Giving the art house a complex

Times Staff Writer

IT'S the center of the filmmaking universe, a high-income slice of town both swollen with industry executives yet far from overflowing with state-of-the-art theaters. Bringing a new multiplex to West Los Angeles should have taken no longer than it takes to crank out another "Saw" sequel, not more than a decade.

But sometimes exhibition moves at the same glacial pace as Westside traffic. After a series of false starts -- with plans alternatively sidetracked by ownership changes, a bankruptcy and some neighborhood opposition -- Landmark Theatres finally is ready to open what it considers its national flagship venue.

The sleek 12-screen multiplex, which is called the Landmark and is scheduled to start peddling its wares, plus vegan cookies and La Brea Bakery pretzels, on June 1, promises to shake up the highly competitive local movie market. After a long box-office slump, ticket sales are accelerating, and some of the nation's highest-grossing theaters are clustered around Hollywood and the Westside.

In staking a $20-million bet on its new 2,000-seat complex at the intersection of Pico and Westwood boulevards, Landmark's new owners, Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban, will go toe to toe with one of the nation's most successful new movie complexes, AMC's Century City 15, while also trying to replicate the popularity of Pacific Theatres' ArcLight Cinemas. Both complexes feature so-called specialized films, Landmark's stock in trade.

When plans were first drawn up for the Landmark in the early 1990s, movies tended to play in two distinct types of venues. Films driven by glowing reviews, made by respected filmmakers and/or told in a foreign language were shown at so-called art houses, neighborhood joints like West L.A.'s Nuart or South Pasadena's Rialto. Big-budget studio films were showcased inside sprawling megaplexes, with modern auditoriums and stadium seating.

But as the lines between studio and art-house films started to blur (Disney bought Miramax; 20th Century Fox launched Fox Searchlight), the distinctions in exhibition began to change too. As audiences started queuing up in the mid-'90s for movies such as "The English Patient" and "Il Postino," theater owners started booking them into auditoriums once reserved for sequels and remakes.

It's a minuscule percentage of the nation's overall box office, but a significant and influential slice of the market, especially in Los Angeles and New York. On a recent weekend, the ArcLight filled screenings for both the Sundance Film Festival hit "Waitress" and the colossal sequel "Spider-Man 3."

Although Landmark's programming will focus more on films in the vein of "Waitress," "The Lives of Others" and "Little Miss Sunshine," the chain wants to put as many butts as possible in its reclining black leather seats. And that means, despite what some local homeowners might have been led to believe, the Landmark also may book more mainstream fare.

"The cities that mean the most for independent film are New York and Los Angeles," says Wagner, who with Cuban bought the once-bankrupt, 61-theater Landmark chain from private turnaround firm Oaktree Capital Management in 2003. "I have no illusions, but if we can even rival the ArcLight -- which is an incredible theater -- we've done a tremendous job."

Wooing distributors

THE Landmark won't just be challenging other theaters for moviegoers' affections; it also must prove to distributors that it's the best place to show their most coveted films.

Like car enthusiasts who want to be the first on their block with the latest hybrid, every theater wants exclusive access to the hottest new movies, such as "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and "Shrek the Third." But under the arcane rules under which studios, their specialized film divisions and purely independent distributors book their movies, not every multiplex gets to play the movies it wants. Although the name of this game is seemingly benign -- it's called clearances -- the consequences can be noxious.

Historically, distributors have divided Southern California into a number of moviegoing zones: Westwood is one zone, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills make up another, and so on. A new movie typically plays at one -- and only one -- theater in each zone. The Landmark will be in the same zone as the AMC Century City, meaning the two complexes often will be vying for the same titles.

The Landmark hopes it will enjoy equal, if not preferential, treatment. Exactly what films will be shown in the multiplex on its opening weekend are undetermined. "I am going to buy as many exclusive films as I can," says Chief Operating Officer Ted Mundorff. "We've had discussions with all the distributors about how they view the marketplace."

AMC says it has been having similar conversations with distributors, and it too is confident it will get the hottest titles. Even though it typically shows more mainstream works, AMC has tried to attract art films and their supporters; one of the auditoriums in its Century City complex, promoted under the name AMC Select, is reserved for art house fare. ArcLight and Grove operator Pacific Theatres, which tries to court both popcorn fans and cineastes, declined to comment.

Mundorff and Wagner say their complex, which will be housed inside the existing annex of the Westside Pavilion mall, will immediately set itself apart with superior customer service, amenities such as a wine bar and the most modern and comfortable auditoriums this side of Steven Spielberg's private screening room.

"The reality is that no matter where you build, you're going to have competition," Wagner says. "But what ultimately gets you movies is if you book movies and they perform."

Exactly what kind of movies the Landmark will play is in dispute. Although the Landmark chain (whose local theaters are West L.A.'s Nuart, Santa Monica's NuWilshire, Westwood's Regent and South Pasadena's Rialto) is known for playing filmmaker-driven works that win awards at the Sundance Film Festival and capture the foreign-language Academy Award, its new venue will likely show mass-appeal titles in several of its larger auditoriums.

Were the venue open today, "Spider-Man 3" might be playing on as many as three Landmark screens, Mundorff says.

