The term “art house film” usually refers to a film that sits somewhere outside the mainstream genres of big-budget commercial films. The term refers to the “art house” cinema, typically a small independent theater that specializes in showing films that appeal to a niche audience rather than the mass audience that prefers Hollywood blockbusters. Because of language barriers and cultural differences, international films also tend to appeal to smaller audiences in America, so films made in other countries are often grouped together with art films.
The art-house trend began in America in the 1940s and 1950s, when a part of the movie-going audience began to lose interest in the light-hearted homogeneous entertainment being produced by Hollywood. Small theaters in large cities and university towns began to show less ambitious, more serious films, and art-house audiences acquired a taste for high-minded European films, particularly those produced by a group of French filmmakers who were dubbed the “French New Wave.”
Toward the end of the twentieth century, the art film began to share the niche-market space with the independent film. Like art films, independent films are produced outside the mainstream Hollywood studio system, and they are also likely to attract a smaller audience than a mainstream commercial film. Early art films, however, were typically serious and intellectual in tone, while contemporary independent films fall into a wide range of genres and may be as light-hearted as mainstream films.
In the early days, art house cinemas were usually confined to big cities, and audiences outside large metropolitan areas had limited access to art films and international films. With the rise of the internet and the wide-spread availability of on-demand viewing, though, the importance of the art house cinema has declined at the same time that the audience for international, independent and art films has increased.