Behind the Screens

As president of Texas-financed Magnolia Pictures, respected indie-film vet Eamonn Bowles projects a bright future

Eamonn Bowles was lying in the white Florida sand, sharing a bottle of champagne with friends, when he heard The Voice rumbling behind him. "Which one of you guys is Eamonn Bowles?" bellowed the large approaching figure, who spoke the way volcanoes erupt and strutted like the world's most powerful beached whale. Bowles, small enough to appear as fish bait to the oncoming beast, remained quiet. He was enjoying himself at the bottom of a glass of bubbly, talking film with colleagues and chums who'd gathered at the Sarasota Film Festival, where, in the early 1990s, the French stormed the Florida shores to premiere new product for American distributors. At the time, Bowles was the head of distribution for the Samuel Goldwyn Co., where he took director Ang Lee's million-buck film The Wedding Banquetand managed to wring some $7 million out of it at theaters. Bowles, then in his mid-30s, wasn't just a comer in the burgeoning art-house scene. He was a player. And the guy walking up the beach wanted to play.

Again, the question washed over the beach: "Which one of you guys is Eamonn Bowles?" He could no longer ignore it. Bowles meekly raised his hand. He answered, "Yeah?" Bowles turned around and saw he was talking to Harvey Weinstein, head honcho at Miramax Pictures. Harvey and brother Bob reshaped the indie-film landscape by acquiring Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotapeat the Sundance Film Festival in January 1989 and proving a studio need not spend a fortune making a film to make a fortune in theaters. The dude was big and big-time. When Harvey Weinstein comes looking for you, a fine line separates that from being a good thing and a very, very bad thing.

"I love what you did with Wedding Banquet," gushed the Queens, New York-born Weinstein, who admires nothing more than a man who can make dollars where others see only dimes. "That was textbook. It was a perfect job releasing that film. I wanna talk to ya about workin' for me sometime." Bowles gulped, said OK and watched the big man walk away. When Bowles looked around, he noticed his friends staring at him. He blanched. He probably felt like a made man. Or, he says now, "a marked man."

The visionary, in focus: For the first time in his 20-year career in independent film, Eamonn Bowles answers to himself.
Melanie Grizzel
The visionary, in focus: For the first time in his 20-year career in independent film, Eamonn Bowles answers to himself.
Magnolia Pictures' co-founder and CEO Bill Banowsky stands in front of the first--but not last--Magnolia Theatre.
Mark Graham
Magnolia Pictures' co-founder and CEO Bill Banowsky stands in front of the first--but not last--Magnolia Theatre.

From his office in Manhattan, Bowles, now 46 and "aging rapidly," recounts this story with a handful of chuckles, the sound a man makes when he reflects back on his life with accrued wisdom and experience. It is the sound of amusement and disbelief, of fatigue and relief. He would indeed go to work at Miramax, but the two years he spent doing Harvey and Bob's bidding would become just a small blip on a résumé that dates back to the early-'80s heyday of New York's independent-film scene and carries forward to his current position as president of Magnolia Pictures, the parent company of the just-opened Magnolia Theatre in the West Village.

In between, he has sold films and bought films, booked a small theater in Manhattan and run a successful nationwide film series, worked on enormously successful marketing campaigns for the likes of Robert Duvall's The Apostleand helped broker the deal that brought Billy Bob Thornton's much-sought-after Sling Bladeto Miramax in 1996. He also fronts a '60s-tinged garage-rock band called The Martinets, which in April will release its second album, New Stories for Men, which features the songs "Millions to Blow" and "You've Had Your Chances."

For the first time in his 20-year career in the art-house film biz, where getting rich often means just breaking even, Bowles is The Man in Charge who answers only to former Dallas attorney Bill Banowsky, Magnolia Pictures' co-founder and CEO and the man who convinced Bowles last year to turn down a handful of other, perhaps more lucrative offers. At Magnolia, Bowles will acquire films for the company's distribution wing. He will program theaters for its exhibition arm. He will decide how best to market films that have little cash to spend on promotion. He will, in essence, direct the production.

"There are very few people around who have done it on all levels," says Ben Barenholtz, a beloved figure in the New York indie-film scene. Barenholtz, who founded Libra Films in the mid-'70s and nationally distributed such films as David Lynch's Eraserheadand John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus Seven, was Bowles' first boss back when the kid was still toiling away as a legal proofreader. Two decades later, they're still poker-playing pals.

"This industry can be very specialized," Barenholtz continues, "but here you have exhibition, acquisition, programming and distribution. Eamonn's done all these things, and to apply it all into one job is a great opportunity. And I have no doubt he can turn it into something very strong."

But the Magnolia gig offers Bowles much more than a chance to flex the muscles he's developed. If all goes according to a business plan that has Magnolia opening six theaters this year and accruing as many films, Bowles and his partners could very well be the key participants in a revolution that could overthrow the self-satisfied world of independent-film distribution and exhibition. For proof, look no further than our own back yard.

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