There's a "For Rent" sign on the property at 9036 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills—a stone's throw from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Writers Guild of America—and a rental listing has been online since at least as far back as mid-December. But when Beverly Hills Patch reported on Dec. 29 that the Music Hall—the circa 1938 single-screen movie palace that local, family-run chain Laemmle Theaters has been operating as a three-screen art house for four decades—is in serious danger of losing its lease in 2011 due to declining revenues, the commenters on the micro-community blog expressed a mixture of indignance, sadness and surprise.
"Without this theater, Beverly Hills has no movie theater," wrote Patch commenter Natalie Roberts. "How ironic that with the Academy of Motion Pictures almost directly across the street, we are about to lose our own movie theater."
That irony may be plain to see, but the Music Hall's troubles didn't come as much of a shock to those who had been to, or in business with, the theater recently.
"I think that the writing's been on the wall for a good part of this year that they're on their way out," says Gary Palmucci, film booker for New York-based distributor Kino Lorber, whose foreign films often play the theater. "If that happens, it's going to create an ever-more-challenging situation for distributors who want to try to at least get some of these smaller foreign films open in LA, even if they only play for a week or two."
"The state of the art film in LA is not great, and certainly relative to New York, it's rather dire," says Greg Laemmle, who now runs the seven-screen chain that has been servicing Southern California since 1938. In a conversation shortly before New Year's Eve, Laemmle admitted that attracting attendance at the Music Hall has become such a problem. "It gets to the point where distributors are like, 'It's really not worth opening there,'" he says.
In order for the Music Hall to be able to save itself, Laemmle says, ticket revenues would have to "double or triple" during the first quarter of the year. Unless that happens—or "some wealthy individual comes and says, 'I still want there to be a movie theater in Beverly Hills. I'm going to buy the building and give these guys a subsidized rent'"—Laemmle says he and the landlord are "way too far apart to have a conversation."
Asked if the Sunset 5—once LA's flagship of indie filmgoing, now reeling from local competition and nestled within a mall that, since the vacancy of the Virgin Megastore, is hardly a hot destination—could soon fall into the same dire straits, Laemmle answered unambiguously, "Yes. That's an ongoing conversation."
After a tumultuous few years for Southern California cinephilia—during which historic theaters have fallen like dominoes; the LA County Museum of Art's repertory screening program has carried on under the threat of imminent death in the absence of significant benefactors; and AFI and LAFF, Los Angeles' two biggest non-niche film festivals, have changed geography and overhauled their identity—the death watch on the Music Hall and the potential endangerment of the Sunset 5 are the latest in a series of troubling signs that Southern California, and LA in particular, can be a less-than-hospitable market for what can be loosely defined as art cinema. In the center of the movie industry, studio film is as big a business as ever, but specialty film—independent, foreign and documentary new releases that play on 500 or fewer screens nationwide—struggles to find a foothold in a landscape that, at best, can be described as schizophrenic.
For Orange County's handful of smaller, art-film-friendly venues, the situation is similarly bleak, only more so. Edwards University in Irvine sometimes receives its hip films at the same time as its counterparts in LA, and other indie venues in OC and Long Beach are having a tougher time maintaining their unique character while keeping their doors open.
The problem is a kind of vicious cycle. Distributors are frustrated by the variance in grossing potential between high-end multiplexes such as the Arclight, and smaller operations. Dedicated cinephiles, who communicate with their counterparts in other cities via blogs and Twitter, feel LA is being shafted, as many of the hip foreign films that dominate the online conversation are unseen or barely seen locally. Exhibitors contend that when they do book the film-festival hits that critics love and highbrow film followers say they want to see at venues such as the Music Hall, no one shows up. Like Laemmle and his landlords at the Music Hall, the various parties in this cycle often seem to be too far apart to meet in the middle.
Laemmle says that relatively new, upscale competitors such as the Arclight Hollywood, the Grove and the Westside Pavilion's Landmark have put a serious dent in business at both the Music Hall and the Sunset 5.
One result is that many films that get at least a one-week run in New York screen in LA as one-night-only events—if at all. Even when screens are easy to come by, distributors of highly acclaimed, international-prize-winning, critically adored films say that opening their movies in LA doesn't always make financial sense.
