Where has all the local film coverage gone?
While New York City is benefiting from a revival of independent and repertory cinemas, local editorial resources have dwindled (R.I.P. the Village Voice) and major publications continue to purge their pages of hyper-local film coverage. This is where independent resources like Screen Slate become indispensable.
Founded by Jon Dieringer in 2011 and staffed by a dedicated cast of volunteers, Screen Slate pulls together an extensive, daily list of film screenings and media exhibitions taking place in New York City to provide a sort of indexical view of local screenings. The listings — sent out in two forms: a free daily email and as a weekly digest (for Patreon supporters) — are supplemented with write-ups of selected films. These essays tend to ease the anxiety of those faced with the daunting task of choosing a film from the plethora of offerings taking place on any given day in New York.
“It’s kind of like what alt-weeklies used to do. We publish a daily rundown of what’s showing at repertory cinemas, independent art houses, museums and galleries, and we contextualize it with daily ‘featured screening’ essays and occasional lengthier articles — like festival rundowns, series spotlights or interviews,” Dieringer told ALL ARTS in a recent interview. “It’s a lot more convenient than juggling different newsletters or calendars from dozens of venues, and I hope it also encourages a sense of discovery when it comes to venues like micro-cinemas and art galleries.”
Over the years, as Screen Slate’s readership has grown, it has continued to provide reliable, local coverage and has also expanded to produce two anthologies: “a jackass reader: from the makers of screen slate” and “Screen Slate: New York City Cinema, 2011-2015.”
We spoke with Dieringer about Screen Slate, the shifting state of cinema in the city, being a resource in such an environment and more.
You recently became nonprofit (congrats!). What influenced this decision?
I always conceived of Screen Slate as a non-commercial enterprise. I didn’t want to run ads or be overly beholden to sponsors, in part for personal convictions, in part because I don’t see it as a viable form of support given trends in online publishing, and most importantly because I didn’t want advertising to interfere with the sense of discovery or thinking outside the canon that Screen Slate is meant to encourage.
I thought of Screen Slate as more of a DIY project in the spirit of certain music communities that thrive on collaboration. But the flip-side to that is that it involves a huge amount of sweat equity and a 365-day volunteer effort on my part.
As other publications have pulled back from listings or even local coverage, it’s apparent that there’s increasingly more riding on Screen Slate, and becoming a non-profit seemed like the best way to pursue a more sustainable path that doesn’t betray the growing sense of responsibility I feel.
You’ve spoken before about the difficulties of producing a film resource. Can you speak a little bit more to that?
The biggest challenge is the one you’d expect of limited resources. Because everyone including myself is a volunteer, we can’t do things like easily add certain functionality to the website.
And when it comes to editorial coverage, there’s been a huge decline locally since The New York Times revised its policy of reviewing every new release, to more recently when the Village Voice shut down. As a hyper-local resource, Screen Slate is in a prime spot to address coverage for both repertory film series and small but important new releases, but we can’t do that without paying writers or editors.
Perhaps less obviously, when it comes to pursuit of funding, I think Screen Slate struggles against the negative perception of online film writing, which is mostly press release broadcasts, streaming highlights, TV recaps and overindulgence in fan culture. There are still some good places like Reverse Shot and Film Comment, but a lot the best film writing available online comes from places that doesn’t specialize exclusively in cinema, like Artforum, n+1 and BOMB, to name a few.
There aren’t a lot of grants for film coverage, let alone for a “nonprofit film listing resource,” because I think foundations and charities have been slow to recognize the serious need there — in other words, that commercial publications, through their listings and local columns were a pillar of film culture, and as those magazines have focused on clicks over community or been eliminated altogether, that need is seriously underserved.
You’ve seen a lot of changes in the New York film scene since Screen Slate’s launch in 2011. What are your thoughts about the current state of brick-and-mortar independent and repertory cinemas as it compares to when you started?
I think everyone acknowledges that we’re living in a “Golden Age” of repertory cinema — specifically with the addition of places like Metrograph, the Quad, Drafthouse and Nitehawk — and micro-cinema or artist spaces like Light Industry, Spectacle, Microscope and UnionDocs going strong.
One thing that I do think has declined a little bit are itinerant or DIY screenings. I don’t know if that’s because the real estate market has become more forbidding to these kinds of activities, or that radical or experimental cinema is being better served by brick-and-mortar venues now than it was in 2011.
But I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish Screen Slate listed more events that were projected onto a sheet in a non-climate-controlled basement, because that’s why we pay the big bucks to live in New York.
It was announced Friday that FilmStruck is shuttering. What do you make of this?
It’s a huge loss that I think people are feeling even more acutely on top of the MoviePass adventure ending. Locally, I’m most concerned about the people who work there. But in terms of the impact on audiences, I can’t help but think about how meaningful that service must be to people who live outside of major metropolitan areas.
Having that lifeline to a previously unimaginable wealth of cinema has to have a positive impact on the lives of so many budding cinephiles. I had to ask my parents to drive me an hour to Cleveland to a horror convention to buy a Japanese-subtitled VHS bootleg of “Eraserhead,” and that movie probably seems basic to 15-year-old kids now.
And because I do preservation in my day job, I recognize the final and perhaps most important part of that equation is access, so any loss to that is a loss to cinematic heritage.
How do we support the film industry going forward to insure that audiences have access to these films and these resources?
I follow someone on Twitter whose handle says “Nationalize MoviePass,” and I don’t think that’s far off base. A lot of people seemed offended by the press release announcing the closure of FilmStruck describing the service as “niche,” and if that’s how private corporations understand cinema culture, then we can’t depend on them to steward it.
The same goes for commercial publications. We need more access, more writers and more diverse representation on screen and in print, and we’re not going to get that without public support.
How do you see Screen Slate fitting into this?
I hope Screen Slate can be part of a conversation that leads to recognition of the need for more public support for serious yet accessible, and local, film coverage — and the need to rebuild that around diversity of subjects and voices.