Magazine article The American Prospect

The Disappearing Movie House

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Disappearing Movie House

Article excerpt

The multiplexes and the behemoth distributors are driving independent theaters out of business.

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 yards, 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 non mainstream 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 Francois 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 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 department 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. …

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