* * *
The Lido was built on Newport Beach's Lido Peninsula the same year as the Music Hall, and its operators work hard to maintain the single-screen movie house's vintage look. Paintings, carved moldings and even the curtain appear museum-quality. The box office in front of the double-doored entry is still used, and though smoking is not allowed indoors, the smoking parlor in the women's restroom remains. Though not all the building's tile is original, it is made by the same family. Similar theaters closed their balconies years ago due to safety concerns, but at the Lido, the balcony remains open.
More difficult than keeping the look is keeping the seats filled, however.
"The art business for films is very cyclical," says Lyndon Golin, whose Regency chain owns the Lido. "It's now lower than it has been, and that's partly due to the product available and the economy. People used to invest in pictures like this. But it always comes back."
He says most of 2010 was rough for Regency's theaters that show art, indie and foreign films, including Edwards South Coast Village in Santa Ana and Regency Niguel in Laguna Niguel. Fortunately, the year "ended strong" thanks to Black Swan, The King's Speech and The Kids Are All Right.
"The end of the year saved it," Golin declares. "The King's Speech was very much needed."
"It's really a struggle in this market for a one-screen theater," says Matthew McCartney, a Lido manager who joined the staff two years ago. "It's a hard game to play."
It's what led the Lido, which joined the Regency fold in 2001, to make a major programming change a year ago. With a new sound system and 3D projectors, the theater routinely presents blockbuster movies, such as the latest from the Shrek and Toy Story franchises in 3D this past summer. Another week, the Lido will shift back to "major" independents, which are generally those with high-profile names, studios and distributors attached. "They are marketed exactly like independents to keep that crowd," McCartney says.
Denise Gurin is leery of that strategy. She's the senior vice president of film and head of CinemaArts for the Knoxville, Tennessee-based Regal Entertainment Group, the nation's largest theater circuit, with 6,705 screens in 540 theaters in 37 states and the District of Columbia. One of those theaters is Edwards University, arguably the most successful presenter of art and independent films in Orange County. Gurin programs the Irvine theater out of her Woodland Hills office.
"I've seen Lido change its programming quite a bit," Gurin says. "They'll do 3D stuff, and then bounce back to independent film. If you are bouncing back and forth, you don't have a loyal following. It's hard if you're not consistent. If you're showing alternative, indie stuff, you don't suddenly throw up Clash of the Titans."
She believes consistency is the secret to Edwards University's success.
"It's been programmed the way it has for years," she says. "When Regal merged with Edwards about nine years ago, we made sure we continued doing the art down there. There is a loyal following, and people know it."
The six-screen theater in the Town Center shopping center across the street from UC Irvine is coming off one of its best years in recent memory, according to Gurin.
"We do very well," she says. "University is very popular in Orange County—with audiences, filmmakers and distributors."
Regal nurtures the indie and art-house crowd through CinemaArts, which maintains a special website and sends out quarterly programs and e-mail blasts to followers.
"This is a very cyclical business," Gurin says. "One year, everyone is crying, and the next, it's alive and well."
At the same time, she understands the challenges of overseeing single-screen theaters, seeing as how she also programs those as Regal's West Coast chief. "I do know it's more difficult," Gurin says. "I have single screens, twins, five-plexes, all the way up to megaplexes. I know the whole canvas."
Besides University, she'll send indie titles over to the eight-screen Edwards Westpark across town.
Art and indie films generally always open in New York and LA first before expanding to other cities weeks later. University has built such a solid rep that some open in Irvine that first week as well. It's also used quite often for test screenings; don't be surprised if you bump into indie mogul Harvey Weinstein at one.
The University's success comes at the expense of the single-screen Art Theatre in Long Beach, according to Jan Robert van Dijs, the urban developer who co-owns the historic building on Fourth Street that opened in 1924 as a silent-movie house before its 1934 Art Deco makeover for the talkies.
"Long Beach is often six weeks or more behind LA and Orange County, which means that if it is an art film with a narrow audience, many people have already taken the drive to LA or Irvine before we can even get the film," van Dijs says. "This issue alone will often keep us from showing a film we would otherwise like to show. It's very hard for our audience to understand this, as they see the ads in the paper and wonder why we are not showing a specific film that would otherwise be perfect for us.
