I have a big brain that is channelled into all these screens, but everything else is just something you have to do to keep life going. I don’t know if that is the best space to be in but that is where I’m at.
Sentient kind of ramped up when COVID started. Most of our theatrical releases have been co-opted by COVID, so this is almost starting a blind space, a space that's not going to continue. Transitioning back out into brick and mortar screenings of films is going to be interesting because it's a really different process. One of the things that was most shocking to me when starting to try to move these small films through the world was the real pressure that theaters are under to make money from each individual film. When you show a film for a night in a space, it's taking space away from a bigger film that might make more money in ticket sales. This means that less well known films or more experimental films can’t get seen. It is my hope that on the other side of this, we might be able to arrive at a hybrid model which allows the films we want to pay attention to be shown for a night in a theater, and then run virtually with that theater for the next week. A theater may not necessarily be able to offer the space to show it in the regular brick and mortar way but could still offer audiences the chance to see it in a different kind of iteration. That's my hope for one kind of transformation of the landscape that could occur after COVID, and I'm wondering if you see any similar kind of possibilities?
Yeah, I think that's a very real possibility. The most obvious obstacle to almost everything right now is uncertainty. What is the world going to look like, and at what rate are we going to be able to get there? Who's going to survive and what will their situation be when there is some kind of clarity about what exhibition will look like? I don’t think that there is going to be an on/off switch where there's just no more COVID; I think we're going to see an easing back into familiar habits, and I think we're going to have lost some people because habits will have changed and that muscle memory of going out may not be there anymore.
Virtual Cinema is going to provide a place people can go if they don't feel comfortable or confident leaving the house and congregating in the way they used to, where we can still provide them with a window into independent film in a world that is otherwise so cluttered. It's nauseating just to look at any of the streaming services as you are met with so much to watch. I think the role that cinemas play as curators is really valuable to the patrons and the community that the cinema serves. Virtual offerings have been modest, but people are using them. I think when leisure as a concept returns psychologically to the world, I think people will still turn to our virtual offerings, maybe in-between visits to the movies. The relationship - which has not been severed but is dormant right now - will need to be rebuilt, but I think when people do start beginning to relate again to cinemas, the offerings that we have will be relevant to how people spend their leisure time..
When you say that people have fallen off or we've lost some people, can you speak a little to that? Do you mean that some cinemas have shuttered and will never reopen?
I was speaking less dramatically, but that is true too. I was talking more about the percentage of the people who are viewing films and engaging with us year-on-year. Last year was in-person, this year will be virtual, but the fraction of dropoff is very small so far. On a film viewing basis, there have been some upsides. I've been at the cinema for 10 years, and we were constantly growing and expanding our routines to include new things. This change to all-online has actually been really revealing. There's something more inviting, something more neutral about watching something online. You don't have to be seen, and you don't have to look a certain way. Whatever anxieties may come with entering into a new space - feeling welcome or unwelcome, or just hating being around people - don’t factor in the same way.
Some of the Q&As and other things we've been doing online, we actually see pretty strong numbers. You have these really rich conversations, and you can really feel the electricity of the art form. I know filmmakers sometimes get tired of talking about their work, but you can sense the power of cinema in those moments and that's really where it comes alive. You can feel people having witnessed this thing together, unpacked it, and then when they leave, that idea is now in their community, it's in their world. That’s really great. This virtual presentation format is something that we just never would have done, or even talked about. We can have these conversations that are unfettered by time limits, and which are casual, with people generally pretty at ease. There's definitely an awkwardness in a digital interaction, and you don't get that sort of body language and the sense of back and forth is a little harder to generate, but we're having these strong, helpful, and deep conversations about cinema that are available for free online, with the films then available for those people to watch through us or at another time elsewhere.
So I have really appreciated the opportunity that has been presented amongst all this sort of loss and chaos, and when we look forward, I do think we’ll see that virtual engagements with filmmakers have proven valuable and worthwhile even in a normal situation. I would be comfortable just doing the exact things we're doing now, like having a Zoom interview available online for people who can then come to the cinema to watch the film. I do think virtual cinema is going to stick around in some capacity, though I do wonder about the rights side of it for distributors because I think people are being lax about things now but I'm guessing there could be some stress around selling your virtual streaming rights, and then Amazon not being interested in a film that had played online, for instance.
Honestly, I think the more that Amazon is uninterested the better. You said that the number of people watching films has gone down. Do you think this is because people see paying for arthouse films as paying for a ticket. Is there this idea that independent cinema is something that should be experienced in-person, as otherwise, you can just go to a streaming service? If not, what do you think the decrease can be attributed to?
I would agree with that, but it would be speculation on my part because we don't have any data to back that up. There has been research and data on ‘inside’ and ‘outside dollars’, on how people spend their leisure dollars when they leave the house. There's been this thing time and time again - radio is going to kill cinema, TV is going to kill cinema, cable is going to kill cinema, VHS is going to kill cinema, Netflix is going to kill cinema - but it’s never played out. There have been record years for cinema-going in the recent past.
