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Room for dreams, big and small

SOME guys daydream about playing center field for the Dodgers. Others wish they had as much luck with women as Antonio Villaraigosa. But when I’m in my car, trapped in the Westside’s endless rush hour traffic, all I can fantasize about is how good life would be if there were more great movie theaters on my side of town.

There have been many nights when I could fly and see a movie in San Francisco faster than plowing through the Westside’s snarled traffic to where the ArcLight sits in the distant reaches of Hollywood.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 11, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie theaters: The Big Picture column in Tuesday’s Calendar section misspelled the first name of Lew Harris as Lou and misidentified the website for which he is editorial director. It is Movies.com, not Movie.com.

Luckily, I now have two beloved neighborhood theaters: the sleek new 12-screen Landmark complex alongside the Westside Pavilion and the handsome old Westwood Crest Theater, a 1940-era movie house on Westwood Boulevard. As different as they may appear on the surface, they are fascinating examples of the brave new world of high-quality movie exhibition, a world full of movies aimed at -- gasp -- people who aren’t dying to see “Transformers.”

They are also theaters that tell us a lot about the changing moviegoing habits in Hollywood’s company town. In a way we’ve come full circle. Los Angeles used to be less a city than a series of small ‘burbs -- Santa Monica, Pasadena, Culver City -- separated by wide swaths of undeveloped land.

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Each town had its own local movie palace. But each year, as snowbound Easterners saw our sun-kissed hills in the background of the Rose Parade, more people came West, eventually filling in all that open land. Now that L.A. is so crowded, local neighborhoods have become distinct ‘burbs again, isolated not by open land but by unnavigable traffic. People look to their own neighborhoods for essentials, be it Starbucks coffee or an inviting movie complex.

The Crest is a lovely theater, but saddled with a crushing disadvantage. With one screen, its fortunes fluctuate by the luck of landing a hit picture; a multiplex can book hourly showings of a popular film while relegating a fading flick to a smaller theater. The only reason the Crest still exists is that it is owned by one man, Robert Bucksbaum, who bought it in 2002 and operates it as a labor of love.

I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t rooting for the mom-'n'-pop owner to survive. My grandfather was a theater owner with an abiding love for movies -- he was always happiest in a crowded theater with a bag of popcorn and an aisle seat. So although I may be a jaded entertainment writer, I’m not so jaded that I don’t delight in going to a theater where the owner is often in the booth selling tickets.

Still, business there has not been good. Bucksbaum is now in negotiations with an investment group to sell the land the theater sits on in return for a series of five-year leases that will allow him to continue operating the theater. Bucksbaum says his biggest problem has been finding a consistent flow of product. Studio distributors, more at home dealing with big chains, rarely go out of their way to support a family theater owner like Bucksbaum.

Bucksbaum originally had a deal with Disney, but that quickly dissolved. He then struck a deal with 20th Century Fox, which also went south after a series of booking disputes too complicated to detail here. Suffice to say that Bucksbaum feels that, as a one-man show, he was treated like a second-class citizen.

“My livelihood depends on this one theater -- I don’t have 3,000 other theaters to fall back on,” says Bucksbaum, who also runs ReelSource, a box-office data firm. “At first, everyone said they’d throw me a bone. But in practice, it was the complete opposite. They had the attitude -- ‘You’re one little guy. What could you possibly do for us?’ ”

The Crest has become essentially a second-run art house, largely playing movies that have already opened at other theaters. Bucksbaum has only one first-run commitment this summer, New Line’s “Hairspray,” which opens later this month.

The future looks brighter at the new Landmark complex, which boasts vegan cookies, a bar with a flat-screen TV, reserved seating, eager-beaver ushers and -- most importantly by Westside standards -- 3,000 free parking spaces. Owned by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, the bold entrepreneurs who’ve taken a leading role in releasing movies in theaters, video and pay TV simultaneously, the complex has stadium-seating theaters and smaller living room screens with sofa-style seating.

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The early reviews have been good. Movie.com editorial director Lou Harris, a regular Westside moviegoer, raves about the new Landmark complex. “They’ve brought the ArcLight experience to the indie movie,” he says. “Now you can see a movie like ‘Crazy Love’ in the same optimum circumstances -- great sound and comfortable seats -- that you could have seeing ‘Transformers.’ ”

The box-office news is upbeat. Distributors say that films playing the Landmark are pulling in comparable numbers to the ArcLight or the Grove. More importantly, the complex may expand the audience for adult-oriented fare. “There’s no question that a theater with great presentation invigorates moviegoing,” says Lionsgate Production Chief Tom Ortenberg. “When the Grove opened, it knocked out the Beverly Connection theaters, but it also increased moviegoing in the whole area.”

The biggest question about the Landmark involves exactly what sort of films it will play. The ArcLight shows blockbusters and specialty movies. So far the Landmark has focused on the latter. But Cuban resists any “art-house” label. “We are a Date Destination for Grownups,” he says, via e-mail. “You aren’t going to see kids running around. There won’t be ‘Hostel 33' or ‘Saw 15' playing. We will program for our audience. The mix will still lean toward art and indie fare simply because that is how great movies geared toward adults skew.”

Unfortunately, adults haven’t always been the most reliable moviegoing audience. But that may be changing. In the last few years, the industry has been deluged with a tidal wave of independent financing from outside investors. While some of that money has gone to underwriting studio slates, a huge chunk of it has been funneled into indie filmmaking. Nearly every week the trade papers announce the formation of a new company, run by some indie film veteran, who is making adult-oriented pictures bankrolled by outside investors.

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This monsoon of indie films has already arrived. In years past, specialty divisions saved most of their quality pictures for the fall. This year their fall slates are so crowded that they’ve been prompted to push many pictures into the summer. Next year the releases could start right after Oscar season ends. But it’s unclear whether the adult-oriented marketplace will support all those films.

Specialty division distributors say they are getting squeezed. Many films like “A Mighty Heart” and “Evening” simply haven’t found a big audience. Fox Searchlight has a rare word-of-mouth hit with “Waitress,” but it’s having to spend more money to keep the movie alive and is losing screens faster than in years past.

Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks, predicts that the Landmark will be the beneficiary of this glut of new product. “Some producers will face some financial pain,” he says. “But it will result in better movies making it to our screens. Good movies will find an audience.”

All the good movies in the world may still not save the Crest. Like the other aging one-screen theaters that populate Westwood, it’s a gas-guzzler in a neighborhood full of Priuses. All those lights on its marquee come with a cost -- Bucksbaum complains that his electricity bill probably rivals any theater in the country.

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But if Cuban’s Landmark chain offers a glimpse into the future of moviegoing, the Crest is an invaluable link to our past, when it didn’t take half a day to drive across town. As Bucksbaum puts it: “I think people would like to have some ties to their roots and to their neighborhood, to what this city was like 50 years ago.”

That probably makes Bucksbaum a crazy dreamer. But in many ways Cuban is a crazy dreamer too, trying to drag movie exhibition into the 21st century. Having sat in the lap of a theater owner as a boy, I like hearing about dreams and schemes. To me, it sounds like the crazy talk of people who really love movies.

“The Big Picture” runs each Tuesday in Calendar. E-mail ideas or criticism to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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