But that's news to Terri Tippit, president of the West of Westwood Homeowners' Assn., who consulted with Landmark on its new complex and is otherwise a fan. "They specifically said they would never run 'Spider-Man.' They told me it would be movies like 'Babel,' " says Tippit, who was worried the complex might attract too many teenagers. "I'm going to have to talk to them."

State of the art house

IN constructing its new complex, designed by Marina del Rey's PleskowRael Architecture(s), Landmark spared little expense. The steeply raked, stadium-style auditoriums feature leather seats and ample legroom. Three theaters will be fitted with the latest digital projectors, one auditorium will be equipped for 3-D movies, and guests in some smaller auditoriums will be able to stretch out on sofas and love seats.

After taking stairs or an escalator from street level to a second-floor lobby, moviegoers will be greeted by a hotel-style concierge desk (no ordering tickets over a speaker and through a window) and can unwind in a 90-seat wine and beer bar. Dozens of flat-screen monitors will list show times, run previews and count down the start times of the next movies. Finishes are walnut, stone and metal -- a sleek mingling of a trendy Manhattan hotel and a first-class airport lounge.

Tickets will be priced at $11 (a discount from ArcLight's $14 tariff for weekend shows, and the same as the AMC Century City 15) but there are 3,000 free parking spots underneath the complex, which also connects by sky bridge to the western end of the main Westside Pavilion.

Distributors seem eager to start playing their films at the multiplex. "The space looks absolutely incredible," says Steve Rothenberg, president of domestic distribution for Lionsgate Films. "In a perfect world, the Landmark will become the ArcLight of the Westside."

"It's a fantastic location geographically for [art house] movies," says Steve Gilula, Fox Searchlight's distribution chief and a former Landmark executive who tried to build the complex more than 10 years ago. "It could be the most important theater for specialized film in the United States."

Even though the ArcLight and the AMC Century City regularly report some of the top national grosses for movies from Lionsgate, Searchlight and their brethren, some other local theaters are struggling.

With scarce parking and old auditoriums, Laemmle's once popular Sunset 5 in West Hollywood has been hammered by the Grove. The former grand palaces in Westwood are either laboring to sell tickets or closing for good; Mann has shut down three Westwood locations and United Artists one, with Mann's National the next apparent casualty.

"Unfortunately, the business in Westwood has been in the toilet because of Century City," says Robert Bucksbaum, owner of the independent, single-screen Westwood Crest Theatre. "It is so sad to see so many of the neighborhood theaters go out of business."

But Bucksbaum, like Laemmle President Greg Laemmle, who also operates Santa Monica's Monica 4 and Beverly Hills' Music Hall 3, believes that if the Landmark succeeds, other area theaters will benefit. "I hope it will bring people back to the area," he says. "It will hopefully give Century City, Hollywood and Santa Monica a run for its money."

"It's just so hard to get around in this part of the city," Laemmle says. "And I do believe there is a need for more screens. Distributors will be very happy to have a center for art film in this part of town."

Bring on the night life

BESIDES prying customers out of Century City and the ArcLight, Landmark's other challenge will be to make its complex a destination not just for movies but for nightlife, especially Monday through Thursday, when movie attendance is slow.

If not playing movies, the Landmark may hold simulcasts of alternative entertainment such as concerts, Broadway musicals and live theater (a strategy also employed by the AMC in Century City, which has shown the Metropolitan Opera, a Beastie Boys gig and the Dane Cook comedy special in its auditoriums). Last weekend, National Amusements held a big-screen video gaming contest at its Bridge Cinema de Lux in Westchester.

"We want this to be a place where you can go hang out for the night," Wagner says. "You can't just think of a theater as playing movies. That's an out-of-date concept. You've got to give people more than that, or they will not go."

Although some local homeowner associations endorse the project, the neighborhood has not always been that supportive. Gilula says that in the 1990s residents didn't want the neighborhood "to become the next Westwood -- they didn't want the crowds, the shootings." (In 1991, a brawl broke out around a Westwood showing of "New Jack City," and in 1988, a window-shopping Westwood visitor was slain in gang-related crossfire.)

Richard Harmetz, a member of the Westside Neighborhood Council, says neighbors had been worried about gangs and teens converging on a theater showing only mass-appeal works. Residents, he said, didn't mind a new theater, as long as it catered to the right kind of patron.

"They wanted an older audience," Harmetz says. "And Landmark was very receptive to community involvement and feedback."

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john.horn@latimes.com

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Arty versus everywhere

When specialized films premiere, they often open in just a handful of theaters nationwide. Within Southern California, those select movie houses often generate the highest per-screen returns in the country. For films in wide release, however, the best-performing Southern California theaters are often miles from Hollywood. Here are the sales figures for the top-grossing films in limited and wide release the weekend of May 4-6, listing movie title, distributor, theater and weekend gross:

Limited release

"Waitress"

Fox Searchlight

ArcLight (Hollywood)...$21,248

Laemmle Monica 4 (Santa Monica)...$18,308

"The Valet"

Sony Classics

Laemmle Royal (West L.A.)...$9,074

"Away From Her"

Lionsgate

ArcLight...$8,804

Monica 4...$7,613

Wide release

"Spider-Man 3"

Sony

Edwards Irvine Spectrum 21...$392,017

Edwards Ontario Palace 22...$380,622

ArcLight...$354,961

AMC Burbank 30...$318,343

Edwards South Gate Stadium 20...$285,177

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Source: Nielsen EDI

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