Botox for the Bijou

Times Staff Writer

The Landmark Theatre at the Westside Pavilion needs cosmetic surgery -- the seats are old, the floor is sloped and the bathrooms are tiny. If all goes according to plan, however, it will soon get more than a makeover -- there will be 14 screens, stadium seating, restaurants, a bar and 2,000 additional parking spaces.

And at 50,000 square feet, it will become the nation's largest multiplex solely dedicated to specialized film.

Not that long ago, there were mainstream movie houses and there were art-house movie theaters, and no one would mistake one for the other. The art-house theater, haunted by cinephiles and counterculture couples, was known as much for its dank carpets, torn seats and stale popcorn as for its selection of foreign and very-limited-release films. But during the past five years, the so-called specialized film has grown in definition, audience and venue. Now an art film could be anything from a foreign-language film like "City of God" to a homemade indie like "The Blair Witch Project" to a small film made under a major studio's boutique imprint like Fox Searchlight. Its audience is increasingly fleshed out with baby boomers, and its venues have become corporate-run, state-of-the-art businesses complete with ushers, wide screens, surround sound and stadium seating.

Nationwide, art-film exhibitors are stepping up to the demands of their audiences by modernizing their complexes and showing a growing selection of specialized art films alongside Hollywood popcorn flicks.

Two years ago, Southern California-based Pacific Theatres opened the ArcLight, a high-end megaplex in Hollywood that leans heavily toward art films, one complete with reserved seating and a restaurant, bar and gift shop. Ticket prices for reserved seating at first seemed prohibitive at $12, but the theater has been such a success that Pacific plans to replicate the ArcLight in the top 40 markets, places like San Francisco and Chicago, and the proposed Grove-like Glendale mall.

In Northern California, Century Theatres is building CineArts complexes (multiplex theaters that offer art fare and a bar or restaurant) in San Jose and Sacramento. In Evanston, Ill., the company divided its 18-screen multiplex into two separate theaters, one offering 12 screens for mainstream movies and the other with six for Cine product.

"What you are seeing is the mainstreaming and upscaling of the art house," said Bert Manzari, executive vice president of Landmark Theatres. "We want to go beyond the culture-vulture audience."

As the nature of the film industry changes, the art-house theater has been transformed from ghetto into launching pad.

On the radar with 'Tu Mama'

In spring 2002, independent distributor IFC Films found itself flooded with calls from mainstream theater owners eager to book a most unlikely film.

"Y Tu Mama Tambien" -- a Spanish-language, unrated, two-hour racy drama starring unknowns -- was the talk of the exhibitor world.

The movie title (translation: "And Your Mother, Too") was so exotic, exhibitors didn't even know how to pronounce it.

"It started with 'I heard you did a lot of business with that 'Why Too Mama,' " recalled Jeanne Berney, an industry publicist who helped her husband, Bob Berney, then head of distribution for IFC, answer phones. Then, she said, it turned into "Gimme that 'Hoochy Mama.' "

But the theater bookers did know the film had packed art-house theaters, and they were willing to bet there was an audience in places like Omaha and Des Moines. They were right.

The film went on to gross $13 million and became the first unrated movie to play in every major U.S. theater chain.

During the past decade, specialized studios have worked hard to maintain a steady flow of product. Now that hard work is paying off -- audiences from the cities to the suburbs are demanding specialized films in their local megaplexes. Now, nearly all the major chains are as likely to offer the low-budget "Monster" as the mega-blockbuster "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

Many studios have begun capitalizing on the broader audience for specialized film by creating divisions devoted to smaller-budget, artier projects. So the creation of venues devoted to such crossover films seemed the obvious next step.

"We feel that with the graying of America there was a supply and a demand for an upgrading of the so-called art venue," said David Shesgreen, president of Century Theatres that owns and operates 930 screens in 11 states, mainly in the Midwest and West.

Locally, National Amusements has the high-end Bridge: Cinema de Lux in Westchester that offers not only Imax movies and specialized films but also a concierge, flower service, ushers and a bar and lounge. The chain has another Cinema de Lux in Philadelphia and recently opened one in Moscow.

Perhaps the biggest shakeup in the art theater world was the October purchase of the nation's oldest and largest art-house chain, Landmark Theatres, by dot-com billionaires Mark Cuban, who also owns the Dallas Mavericks, and Todd Wagner.

Cuban and Wagner are embarking on an aggressive plan to renovate many of Landmark's theaters, including the Westside Pavilion. They plan to use them to showcase movies made by their company, 2929 Productions.

"Look, you can watch an NBA game on TV, you don't have to go to the game," Wagner wrote in response to questions via e-mail. "But yet, the 'experience' of attending that game is very real, and if you can make it exciting to be there, that's a huge plus."

Landmark's venues will also help expand their company's reach into show business, Wagner wrote. "It's a key piece to the puzzle of being vertically integrated," he wrote. "Our job is to add some more firepower ... to look for additional revenue streams."

Wagner's talk of "revenue streams" and "vertical integration" is a world away from the humble origins of the art theater.

When America expanded into the suburbs, mall multiplexes became the hubs of film entertainment and many old single-screen movie houses fell into disrepair. In some cases, an intrepid film lover took over a decrepit theater (which may have become a porn venue) and transformed it into a funky neighborhood foreign-language film house.

"What used to happen was that first-run commercial theaters would become dollar houses and then they would become art houses," said Jerry Pokorski, executive vice president of programming for Pacific Theatres, which owns the ArcLight and the Grove. "It was the next step to closure."