There is data that shows that people want to spend a set amount of their income on leaving the house, and then, separate to that, they have their 'inside money'. However many more options that are made available for their experiences within the home, it's not going to impact on the fact that they want to go out and spend money. If cinema is alive and powerful in the way it is with the type of films that you're offering and the programming that's going on in a lot of great theaters, people will go for those things. I think the challenge right now is that there is no outside, so I think that people are saving their 'outside dollars' for a time when we can go outside; though I do think there's also been a general contraction in people's finances, as people are losing their jobs or are uncertain about the future.
I think another part is that people just don't want to deal with the headache of paying for something and then being uncertain about how it's going to perform. We have seen a few things with good attendance, and there are certain titles that have done okay, but it is what it is, and I don't know how much more you can do to move the needle, but we’ll see. Some of the partnerships we've done have brought a few more people in and Q&As help, but it's not a tonne of extra revenue.
Yeah, it can be like screaming into a void - I’m screaming louder but no one notices.
I think it might be interesting for people to kind of understand the way in which things work, as even within this category of ‘independent cinema’, there are so many different levels, right? Where does independent begin? Where do you find films that you consider programming?
I want to also touch on something else that relates to when you were asking about films having their one night. To be transparent, we show around 250 to 300 films a year, depending on our schedule. Of those films, the top 20 grossing films make up something like 60 or 70% of our revenue, in terms of ticket sales. It is so imbalanced, it is almost unbelievable, right? So, if you pull that apart and consider that of the 250 films you are playing, 20 of them are the ones that are making your revenue. That means 230 films aren't making you money, so why are you playing those 230 films?
Tell us George, why?
I mean, that's a real question. I was named Programme Director during COVID, when our Executive Director retired. Before that, I had the ability to programme a few special events series where I would choose films to fill what I would see as gaps in the spectrum of our film offerings. My desire was to really find what I see as essential films. We have a really wonderful booker and programmer, Connie White, who does our first run films. So when I go to festivals, I know that she's keeping an eye on what Fox, Focus, or even A24 are buying. She's really good at figuring out which of these films are going to play to our audience and which ones are going to keep us financially viable. So I’m able to not even bother with those. So instead, I try to look towards international creative nonfiction films, or other films that are probably not going to have as large of a window to make it into our theaters and in front of audiences. I try to think of this as being part of a mission driven theater that has members that support us, being an essential part of the community’s artistic intake. I feel a real responsibility to fill those gaps in that spectrum of the first run films that are going to have an guaranteed audience, that might have some marketing behind them, probably involving some marquee names, or well known directors. So I feel less invested in shepherding those films because I know we have a very good person handling that. Instead I can look towards the sort of work that might get overlooked.
I do think the paradigm has shifted in the past five years. It's been really wonderful to see that. Hale County This Morning, This Evening getting nominated for an Oscar is incredible, and I think Garrett Bradley's gonna get nominated too. Five or six years ago I don't think that was the case; I feel like you'd have to fight tooth and nail for these films to get time. Our Executive Director was kind enough to trust in me and co-curator Luke Meyer (who now doesn't work at the cinema) to give films like that an opportunity to be seen. We have a slot and we bring the filmmakers out. We pay an honorarium to them. We put them up and give them a travel budget. We really tried to honor the films that I think otherwise were getting missed, and really elevate them. I think that this is a type of programming that builds confidence from your community and really makes them feel like you're an essential part of that pipeline that moves films to them. There is a system to take care of the studio titles that are getting bought for big dollars, and it works. People get their money back and those films are all good. I like them all. But I think that too many creators are shut out of that process, and though that is changing a little bit, I don't think there's any reason to let off the gas. So in the programming I'm doing, I think that truly independent films are the ones that need to be brought to our screens and given that opportunity to be seen and taken seriously, and I know that we can be doing more.
Do you find most of the films that you're looking for mostly at film festivals or are there multiple different channels?
There's a million answers to that. People do like to make fun of festivals because there are just so many of them, but I do think they are an amazing resource. When you launch a new festival, you have to have a good reason and a strong identity. I think there are so many good ones that are just serving a community need, and then others that are really blossoming and showing interesting stuff. So yeah, I keep track of a whole bunch of them and I usually go to a few. I went to Oak Cliff in Dallas for the last couple of years, usually Sundance, and then Camden up in Maine is probably my favourite. I usually have as full a schedule as I can afford, which is usually also the limit of how much debt I can go into. Then I monitor all the other ones from afar, of which there are too many to name at this point. True/False is one that stands out as they have had some really great programmers there in recent years, and Rotterdam is amazing, plus Art of the Real, and Locarno.
As a programmer, do you have a radar out for which programmers are doing their due diligence and who are committed to a certain kind of vision that resonates with you?
There are individual programmers that are really doing amazing work, and then there are festivals where the programmers get more subsumed. There are festivals that have overarching themes that are really great like Camden, which is all documentary, or Black Star in Philadelphia which is primarily people of color making films, or films with people of color as their subjects.
Part of it is also about that balancing act of knowing your community. If you're doing a series of five films, two of them can kind of fail, but the others need to sell out so the balance of the whole series will be really positive and strong. For the films that did less well, I do feel there's a certain value just in having played them, so that even if people can’t come back and see it, it's registered that we played it.
