Art-house films find a colder welcome in L.A.

"Dogtooth" — an enigmatic Greek film about family life, with intimations of animal mutilation, incest and "Flashdance" — has been among the most divisive and talked-about movies on the festival circuit since its award-winning premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2009. Greece's official foreign-language submission for this year's Academy Awards, the film has also turned up in numerous critics' lists and 2010 best-of polls.

The film opened in New York last June. But apart from a single screening last summer, L.A. film fans had to wait more than six months longer to see it. Finally, it opened Friday at the under 200-seat Cinefamily theater on Fairfax Avenue — the first time that that venue, mostly known for repertory programming, has booked a movie for a one-week run.

"Dogtooth" is emblematic of how many recent art-house titles are struggling to find, let alone hold, screens in Los Angeles. Though the specialized distribution business has deep historical ties to New York and that city has always been a more natural home for foreign-language, documentary and fringe American independent film than the more Hollywood-oriented L.A. marketplace, the gap between what can be seen in the cities seems to be widening. More and more art-house films are opening in New York first and then coming to Los Angeles many weeks or months later — or not at all. Even the most dedicated moviegoers in Los Angeles may not realize how much they are missing.

"It's such a strange thing that we are the movie capital of the world and yet when it comes to interesting foreign films or independent films that Los Angeles never seems to be a community that supports these kinds of movies," said Marcus Hu, co-president of Los Angeles-based distribution company Strand Releasing. "If you look back to the '80s or '90s, there was a much better sense of adventurous taste in filmgoing."

Several factors may be contributing to the coastal disparity. Some in the business say that with limited marketing budgets, smaller distributors have little left for advertising in L.A. after an initial New York push.

The closure in recent years of art-house friendly venues like the Showcase, the NuWilshire and the Fairfax as well as the Beverly Connection and Beverly Center multiplexes has created a scramble to find screens for smaller films. Traffic and parking may also be making it harder to connect certain films to audiences.

While modern, high-volume theaters such as the ArcLight Hollywood and the Landmark in West L.A. show specialized titles, they typically come from such relative powerhouse distributors as Focus Features or Fox Searchlight Pictures. These are films with stars and bigger marketing budgets such as "Black Swan" and "Blue Valentine," which are edgy compared with something like "Little Fockers" but are downright behemoths relative to a "Dogtooth."

Box office returns at theaters such as the Nuart or the Sunset 5 can be extremely hit or miss because the venues seemingly lack a core audience that shows up regardless of the title. With Laemmle Theaters possibly leaving the Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills, the competition for micro-distributors to find screen space may become fiercer.

"I think L.A. has been in decline for a decade or more," said Gary Palmucci, vice president of distribution at Kino Lorber Inc., the New York-based distributor of "Dogtooth." "It's almost pro forma that you want to play L.A. because there is a certain level of press and companies there that follow what's going on, but I think many people will concede that you don't expect good results. You expect to lose money most of the time when you play L.A."

The German film "Everyone Else," a drama that chronicles a young couple splitting apart, landed in the top 10 on three major 2010 critics polls. When the Cinema Guild released the film in New York City in April, it grossed $11,000 its opening weekend. When it came to the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood in May, in its first weekend it made about $2,500.

Another Cinema Guild release, "Sweetgrass," a documentary about a Montana sheep drive and another critical favorite, opened to $10,000 in New York in January and $4,000 in Los Angeles in March. The film played only one week in L.A., while it managed longer runs and higher total grosses in cities such as Seattle, Minneapolis and (understandably) Boise, Idaho.

"What is true unfortunately is that it has become increasingly difficult to open a foreign or documentary film in L.A.," said Ryan Krivoshey, director of distribution at the Cinema Guild. "L.A. is still an important market, but a lot of variables need to line up perfectly in order to have a successful run. And it's not always necessary for L.A. to come right after New York. These days, it's not uncommon for a film to gross more in other cities than L.A."

Even media buzz doesn't necessarily sway L.A. audiences. "Tiny Furniture," which garnered much national media attention for its writer-director-star Lena Dunham, made $21,225 its opening weekend at the IFC Center in New York in November. A few weeks later at L.A.'s Nuart, it didn't crack $8,500 in its opening weekend.

Yet for all the problems, most distributors still see Los Angeles as worth the effort.

"L.A. is critical for us and critical for any of the filmmakers we are working with," said Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Films, which distributed "Tiny Furniture." "It's a competitive market, you're in Hollywood's backyard. You have to be smart in your approach.

"Originally the specialty business was just New York and you would wait to see before expanding," he added. "I think a lot of the distribution companies that are operating today are operating with an approach that goes back to how specialty companies used to do business."

One unexpected bright spot last year was for Music Box Films, which saw the three films of the Millenium Trilogy, including "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," as well as the two-part "Mesrine" all perform beyond expectations in Los Angeles. "Los Angeles is going to continue to be highly competitive, but when things work they work really well," said Ed Arentz, managing director of Music Box Films.

Noting that one key factor was the ability to open their films in more than just one venue, Arentz acknowledged some of the specific challenges to bringing a film in Los Angeles. "To expect somebody from Pasadena to see something in West L.A., that's a bit much. We can't complain about the results in L.A. if we don't make our level best effort to bring the pictures to the people. The days of an exclusive run covering the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area are over."

Ted Mundorff, chief executive for Landmark Theatres, a company whose local movie houses include the Nuart and the Landmark, said Los Angeles is doing better than it used to when it comes to the box office receipts for the larger-scale independent films.

"The opening of the ArcLight and the Landmark has absolutely changed box office in Los Angeles for independent film," said Mundorff. "Los Angeles has become as important as any city in the country."

As for "Dogtooth," which played Austin, Texas; Chicago; and a few other cities before coming to Los Angeles, it's done slight business since its release last summer. Bringing in just under $28,000 in five weeks in New York, for all the critical praises, festival buzz and online clamor, the film has made only around $75,000 total. Landmark, as well as Laemmle Theatres, declined to book "Dogtooth," which left Kino to take a chance on Cinefamily.

"I'm just happy to have it out in any way, shape or form in L.A.," said Kino Lorber's Palmucci.

"It's a really tough time for smaller distributors," said Strand's Hu, while adding that often even a theatrical run that loses money in Los Angeles can serve to push word-of-mouth for DVD sales or, increasingly, video-on-demand. "The real hope is that what we're doing is putting it out there," said Hu. "We're doing something by getting these films out into the world. My hope is that film culture is still surviving and thriving."

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