By Jim Schutze
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Even barren and buried beneath a construction crew's detritus, the Angelika Film Center & Café--a long-standing promise on the brink of becoming a reality in the middle of Mockingbird Station--is a remarkable building. For now, one can only imagine what it will look like when its café is serving food and coffee, when its soft leather couches fill the downstairs lounge, when its upstairs concession stand is doling out popcorn and gourmet candies, when its hallways are packed with patrons. It's still but a shell, really, a lot of blanks waiting to be filled in. Only the eight theaters are nearly finished out: Their blue stadium seats and enormous, curved screens await some imported delicacy, some independent gem to illuminate the dark.
That, promise Angelika officials, will happen at the end of this month, when the theater opens its doors to local film festivals and other area organizations hosting special screenings--test runs, in other words, for the local cinerati. Come August 3, the theater will make its formal debut to Dallasites with seven art-house (or, at least, in the same highfalutin neighborhood) releases. Among them will be the critically acclaimed 2000 release George Washingtonby Richardson-raised writer-director David Gordon Green, and Bully, the latest from Kidsdirector Larry Clark and a movie based on a true-crime book by Dallas Observercolumnist Jim Schutze. When it finally does open its doors, Dallas will be home to more than a dozen art-house movie screens: eight at the Angelika, three at the Inwood Theatre and four more at the Regent Highland Park--the latter of which mixes in traditional Hollywood fare on a screen or two.
For Angelika officials, the grand opening is long overdue. The theater was scheduled to open--amid a 10-acre, $100 million assortment of restaurants and retailers, office buildings and lofts--in late June or early July, in time for the long and profitable holiday weekend. But construction problems slowed progress. Indeed, even now the building looks a long way from completion. At 1:30 on this early July afternoon, the concession stand sits in bits and pieces begging for assembly, but there are no workers in sight. Ellen Cotter, Angelika's vice president of business affairs and the woman charged with overseeing the theater's completion, isn't terribly pleased.
"After we get done here," she says through a thin smile, "I have a phone call to make." Later, though, Cotter insists, "You'd be amazed at how much work can get done at crunch time." She all but guarantees the theater will open on schedule.
For local filmgoers, especially those who watch the Independent Film Channel more often than TNT, the Angelika is a godsend, a safe haven in the middle of so many multiplexes devoted to multimillion-dollar major-studio silt. Finally, they will be able to see in theaters movies that they've only been able to watch on video; Chopper, a violent, absurdist portrayal of an Aussie thug's desire to go straight, makes its Dallas debut at the Angelika long after it's been available at Premiere Video just across Mockingbird. And its existence means that no longer will art-house audiences have to wait for the Inwood to milk the last cent out of its moneymakers before bringing in new releases that long ago played New York and Los Angeles.
"There's no doubt that Dallas is underscreened," says Paul Richardson, president of Landmark Theaters, which operates the Inwood. "It has been for several years in terms of art product, so for Dallasites this is going to be great. They're going to have a wide array of choices, and from my point of view, it's great for all concerned, because interest in film builds interest in film."
Cotter will later say almost the exact same thing: "Hopefully, we'll expand the market for art films here. Hopefully, we'll be able to build an audience that wasn't there before."
Right now, the first shots in this battle of art-house theaters are soft ones. Richardson praises the Angelika, Cotter says only nice things about Richardson, and everyone's playing nice with the Regent, which is owned by Dallas-based Regent Entertainment Corp. It's a love story for now. Soon enough, though, it will become the business world's equivalent of a thriller, which is to say: Can three art-house theaters survive in the same town where Howard Stern's Private Partsmade more money per screen than in any other city in the country?
The question is certainly not a new one here: In 1988, the Dallas Times Heraldposited that "the opening of the new AMC Highland Park Village movie complex cannot make life any easier for the Inwood Theatre." A year later, when the UA Cine went art-house with sex, lies and videotape, The Dallas Morning Newswondered, "Will everyone live happily ever after?" Thirteen years later, the Cine is gone, AMC's out of Highland Park, and the Inwood remains the city's leading art-house theater. For now.
Richardson was in town a few weeks ago to visit the troops, offer a pep talk and figure out how to improve the Inwood's moldering facilities now that the once-troubled chain is out of bankruptcy. (In May, Dallas-based Silver Cinemas sold its stake in Landmark to Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management L.L.C. for $40 million.) If nothing else, Landmark's exodus from financial straits came at a good time: In addition to completing theaters in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., the chain will spend some money updating its existing houses, and the Inwood is in need of an overhaul, which the Inwood hasn't had since Landmark poured $150,000 into it in 1995.