State of the Industry: A Conversation with Ariel Wan of the Michigan Theater Foundation

Throughout the coming weeks, NYWIFT will sit down with members of the film and television community for a look at how the global COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the industry, particularly those who work in the indie and art house world. And how women are adapting, evolving, and growing creatively. If you would like to share your story please contact us at communications@nywift.org. We are compiling a NYWIFT Emergency Resource Directory on our homepage – please continue to check back as we update it with the latest information. 


By Heidi Philipsen

One of the main things that we’ve learned via the COVID-19 pandemic (if we weren’t already aware before) is just how interconnected all the various sub-industries within the film business are—not just in NYC, but throughout the country, and how what happens in NYC affects regions like the Midwest and visa-versa.

It’s for this reason that I chose, in this series of interviews of women working in various areas of the industry, to bring the trials and tribulations of an art house director from the Midwest to light.

Ariel Wan is Director of Programming, Marketing and Sales at the Michigan Theater Foundation in Ann Arbor, Michigan – a non-profit organization whose mission is “joyfully serving community, history, public storytelling & the arts via its two arthouse theaters, The Michigan Theater and the State Theatre.” Those two theaters are homes to the Ann Arbor Film Festival and Cinetopia Film Festival in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan campus.

The movies that The Michigan Theater and State Theatre run come from filmmakers and distributors in NYC and if people can’t come out to watch the films, the theaters, distributors and filmmakers all risk major financial losses…even ruin. It’s an entertainment ecosystem so intertwined that when one area experiences difficulties, the entire system faces repercussions.

Ariel offered insight on how the industry is faring.


Ariel Wan, Director of Programming, Marketing and Sales at the Michigan Theater Foundation in Ann Arbor, Michigan


How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your organization? How serious is it?

Obviously, it is not looking good for art house theaters where our number one goal is to get members of the community together in a confined room to share an experience. Our theaters have been closed by executive order from the governor and the closure through-date has been extended once already. As a result, one of our main sources of revenue has essentially come to a stop. We are now solely reliant on donations, membership sales, and gift card sales. Our leadership team and board are committed to supporting the staff for as long as possible, but if this pandemic continues longer, we won’t be able to support everyone and will have to make some difficult but necessary decisions in order to save the organization.


How are people/businesses/films affected by the social distancing?

One positive thing that has come out of all of this is that our community of supporters are very positive in their messages to us and are looking forward to when we return back to “normal.” When your business centers around being in close quarters, and sometimes in sold-out, shoulder-to-shoulder events, the recommendation for social distancing is very hard. The main way for us to survive is by continued support from our community and being creative and inventive in how we stay engaged with people in isolation.


Are you all still working? From home? How is that going for you?

I am still working, and almost all of the staff are working from home. Some staff, including myself, are trying to balance working from home and caring for our children, who are now also home. My husband and I are taking opposite shifts to take care of our toddler and getting work done. We are essentially working from 6:30 AM to 10:30 PM. To prevent burn out, I am very conscious of separating work time from kid time. It is a real struggle and extremely challenging, but we’re all trying to be flexible.


What are ways in which the public can help?

On a government level, it would be helpful to pass bills that give funding to cultural arts centers as we are all affected by COVID-19 and have little federal/state/city funds to begin with. Some distributors are already being creative on how they can release their titles specifically to art house theaters and connecting their members with titles that are not available VOD. I would love to see more of that, where it’s an opportunity for people to see something exclusive in certain time frames and to have theaters provide a virtual way that people can engage with one another for a post-film discussion. These films can come from distributors or filmmakers. Lastly, please share the message to support your local arts organizations and remind people that we all survive off of revenue that we cannot obtain right now due to closures across the country. So please keep us in mind and buy a membership, a gift card, or donate online. We greatly appreciate the support of our community.


Learn more at www.michtheater.org.


Heidi Philipsen

Heidi Philipsen Heidi Elizabeth Philipsen-Meissner is a producer, writer, actress & director with 20 years of professional experience in international film, television and communications. Follow her on Twitter at @heidiphilipsen.

View all posts by Heidi Philipsen

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