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In the days of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, business statistics abound demonstrating that people are watching more original content on their televisions and going to the movie theater less frequently. But the exact opposite is happening at the Detroit Film Theatre, nestled inside the Detroit Institute of Arts

“Sometimes, people can just give up if they look at a website like Netflix or Amazon Prime, and they see thousands of titles,” said Elliot Wilhelm, Detroit Institute of Arts’ film curator, who has been in charge of the DFT’s season since its inception in 1974. “What we provide is a guided tour of the cinema now, and the cinema of pre-now. That I think is something people still want and still respond to.”

In fact, the DFT has recently had their highest attendance in 10 years. And their annual screening of the Academy Award Nominated Short Films, running from February 9 through March 4, just keeps growing. But what goes into planning each season, and what keeps people coming back for more?

Hollywood in Detroit at Detroit Film Theatre 2016 8541Photo by Doug Coombe.

CultureSource: How do you go about planning a season at the DFT?
Elliot Wilhelm: Well, that’s kind of a long, involved story. It’s a matter of finding the films. In this particular day and age, it’s possible to get advanced looks at film via either DVD screeners or advanced looks from distributors and producers. There’s a matter of going through all of the literature, reading trade publications, and I have a network of people. A film has to have some reason to occupy our screen and take up the time of the audience. That comes down to the same kind of curatorial judgement that any other department at the DIA will use, and that is, is it an important work in some way?

There are also the retrospectives that we show, the older films, films that have been restored. It’s kind of a huge jigsaw puzzle in which you have to put all of these pieces together because you’re serving multiple audiences. You’re not only serving the cinema audience, but we also present series of films that have to do with DIA exhibitions that are going on at any particular time.

Would you say that you’re planning for this all year?
The long-winded answer to your question is I’m always programming. Whoever has this job has to be somebody who not only can boast some kind of judgement and critical ability — just as any other curator does at the DIA — but also has a knowledge of the history of the medium so that when a title of a specific film that may have not been available for a long time comes up, you say yes, I know that film, it’s really right for the DFT audiences, and you go for it. It’s a constant thing, but it’s also a constant joy if you love movies, which is sort of the basic requirement for the job.

"It's also a constant joy if you love movies, which is sort of the basic requirement for the job."

Going back to the order of the films for the season, how big of a role do things such as DIA exhibitions that are opening play into the season’s sequence?
It’s not a huge thing. It does happen occasionally, but it’s not normally what we base it on.

The original concept hasn’t completely changed and that is, if people come here every week, they are going to be able to see some of the most exciting new films in the world. That can sometimes lead to a lineup of titles that in—terms of theme and country of origin—can be pretty eclectic. It’s not necessarily a thematically linked series of films, but does give you an overview of what world cinema is like at the moment. There will also be things like a retrospective. At the same time, there are things we know audiences are crazy about, which is the Academy Award short films, which has become a massive attraction. We wouldn’t miss them for anything.

Elliot copy 2Elliot WilhelmHow important do you think it is to be able to get this sort of variety of films to a place like Detroit?
It’s immensely important. In the 1970s — when we opened — there was no way you could watch a movie without being in the movie theater unless it had been broadcasted on television. For foreign language films and independent films, that was pretty rare. So, if you were going to see a new film by somebody like Ingmar Bergman, you had to see it at a theater that showed that kind of film, and this city didn’t have one at that time. So, it was urgent that we took up that slack and did that job. 

How do you go about acquiring films?
That’s a matter of individual negotiations of each film. There are a large number of very small, independent film distributors who we will obtain films through. Those are people who, after seeing a film, obtain the rights to distribute it in the U.S. They love cinema and are very anxious to get their film in front of the public. Because of our reputation, at this point it’s become easier to obtain films. 

What types of audiences do you bring in?
You name it. We have some people who come here constantly, who are here almost every night, who are just freeform cinema lovers, and we love them. Then there are audiences who are attracted to a specific topic or a specific subject matter or a film from a particular part of the world. There’s really no end to the kind of audiences who are interested in different kinds of films.

Why do you think people keep coming back year after year?
People love movies. The ways in which people see movies, that’s changed, but I don’t think that it means people aren’t going to see movies in the old-fashioned way, which is what we’re offering, except we don’t feel that it is old-fashioned. A lot of younger audiences are discovering it as something new. They are discovering this art form here.

"A lot of younger audiences are discovering it as something new. They are discovering this art form here."

What do you hope for the future of the DFT?
I think the future is extremely bright. What it’s going to look like physically, I don’t know. But as long as people are coming — and as long as we’re here — we’re going to be showing films in this particular way. And that is in a theater with audiences coming to see them and with a place for them to discuss them.

For a look at the DFT’s upcoming schedule, click here. The annual Academy Award Short Films series begins February 9.

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