GARY MAK SING-HEI, the associate director of Broadway Cinematheque, rarely entertains the media in his Admiralty office these days. Mak usually meets them over coffee at the Yau Ma Tei multiplex's adjoining bookshop-cafe - within sight of film buffs browsing the shelves for books and DVDs. It's his favourite haunt, he says, a place that gets him away from his desk whenever his busy schedule allows. To devoted film exhibitors such as Mak, the closure of Cine-Art House in Wan Chai last month was a reminder of how seemingly peripheral operations as his bookshop-cafe can be critical to the survival of specialist film venues. 'If we were to just do screenings like Cine-Art, we would have closed a long time ago,' Mak says. 'We wouldn't be here talking to people about celebrating our 10th anniversary [later this month].' While films are firmly at the forefront of the Cinematheque's business, Mak concedes it takes more than innovative programming for art-house venues to survive. 'It's been the plan from the start that we should build a complex that makes it easier for people to know more about film culture,' says Mak, who joined the multiplex venture in 2000, four years after it opened. 'Back then, there was a film library, where members could borrow LaserDiscs of classics and watch them in viewing booths - one way we hoped to anchor a solid audience base,' he says, pointing to the space now occupied by a section selling DVDs of foreign-language films, documentaries and hard-to-find movie soundtracks. That library evolved into a club scheme which allows fee-paying members to borrow film discs and books for perusal at home, a system that encourages repeated, regular visits to the multiplex. Other multiplexes with art-house aspirations are adopting similar strategies. Providing comfortable lounges, innovative programming and a richly stocked snack counter simply aren't enough to cultivate an audience whose interest lies beyond the latest blockbusters. IFC Palace, operated by local film giant Edko, runs a store selling books, DVDs and other art-related paraphernalia. And even more commercially oriented operations realise appearances matter: AMC Pacific Place, the new Edko multiplex opening on Saturday, will include a wine bar offering more sophisticated audiences an alternative to the usual hotdogs and popcorn. Mak says the key to success for art-house venues such as the Cinematheque is to 'create synergy', where cinema operators organise spin-off activities that will generate buzz beyond the screening of independent fare. 'What we wanted to do is create a community here,' Mak says of the Cinematheque, which has become the city's premier venue for screening non-mainstream films. 'We wanted young people with similar tastes in cinema to come and share their interest with fellow aficionados. There are many things you could do - whether browsing through the books, or listening to a talk about a director's work, or watching a local band, or even poetry recitals or theatre performances. We don't want the Cinematheque to be somewhere you go to watch a film and then leave. We need things that allow us to hang on to our audience.' That's not to say the Yau Ma Tei multiplex is purely a purveyor of arty productions by auteurs such as Claude Chabrol or Kim Ki-duk. Patrons arriving for a screening of Jia Zhangke's slow-burning Still Life, for example, are likely to find themselves rubbing shoulders with teenagers mooning over Andy Lau Tak-wah in A Battle of Wits. Over the festive period, off-beat productions such as The Elementary Particles, a German adaptation of Michel Houellebecq's novel Atomised, will battle for space with the decidedly mainstream The Nativity Story and Casino Royale. However, what makes the Cinematheque a hub for 'specialised films' is the mini film festivals that it hosts regularly in collaboration with partners ranging from consulates and film distributors to gay activists. This year, for instance, it has held career retrospectives of actress Isabelle Huppert and director Krzysztof Kieslowski, with another due on Stanley Kubrick at the end of the month. Then there are showcases such as the Asian Film Festival and country-linked vehicles such as the German-language Max! and French Cinepanorama. In between, there have been guest appearances and talks by directors including Ang Lee (before his Oscar triumph with Brokeback Mountain) and Jia Zhangke (after he netted the Golden Lion for Still Life at the Venice Film Festival). Without a local equivalent of the National Film Theatre in London, which serves as a window for non-Hollywood talents, film buffs must rely on commercial ventures to promote less mainstream films in Hong Kong. For all the government's vision of Hong Kong as a city of culture and arts, and its support for the movie industry, there's no recognition of the need to develop a film-literate audience. Cinema operators aren't calling for subsidies such as a fund established by Britain's Film Council in 2002 to support alternative fare. 'We don't want money from the government,' says Chui Hin-wai, a founding manager at Cine-Art. 'But friends have suggested talking with the government to explore the possibility of bringing us in as a key part of a small cultural area. It's hard to find somewhere to operate a cinema like Cine-Art again.' Chui, who is now manager of Sil-Metropole's theatre management department, adds: 'We're not just profiteering here, but trying to provide a platform where the public can view some alternative films.' Pioneers such as Chui are understandably pained by how Cine-Art went under after showing such promise and setting box office records in the earlier years after it opened in 1988. Its screening of Japanese hit The Yen Family brought in more than 290,000 punters during a 525-day run from December 1990 to May 1992. Other offbeat films also enjoyed long runs - Sumo Do, Sumo Don't with 313 days and Love Letter with 288 days. Together with the Hong Kong Arts Centre and the now-defunct Columbia Classics, which were all within walking distance of each other, Cine-Art once formed a small cultural hub in northern Wan Chai. However, it wasn't blessed with the environs that allowed the Cinematheque to prosper. While the latter sat in its own complex in Yau Ma Tei with a small piazza at the entrance, Cine-Art could not expand beyond its two-screen confines. Efforts to rent an adjoining lot for a film-related retail space failed (it now houses a tailor's store), and a bid to develop the venue as a hangout for film lovers by adding tables and chairs to the verandah walkway were thwarted by municipal officials who demanded their removal. The crucial element for marketing art-house cinema is whether operators can cultivate a new generation of supporters, Chui says. And as the young people shuffling by at the Cinematheque's Kubrick cafe attest, the trick lies as much with the fringe activity as the screenings themselves.