"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.
"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."
Magnolia's Quinn says the two coasts tend to pull in disparate returns. "New York, for all of our successful titles, does double the business, if not maybe three times the business, compared to LA," he says, citing the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. and the Tilda Swinton-starring I Am Love as examples.
But Ted Mundorff, CEO of the Landmark chain, dismisses complaints about the financial challenges of the Southern California market. "That doesn't make sense to me. Absolutely makes no sense. Whoever believes that doesn't know anything about Los Angeles," he says, citing Blue Valentine as an example of a film that grossed more in its opening weekend in LA than it did during the same time frame in New York. "A film that has any kind of grossing potential will have both a New York and a Los Angeles run at the same time. They make more money in Los Angeles than they do in New York—I guarantee you that."
* * *
Trying to build an art/indie community in Anaheim is Damon Rubio, executive vice president of operations with Vista-based UltraStar Cinemas, which operates 15 sites in Arizona and California, including the 14-screen theater it took over last summer from Newport Beach-based Cinemasource in the GardenWalk center near Disneyland.
UltraStar plans to shuffle in more art, indie and crossover films, especially by late April, when its three screens dedicated to 21-and-over patrons (and serving alcohol) are ready to roll. The company's plan, Rubio says, "is to essentially build clubs. We will do it in Orange County. It's been a huge success in Oceanside. These are rabid film-lovers, and if they say, 'Book this film,' we book it."
E-mail alerts keep club members informed about future titles and special events. The approach has worked so well over the past two years in Oceanside that UltraStar now offers a series pass that gets members into 10 films for $40. Rubio says more than 200 passes have already sold, and there are plans to expand the program to Anaheim.
That location includes the latest in sound, picture, 3D, large-screen format and other technological advances. They even have D-Box theater seats programmed to move in unison with the action onscreen. That makes UltraStar a great place to see big-budget Hollywood blow-'em-ups.
But the theater's digital-cinema gear also allows UltraStar to work with unknown web-based filmmakers who essentially broadcast their ultra-low-budget indies that would otherwise never screen . . . anywhere.
"It's affordable for us," Rubio says, "and it gives us great, offbeat stuff."
Being a cinephile, it does pain him to see the closure of small movie houses that were run well, fulfilled a need and had a personal history with him, including one he often drives past in Coronado. It's a bookstore now.
"I loved that theater," Rubio says. "It's nostalgia. But from a business standpoint, you look at it and say, 'Yeah, out with the old, in with the new.'"
* * *
It's pushing 10 p.m. on a Friday in January, and the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Avenue in LA is full to bursting, a sellout crowd filling every built-in seat and spilling over into folding chairs. Before the movie runs, Hadrian Belove, executive director of Cinefamily, the consortium that has been programming the theater since 2007, gives the audience some context on what they're about to see.
"We don't show a lot of first-run films," Belove tells the crowd, which looks as though it could have been bussed in en masse from a Silver Lake bar. "But believe it or not, a lot of great films don't get shown in LA. A lot of films that win awards and make critics' lists play for maybe a week in New York and just have one screening here. We felt like it was part of our mission statement to pick a couple of these films a year and give them the run they deserve."
It's the opening night of Dogtooth, Cinefamily's first pick for a one-week slot of a first-run film. Perhaps the most conspicuous 2010 indie release to skip LA, the Greek Dogtooth—a frankly violent, often-hilarious parable about the roles of language and popular culture in social control—won a top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 and opened in New York in June 2010, its Friday-night screening introduced by famous fan David Byrne. A hot topic among the online cinephile cognoscenti, the film garnered strong reviews (it currently holds a 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, four percentage points "fresher" than Inception), but box office was not exactly boffo, and distributor Kino Lorber's attempts to find a local screen met with resistance. Both Landmark and Laemmle say they questioned the film's commercial potential and declined to book it; Richard Lorber says the perception was that Dogtooth "just may be too far out for the LA audiences."