In 1981 the Albuquerque-based chain Movies Inc. merged with Los Angeles-based Landmark to create the country's first national art-house theater circuit. "We believed there was an intelligent audience in places other than the coasts," said Manzari, one of the founders.

They kept their theaters supplied with films mainly from foreign upstarts like Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Lina Wertmuller. There were a couple of breakout hits, such as the English-language comedy from Botswana, "The Gods Must Be Crazy," which grossed $30 million, and Hector Babenco's drama "Kiss of the Spider Woman," which in 1985 became the first independent-style film to be nominated for four Academy Awards and to win one -- best actor for William Hurt.

Birth of the indie

Then came "sex, lies and videotape." Steven Soderbergh's 1989 film about four friends' sexual escapades not only put Miramax Films on the map, it marked the beginning of the American independent film scene and the emergence of crossover art films. "Sex, lies and videotape" was followed by too many to name, from "Howards End" and "Pulp Fiction" to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the 2002 box office record-breaker "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

But this success has been a double-edged sword. In some cases, small, independent art-house theaters find themselves bypassed by distributors eager to have their films play in high-end theaters like the ArcLight.

Distributors know that the first weekend gross makes up most of their share of a film's revenue, so they can benefit by putting their movies in commercial theaters right away. The notion of leaving a film in a little theater for six to seven weeks as it builds an audience is all but gone, lamented Bill Coppard, owner of the historic Little Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

As a result, Coppard has had to turn his 1929 Art Deco single-screener into a five-screen theater to stay alive. But he does not have the money to build a parking structure or convert to stadium seating. He may be a romantic, he says, but he feels something is lost when local, family-owned theaters are wiped out for a modern mall multiplex or taken over by a corporation.

"Even though you think that you are pure and that people support you because you are locally owned, a customer does not look at you that way," said Coppard, who also has had to turn his theater into a nonprofit endeavor to make ends meet. "They are looking for convenience and comfort."

Even some larger family-owned circuits like the Laemmle Theatres are feeling the heat.

Founded in 1938 by Max and Kurt Laemmle -- nephews of Carl Laemmle, who founded Universal Pictures -- the venerable chain now has 10 locations in Los Angeles County.

The Laemmles remember the days of knowing each studio booker by name and of star directors asking for a specific theater to play their movie -- sometimes for months on end.

Most of that personal contact is gone, replaced by technology and strategy, said Greg Laemmle, who with his father, Bob, now runs the business.

The struggle to survive

Without the deep pockets of a Pacific or Century chain, Laemmle has struggled to keep up. The Grove has taken much business away from Laemmle's Sunset 5 just as Pacific's Paseo 14 on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena has taken business away from the nearby Playhouse 7, farther east on Colorado.

Adapting to the competition has been difficult and expensive.

In 1992 Greg Laemmle was forced to install air conditioning and a new 70-millimeter projector at the Royal Theater in West Los Angeles before Tom Bernard and Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics would agree to provide a print of "Howards End."

"We had felt 'Howards End' was going to attract people beyond the art crowd, who always had to wear T-shirts because [the theater] got so warm," Bernard said.

Only last year did the Laemmles start accepting credit cards and online reservations, and even then only at some theaters. The changes have been not only costly but philosophical.

In December 2001 the Laemmles opened the Fallbrook 7 (previously the Fallbrook 10) at the West Hills Mall in Woodland Hills -- a place where they show commercial films in addition to traditional art pictures -- and in November they opened the One Colorado Cinemas (formerly AMC's Old Pasadena 8). They are in discussions to build a five-screen complex in Claremont.

"We are victims of our own success," Greg Laemmle said. "When 'Crouching Tiger' does $140 million, that is bound to make people realize there is a lot of potential business even in subtitled films."

Greg Laemmle wonders if the more adventurous American films, such as "American Splendor," are getting squeezed out by more palatable specialized films such as "Lost in Translation" and "Whale Rider."

"We are at a point now where the bigger 'art films' are opening in commercial theaters," he said. "The independent operator is always going to be at a disadvantage in terms of booking commercial films.... You see more business from those hot crossover films, but the question is [can] they use that to supplement business for the obscure and foreign films?"

There is also the very real fear that this new hybrid of theaters will fall prey to the overbuilding that plagued many mainstream chains in the last few years. There are already more than 35,000 movie screens in this country -- how many more can any audience absorb?

Last year, limited-release pictures did not do so well at the box office. Landmark's Manzari insists the drop was cyclical, mainly because of the lack of hot movies, and remains optimistic. "There is an increasing number of venues for smart film," he said. "Off-the-wall films now arguably have an easier time finding exhibition."

But breakout hits have set the bar very high for all specialized fare. In an industry where perception is often the reality, a movie that makes a modest take at the box office can be seen as a failure, even if it's profitable.

"Oversupply is a built-in fear in our business," said Century's Shesgreen. "But my crystal ball is very cloudy."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 24, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction Art house theaters -- An article about art house theaters in the Feb. 15 Calendar section misstated the cost of a ticket to the ArcLight in Hollywood as $12; with parking, the cost is $14. The article also mistakenly said the ArcLight was the model for a proposed theater at a Glendale mall. The model for that theater is the Grove Stadium 14. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday February 29, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction Art house theaters -- An article about art house theaters in the Feb. 15 Calendar misstated the cost of a ticket to the ArcLight in Hollywood as $12; with parking, the cost is $14. The article also mistakenly said that the ArcLight is the model for a proposed theater at a Glendale mall. The model for that theater is the Grove Stadium 14.
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