The Art (House) of War

The Magnolia Theatre promises to shake up Dallas' indie-film scene

While no one flinches when Ocean's Eleven or Monsters, Inc. opens at 20 multiplexes across town, Magnolia's actions are unheard of, at least in Dallas. In New York and other big cities, it's not uncommon for the same art-house offering to open on the same day at cross-town competitors. But in Dallas, the three big art houses aren't terribly far apart from one another, and the Angelika and Inwood insist on getting guaranteed exclusive runs.

One issue is whether the Inwood, Angelika and Magnolia are considered to be in the same general neighborhood and likely to draw the same crowds. Moviefone, with which the Dallas Observer has a partnership, places the Angelika and Inwood in the same zone; The Dallas Morning News does not. Likely, the Angelika and Magnolia will be listed in the same area, as they're only a couple of miles apart.

"But we're four and a half miles away from the Inwood, and if this was a commercial theater, it wouldn't even be a consideration," Bowles says. "It's going to be an interesting debate opening up with the theaters. I'm sure the Landmark doesn't want to give up their exclusivity, so they'll probably try to hold on to that. Not that I blame them or anything, but it's basically up to the theater companies and distribution companies to respect the clearance or not.

Not just about bums in the seats: Tearlach Hutcheson left Landmark to run the Magnolia’s theater operations last fall.
Mark Graham
Not just about bums in the seats: Tearlach Hutcheson left Landmark to run the Magnolia’s theater operations last fall.

Ray Price, Landmark's vice president of marketing, insists the Magnolia's desire to show the same films as its competitors is bad for business--and bad for audiences. He says it "serves no purpose," because opening these smaller films on multiple screens will cause theaters to burn through them more quickly and leave ticket buyers with fewer options--and, even worse for the theaters, it will cut into potential revenue and lead to potential financial disaster. If the Inwood and Magnolia were to share, he says, a film that might have played Dallas for three months might last only a matter of weeks--which, Price insists, doesn't expand the audience but, rather, shrinks the opportunity for people to seek out such movies.

"You want to keep them in guaranteed runs and let them play a long time and let word of mouth do the job so you don't have to spend more advertising money than the film's worth," he says. "To put them out in multiple runs is to risk them imploding." Ellen Cotter agrees, insisting the Angelika absolutely will not share films with the Magnolia. She says there are enough quality films to go around, so why share and harm each other?

"The only ones who will benefit are the filmgoers," she says.

Which, Hutcheson says, is just the point. He says the current situation forces audiences to see films where theaters want them to be seen, not where audiences want to see them. For moviegoers, he says, it should be a matter of comfort and convenience, and simply because they haven't had a choice for years doesn't mean they shouldn't now. Quite simply, the Inwood's terrified of losing its audience to shiny new theaters filled with luxurious amenities, and it has every reason to be afraid. The theater's in desperate need of an overhaul, and Landmark's long-standing promise to pour the necessary thousands into the Inwood seems a far-off possibility, given the chain's financial problems and the late-December opening of its Sunshine Cinema in Manhattan's East Village.

"What concerned me about independent cinema throughout the U.S. was that for many people, there's a catchphrase: It's about films that matter," Hutcheson says. "But it's not. It's about good facilities and good customer service and creating an atmosphere that allows people to talk about and educate each other about cinema...One of the things that appealed to me about Magnolia was they saw it wasn't about putting bums into seats and selling popcorn."

And there are some exhibitors who don't disagree with Magnolia's assertion that there is, in fact, room enough in Dallas for two runs of some art-house films. Regent's John Lambert points out that precedent already has been set: At the end of 2000, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon played both the Inwood and the Loews Cityplace near downtown. "Films of that magnitude should have multiple runs," he says. "But in the independent market, there are only several films a year that can break out and support playing on two screens for a long time."

Ultimately, it will be up to the distributors: If they can make a few extra dollars by booking their films into multiple theaters, they will, and if they decide to go that direction, theaters can choose to play along. From the sound of it, Landmark and Angelika, at least, will not. And Regent may, in fact, be a non-issue: It's currently running only mainstream fare, including Kate & Leopold and The Majestic, and real estate magnate Henry S. Miller, the landlord for both the Highland Park Village and West Village, has told associates that he doesn't think an art house is appropriate in the Highland Park shopping center, despite Regent's modest success with independent films there.

Further complicating matters is the fact the Magnolia Theatre's parent company, Magnolia Pictures, will also distribute films--films it will hope to get into Landmark and Angelika theaters in other cities. Magnolia recently partnered with the New York-based production company ContentFilm, run by veteran producer Ed Pressman (The Crow, American Psycho) and John Schmidt, co-founder of October Films, which released Breaking the Waves.

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