The Disappearing Movie House

One of the most accomplished and moving American films of recent years is David Riker's The City (La Ciudad), the recipient of many international film festival awards. It was shot over a period of six years, and depicts the everyday struggles of Central American and Mexican immigrants in New York. Its emotional integrity, stunning black-and-white cinematography, and poignant performances by a mainly nonprofessional cast have earned it comparisons with Italian neo-realist classics such as The Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine. But the chances of this extraordinary film "coming to a theater near you" are rather small. The City is but the latest of many films that garner enthusiasm on the festival circuit but then face a daunting task in finding a larger audience.

One place that will be showing The City is the Savoy Theater in Montpelier, Vermont, a one-screen theater devoted to nonmainstream films (the current phrase of choice to describe such ventures is "specialty house"). The Savoy, which I co-own, is one of a small and dwindling group of independently owned theaters struggling with the consequences of enormous changes in the film world over the past 10 years.

When the Savoy opened in the early 1980s, multiplexes were common but not yet dominant. Miramax Films, now an industry behemoth, was a one-room office distributing marginal concert and foreign films. There were new films coming out from old masters like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and François Truffaut, and first appearances by John Sayles, Spike Lee, and Jim Jarmusch. It was a time of tremendous excitement about both foreign and offbeat movies. There was a culture of adventurous filmgoing, and it relied on a well-established network of independent theaters devoted to opening one nonmainstream movie after another.

No longer. With the proliferation of video cassettes, film societies have virtually disappeared from college campuses, so that the audience for nonmainstream movies, like the audience for classical music, keeps getting older. Meanwhile, big-city real estate costs have driven many small movie houses out of business, and many single-screen theaters (such as Washington, D.C.'s famous Biograph) have closed because they were unable to compete in a market geared to multiplexes.

It's not just the multiplexes' economies of scale (five movies with one projectionist, one concession stand, and so on) that have revolutionized the business. It's also the deals the multiplexes can make with distributors, deals that would put a single-screen theater out of business. Here's how they work: When a movie is expected to do well, the distributor insists that a theater run it for five or six weeks and pay the distributor typically 70 percent of what the theater grosses in the first week, 60 percent in the second week, down to 35 percent in the fourth week and beyond. A multiplex can afford that. By the fourth week, if audiences dwindle, it can move the movie to its smallest screening room--with, say, 65 seats--and still make money on it, while the latest "want to see" film goes in theater number one. But the single-screen theater doesn't have a room big enough to break even on the first week of such a deal or small enough to make money on the fourth week. (With one screen, it's hard enough to break even while paying the standard 40 percent weekly for "specialty" films.)

Just as unfortunate for the future of challenging movies is what happens when the distributors decide a film won't be a hit. Over the past few years, corporate consolidation in the movie industry has left more decision making than ever to the marketing depart-ment and more focus than ever on the bottom line. If a film does not perform as expected--on its opening weekend alone--the big distributors usually will dump it without any attempt to find its audience. (Recent victims of this shortsightedness were Rushmore and Election.) Fewer and fewer distributors are willing to support a film that tackles a provocative subject--or even a movie that will earn (by Hollywood standards) only modest returns. The larger distributors may buy the rights to such a movie, on the chance it will be a hit or sometimes just to prevent someone else from releasing it. (Miramax has been accused several times of that tactic.) But if the movie doesn't take off right away, they cut their losses; they'll even halt a publicity campaign in its tracks.

The dramatic changes in the film industry are capsulized in the shifting nature of the term "independent." When Shakespeare in Love and Life Is Beautiful win big awards and box office success, the industry calls it a great year for indies. But many of the distribution companies that were truly independent 10 years ago, such as Miramax and October Films, have since been bought by larger entities--Miramax by Disney and October by Seagram and then PolyGram. A better term for these erstwhile indies, as critic Michael Atkinson has suggested, is "dependies," since they rely on the corporate goodwill and deep pockets of the parent company.