But 2010's local-box-office numbers suggest that "far out" films seem to be doing extremely well. In fact, the bulk of art-house business seems to be happening at two extremes: older-skewing indies such as City Island and Mademoiselle Chambon do well with the traditional, older, west-LA-based audience, while unrated, extreme cult titles are drawing younger crowds from the east side of the city.
"Movies such as Human Centipede, Enter the Void or Trash Humpers—those are three of the five marquee indie films that are gonna happen all year, the biggest non-studio events," Belove says. All three of those films started at the Nuart; all except for Trash Humpers did well enough that they moved on to Laemmle screens farther east. "They're big enough that someone will get in the car and drive [from the east side] to the west side. Dogtooth is the kind of great movie that should be a regular staple of an urban center's viewing experience, [but] maybe hasn't achieved the same kind of marquee status."
With their shabbily inviting hideout vibe and eccentric, largely repertory programming, Cinefamily has steadily built a loyal audience. Attendance grew 37 percent in 2010—remarkable considering that its Silent Movie Theater home is located in more or less the same general area as both the saved-by-Quentin Tarantino New Beverly Cinema and American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theater (which, according to Gerber, has seen nightly average ticket sales skyrocket from 150 in September 2009 to 250 in January 2011, in part thanks to an increased presence on Facebook). In an extraordinarily tough climate, all three theaters are thriving by peddling unique brands of programming, despite the fact that their proximity theoretically puts them in direct competition with one another.
But perhaps their main competitor isn't even a theater at all. "Has technology ended up killing this kind of moviegoing?" wonders Marcus Hu, president of LA-based specialty distributor Strand Releasing. "Are they all just waiting patiently to watch everything on Netflix Watch Now?"
Similarly, Richard Lorber speculates that the problem may be less geographic than generational: "The question is whether the young hipsters, so to speak, are actually interested in seeing films like Dogtooth. We're all hopeful, new venues are great, [but] the question is just whether 20-somethings who grew up with the Internet really want to go to the movies. It's going to be interesting [to see] if the filmgoing culture is sustainable in these new communities."
Speaking before Dogtooth's opening night, Belove had faith. "Hipsters are poor, and hipsters know how to download, so maybe that makes them harder to get. But on the other hand, these are the most curious, active people. If something is new and interesting, they'll show up. I've seen it."
In five shows at Cinefamily that weekend, Dogtooth grossed $6,640—less than $50 off the film's opening-weekend total in New York, where it had many more screenings. In its full, weeklong run at Cinefamily, Dogtooth grossed more than $16,000—and that was from just one or two shows per day, compared to the three to five shows it played in New York and other markets. That enormous success probably had something to do with timing—the second week of January was the perfect time to capitalize on Dogtooth's placement on many critics' year-end best-of lists––but it's also unquestionable evidence that it is possible to bring an obscure art film with cult cachet to LA and attract a young audience whose evangelism to friends via social networks such as Twitter can keep a house nearly full all week long. As a result of Dogtooth's success at Cinefamily, Laemmle scheduled a series of weekend morning shows at its theaters in Pasadena and Santa Monica, which may benefit from the unrelated fact that the film was shortly thereafter shortlisted for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. Suddenly a film that for so long was a victim of the unique challenges in the LA market is now the embodiment of how to face those challenges smartly—and win. As Kino's Gary Palmucci wrote in an e-mail once the final totals for the week were in, "We may have to rethink this whole LA exhibition scene."
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This successful first-run experiment could point to a future path for Cinefamily. "Because LA's so spread out, and a lot of the distributors are New York-based, it's harder for them to work LA's weird market," Belove says. "So maybe a function that we're going to have is to help them spread the word to the people who would be interested."
Of all the word-spreading via Twitter occasioned by the Cinefamily run, one post-opening-night micro-missive from @spinenumber408 best summed up the sense of celebratory relief that a film such as Dogtooth could fill an LA house: "The turnout tonight for DOGTOOTH at @cinefamily is proof that we, in LA, sometimes can have nice things."
"The reality is that [when] we do play these films and they don't do well, that sends a message—to us, to distributors," Greg Laemmle says. "It will have serious repercussions in the sense that it isn't going to improve the situation for the films that we didn't get to, and it's going to potentially lead to a more serious situation."
The first step to improving that situation? Simply showing up.