The Art House Convergence (AHC) began nine years ago, when the Sundance Institute invited 12 theaters to participate in their Sundance Art House Project.

Since then, it has grown into a year-round program hosted by the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, MI. The main event is the annual four-day conference in Midway, Utah in January (which drew more than 500 attendees this year), supplemented by several other regional seminars and programs throughout the year.

AHC has become the defacto Sundance pre-game, allowing for networking undiluted by the hectic schedule of Park City. Tom Hall, executive director of Montclair Film Festival and founding executive committee member of the IFP Festival Forum, sums it up best: “I can now go to Sundance to watch movies, and not worry about meetings—I get so much work done with distributors at the Convergence.”

The January 2015 conference’s presenters were a who’s who in the film industry, with appearances by critic Anne Thompson, John Fithian from National Association of Theater Owners, famed theatrical rights attorney Michael Donaldson, Amazon’s Ted Hope, and Keri Putman from Sundance Institute, just to name a few. The conference has two tracks: one for theater operators and one for film festivals. Delegates can attend either track. (As executive director of the Portland Film Festival, I attended the latter.)

The message was clear: To run a successful festival or movie theater, you have to stay relevant to your community and diversity your income sources. The speakers were local to Salt Lake City, but offered a glimpse into the dynamic between city and county, arts and business. Tori Baker, executive director of the Salt Lake Film Society, hammered the fact that “impact isn’t always volume” in reaching audiences.

What makes the conference so valuable, regardless of whether you are interested in theater or festival operations, is the daily networking and availability of both attendees and presenters. Any red rope barriers dissolve; industry heavyweights and newcomers alike are encouraged to network and form alliances. I shared lunch with Micheal Dunaway, director of programming at Sarasota Film Festival and the team behind The Belcourt Cinema in Nashville, Tennessee. Later, thanks to Tom Hall, I had a nice Mexican dinner and margaritas with Colin Stanfield, festival producer at the Film Society at the Lincoln Center, Deidre Haj, executive director at Full Frame and several other festival programmers and producers. And Drafthouse hosted an after-party every night of the conference. (It got to be too much for me at the end. But I gave as much as my body would allow.)

I even found a film that was shot and produced in Portland through talking with distributors. By the end of the conference, we had the film booked and set up for a screening. Over 175 cast, crew and their families were eagerly awaiting its release, but I doubt the film would have been screened theatrically in Portland had it not been for AHC.

As Lani Jo Leigh of Portland’s Clinton Street Theater, put it, “The AHC helped me build a support system.” In an ever-increasing online world, shaking hands in person still carries weight. Independent film’s theatrical future is forged at AHC, where a vast network of operators and film festivals get an education, a supportive body, a voice and a bullhorn. MM

Josh Leake is the executive director of the Portland Film Festival in Portland, Oregon. Photograph by Chuck Foxen.