The State of the Art House

When it comes to hip indie film theaters, OC is no LA—but LA is no NYC. Why not?

"The biggest challenge you have with a single screen is the hold times that are required by the studio," van Dijs continues. "It's no big deal for a theater with 12 screens to hold a film for four or even six weeks. For us, four weeks is death. We have a saying at the Art: The first week, we make money; the second, we break even. And the third, we lose everything we made in the first week."

The Art's response? "We are staying alive by splitting the apple," van Dijs says. "We show a pretty-even division of serious art films and documentaries, well-made wide-release films such as True Grit and crossover-type films that are larger-budget films but with a real artsy feel—The King's Speech, for example."

The theater's greatest asset is the crowd.

The Lido shows 3D versions of
Hollywood blockbusters 
to survive
Jonathan Ho
The Lido shows 3D versions of Hollywood blockbusters to survive
The theater in a Long Beach building that first showed silent movies in 1924 relies on local support to remain open
Jonathan Ho
The theater in a Long Beach building that first showed silent movies in 1924 relies on local support to remain open

"We are blessed with a dedicated and overopinionated group of followers who seem rather keen on telling us when we screw up in a selection of a film," says van Dijs, conceding, "Sex and the City 2: not our finest moment."

It can be madness serving a niche market while trying to appeal to the widest audience possible.

"In the end, I think every single-screen art house will sink or swim based exclusively on the local support they have," van Dijs says. "We have our community behind us, and for now, that's enough."

*     *     *

Indie-film veterans such as Richard Lorber, whose Lorber Films merged with Kino International a year ago, are quick to point out that LA has never been as friendly a market for their films as New York, and some of Southern California's intrinsic issues are partially to blame. For one thing, the region's vast geography demands a driving culture, leaving films that don't have megamillion-dollar billboard budgets or significant radio attention comparatively unexposed.

"Part of the culture of New York is you're walking around on the street, and you pass a movie theater, and you see what's playing," says Margot Gerber, publicist for the American Cinematheque and head of marketing for its spinoff distribution label, Vitagraph Films. "In Los Angeles, you're seeking out information, and then you're making a decision."

If you do make the decision to see an indie or art film, in many cases, you'll only have one place to see it. Even the larger crossover films will often open on only one or two screens in order to preserve a high screen average (generally the rubric by which success is measured for limited releases and often the determinant for their expansion into additional neighborhoods and cities), which is one reason why distributors would prefer to book such films at the larger chains. These "bigger" indies do very well at theaters such as the Arclight and the Landmark, which offer such amenities as reserved seating and premium concessions—at premium prices. Moviegoers happily accept inflated charges in exchange for a luxe atmosphere, comfort and convenience.

"The Landmark and the Arclight are our top choices, always, coming to LA," says Tom Quinn, senior vice president of Magnolia Pictures, a distributor of foreign, documentary and independent American films that, like the Landmark chain, is owned by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner. There are exceptions: Quinn notes that Let the Right One In, Magnolia's hit Swedish film about a preteen vampire that was recently remade as Let Me In, "did very, very well" at the Sunset 5. But generally, the Arclight and Landmark "are the highest-grossing theaters in LA for the films that we release."

In industry-obsessed LA, where business analysis and reporting on studio products tend to so dominate the local conversation and mainstream media that coverage of more artistically ambitious cinema is severely marginalized, dropping a film in a reliably high-grossing location matters. Robust opening-weekend box office begets continued success, and a weak first weekend is usually impossible to recover from. But while distributors may be happy with the numbers at LA's multiplexes in the short term, these theaters generally aren't in the business of curating with the preservation of film culture in mind. In addition to booking films by well-known-but-art-minded auteurs such as Darren Aronofsky and Mike Leigh, they tend to pad their schedules with straight-up studio films as loss leaders—think Tron: Legacy at the Landmark. (Among smaller theaters, the Lido in Newport Beach is attempting a single-screen variant of that strategy.) That's opposed to a different kind of art-house model, like the one in place at Landmark's Sunshine Cinema in New York, in which an Aronofsky film would itself be the loss leader, and an audience attracted to that sort of borderline art film could potentially trickle down to more adventurous content, like a foreign film or documentary.

"For art-house films, it costs much more money to reach the same amount of audience these days in LA as it does in New York," says David Fenkel of Oscilloscope, the film-distribution company recently founded by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch. "I think what's changed is that the typical platform release was New York and LA at the same date, but [now] we actually don't always do that. There is a lot of potential to gross in LA, but it's harder to get a high per-screen average."

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4 comments
Magic Shows in Beverly Hills
Magic Shows in Beverly Hills

Hey that's really a great post and a wonderful description out here, I really like the way things are being executed and discussed here.

Tgirl
Tgirl

LOVE the ART Theatre!

MayhemInTheHood
MayhemInTheHood

In 2010, I don't know if I just got lucky or if it's a regular occurence, but there were a handful of times that there were indie movies I wanted to go check out that were also available On Demand, while still in the theatre. I kind of doubt that it cuts into the theatres pockets TOO much, but it definitely kept me at home as opposed to driving to an art theatre.

 

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