As a distributor that works really closely with filmmakers, filmmakers knowing that their film has touched down in a location and has had the possibility to be seen is huge. It's a really big deal.
I was actually just gonna say that. There are also really great distributors that you just want to know about everything that they're doing, and who you just trust. You're one of those people in my book, then there is Film Movement, Kino, Icarus, Cinema Guild, and others. You keep up with everything that they're doing. Some of those distributors work really consistently in international markets, stuff that I just don't have a beat on.
It feels like we're at a moment where we're finding our political stakes as an independent film community. We are all allies, even though the systems that we've been working under may have kept us apart. We can actually all be talking to each other in a more vision-based way, which is really exciting to me.
I would agree with that. It is dense and confusing, but I think you can see that people are all working towards the presentation of these films in a meaningful way, if not necessarily with a shared vision. Audiences do have a sense that their cinema is really dynamic, and that it's not just the same eight films that are playing all over the country, but instead this really unique and clearly thought-out programming.
I think that we all have this shared vision in the sense that, even if we can't articulate it, we all think that cinema is really powerful and important. We all actually feel like the cinematic form and the thematic vision is something that is important to live in our imaginations, with imagination being a political and social thing. As a way to get people to understand this a little bit more, could you speak about how you even came to become the programmer here and what your training was to get into this position?
I don't have training, and I think I can sense that among my peers. People do have a really deep knowledge and it can be an intimidating community of people to be amongst, but I think I do what I do from an honest and invested place, so as much as I feel sometimes like a fish out of water, I also think people can recognise what everyone else is trying to do. Everyone's just happy to have people present in this tiny community that are fighting for films to be seen.
I feel like I poked upon something I didn’t mean to. I actually see you as a beacon of expertise. I feel strange loving and feeling film in the way that I do, especially when people don’t feel it in the same way, so I’m wondering how you came to this love of film? Were you a biology major who saw some Bresson? I did understand your question, but I thought it was significant to note that if you don’t have any formal training, the community will still welcome you. My background is History and African American Studies, though I did take a load of cinema classes. It has always been an important art form and a way that people can leave themselves. Cinema has this really unique property and power for that. I was doing tour managing and booking shows, which has a pretty similar energy: bringing people together in a room and coming together around something and feeling better for it - most of the time. Then, I got a job at the cinema as a projectionist and concessions person, years ago now. Because of my event production experience I started helping with things, then a position became available and I applied for it. It was a natural progression but it does come from a basic liberal arts education - believing that a broad range of information can help guide your path forward. I think cinema has a unique power to do that, particularly non-fiction.
Over your time, did you find yourself becoming increasingly cinephiliac as you were at the cinema, as it sounds like music was your grounding? There is a hugely emotional enmeshing that translates between cinema and music, but did you become more aware of the visual experience whilst working at the cinema? I was already really obsessive about film. My friends and I would have movie nights when I was 17 and we would watch every Italian horror movie from the 1970’s on video, for instance. I was film obsessive, just more narrowly than I am now. I never got a balanced diet of cinema education back then, I was just leapfrogging. Music is the guiding principle of my life though, and I think you are onto something that I hadn’t connected directly about how being primed by the often abstract nature of music and its ability to elicit an emotional response makes it easier for me to sit down and watch a two hour experimental documentary film and get a lot out of it.
I’ve been reading a lot of Bazin, in a very pedestrian way, and he talks about how the history of cinema is about a dialogue of realism and expression, and how the enclosing of cinema is when it goes more towards realism and not towards cinema. This idea of cinema as a dialogue between these two things really fits in with the expressionism of music.
In My Blood It Runs is a good example somehow. You can imagine how that film would be made fifteen years ago, with very serious problems and gaps in experience. Good films generally do something for me, which is honoring a very subjective point of view because in most cases that is the objective point of view. We want to leave our body; we want to leave reality. As you said earlier, our brain is doing everything, bodies are just vessels, so getting to a space where you can understand that world is essential. You need to sense people’s feelings, their space, and the sound, and the dirt, and everything else too. That is an important negotiation between expression and reporting. No one needs the news anymore--actually I don’t want to say that. The news is important.
The news is a certain register. We’ll leave it at that. I try to tune out of it mostly right now. I guess it is about being able to experience without judging, or to judge once the experience has affected you first. A dialogue is enabled. Music is about what is in-between. What is most exciting about the cinema for me is reaching in-betweenness. You can have the greatest film, but it’s nothing if no one comes to see it, so it’s also about conversations too. Hopefully people can understand that their viewing is part of the process, part of creating space, political and imaginative space, thinking through and with what we can create and be. I’m getting very grandiose, sorry.
I think that is what it is: understanding we don’t know anything. There is a section of Jane Jacobs’ 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' that will never leave my brain where she talks about the importance of the accidents that come from living on top of each other in cities, and how having that opportunity to interact with things that you didn’t plan or know about can fundamentally reshape your life and expose you to new things. The more we plan our cities and our lives around what we know, and what we know we want, the more we limit ourselves. I do hope that people take a moment to consider what they are missing by following those same patterns and routines so they can make sure to give space in their lives for something they don’t yet know about.