The dangers inherent in this arrangement were revealed with the release of Todd Solondz's controversial film Happiness. October Films was still independently owned when it bankrolled this black comedy and when the film played to critical hosannas at the 1998 Cannes International Film Festival. But by the time the movie was ready for an American release, October had been bought by Seagram. The new owners, upset by the film's bleak vision and, more specifically, its treatment of pedophilia, refused to release it. The film's production company, Good Machine, quickly formed a distribution arm, but the little start-up operation was still inventing the wheel while the buzz over the movie wound down and disappeared. Happiness was ultimately a financial bust.

Of course, it might well have been a bust even if October had released it and promoted it, but the point is, October chose not to. The decision sent chills through the distribution world, putting the lie to the idea that October would continue to provide an alternative to mainstream industry thinking.

It was only after the crossover success of The Crying Game and Howard's End in 1992 that the large studios became aware of the potential payoff of nonmainstream movies and muscled into the market. Moves like Disney's subsequent purchase of Miramax do have their upside. Miramax now has the resources to buy distribution rights to many films, and it's a rare film maker who would not want his or her work distributed by a company with a large advertising budget and the connections to get movies widely shown. But Miramax refused to release Kevin Smith's philosophical comedy Dogma after parent company Disney was rattled by Catholic groups threatening a boycott campaign. (Miramax wound up selling the distribution rights back to Smith, and the film is now distributed by the Canadian-based Lions Gate Films.) Even absent such controversy, the unfortunate reality is that Miramax now makes a concerted marketing push for only a handful of movies (Cinema Paradiso, Life Is Beautiful, Shakespeare in Love); others, such as My Life So Far or My Son the Fanatic, are left languishing. When the Savoy booked the latter two, we found that the marketing plug had been pulled: There were no coming-attraction trailers to be had, and print advertising was hard to find.

With Miramax's increasing clout also came the kinds of deals that put their more popular films (Emma and An Ideal Husband are two recent examples) out of the reach of smaller theaters like ours. In fact, as companies like Miramax grow, small theaters are cut off from more and more of the potential breakout art films that might actually turn us a profit--and subsidize our more difficult fare.

There are those who applaud the big studios' involvement with movies like Emma and say it shows there's nothing to fear, after all, from the industry's new alignment. But these "art films" seem closest in spirit to what in the past were called "prestige films," which the Hollywood studios used to generate routinely. Now they're letting someone else take those risks instead. They're buying the distribution rights to already finished movies and dumping them fast if they don't do well, while concentrating their own efforts on what used to be called "B movies"--science fiction, adventure, horror, and live-action comic books.

In this risk-averse environment, it has been left to scrappy and committed independent distributors like Zeitgeist Films, distributor of The City, to seek out and nurture challenging foreign and American films, and to equally committed theaters to make sure they are seen. In the case of The City, Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo, co-owners of Zeitgeist, saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival and were moved by it. "We couldn't believe David Riker was a first-time director," Gerstman told me. They also couldn't pay Riker a significant advance, but what they had to offer was patience, aggressiveness, and "a passionate interest" in a film that Variety called a "tough sell." "We could give it our heart and soul," Gerstman said.

Even so, getting a film like The City seen is a challenge. When it finally opened last October at the Quad Cinema, a "specialty house" in Manhattan, it was one of eight films premiering in New York City that day. One of those films, Martin Scorsese's Bringing out the Dead, got the front-page review in The New York Times's Weekend section, accompanied by a double-page ad spread inside. Although The City received a positive review, you had to look very carefully to spot the four-inch, single-column ad that Zeitgeist could afford.

But Gerstman is gratified that, by Zeitgeist's own standard, The City is a success; so far it has been booked in 40 cities. Riker has said he is especially pleased that his film is reaching some of the immigrant audiences whose lives are so movingly depicted in the film. Clearly, for some film makers, distributors, and exhibitors, being able to define success in one's own modest terms is a key to staying healthy--economically and spiritually--in a hit-obsessed business.

Nowadays, it sometimes seems that small distributors and theaters are fighting a losing battle against both the industry behemoths and the ever-lower intelligence of their offerings. But it's my hope that as long as there are those with "a passionate interest" in bringing films of transformative power to an audience, there will be cinematic oases in the wasteland. ¤




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