Behind the Screens

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

When Magnolia Pictures opened its first theater in Dallas on January 11, it instantly reshaped this town's art-house landscape--reshaped like an earthquake. The venerable Inwood Theater, owned by the Landmark chain, and the Angelika Film Center have existed peacefully since the Angelika opened its doors in Mockingbird Station in August. They don't tread on each other's turf; they don't threaten to steal the other's movies or crowds.

But last week, Magnolia wrangled from the Inwood the new Billy Bob Thornton-Halle Berry film Monster's Ball, which is likely to garner attention when the Academy Award nominations are announced February 12. It was an excruciating ordeal that required no small amount of begging. On January 24, the day after Lions Gate announced the change of venue, Bowles and Banowsky exhaled a deep sigh of relief. Landmark execs don't want to discuss the matter.

"Listen, whenever you do something new, there's always a sticky period to get through," Bowles says. "I don't anticipate anything different with this. Interestingly enough, I'm on very good terms with the guys who work for Landmark. That doesn't mean they're not gonna compete as hard as they can against me. But we by no means were out to get Landmark."

ContentFilm co-founder John Schmidt will release Wendigo through Magnolia this month.
Mark Graham
ContentFilm co-founder John Schmidt will release Wendigo through Magnolia this month.
Tearlach Hutcheson left Landmark to work for Magnolia as head of theater operations.
Mark Graham
Tearlach Hutcheson left Landmark to work for Magnolia as head of theater operations.

It's impossible to find anyone with a negative word for Bowles. He's kept his nose clean, which is rare in a business of broken noses and brown noses.

Maybe he's about to find out, for the first time, what it's like to be unliked. For the first time, Eamonn Bowles is boss.

Until last year, Bill Banowsky knew next to zip about running a movie company. Since 1996, the 40-year-old had been in the radio business, serving as executive vice president and general counsel for Tom Hicks' Capstar Media empire, which later became Chancellor Media and then Clear Channel. In 1996, when Banowsky was a partner in the Dallas law firm Snell, Banowsky & Trent, he got a call from Hicks' younger brother Steve asking him if he wanted to move to Austin and help gather radio stations like apples from an overgrown orchard.

"Within two years, we bought 350 radio stations and went public in the spring of '98 with a $600 million IPO," Banowsky recalls. "We were blowing and going. It was the most vibrant part of my career to that point." By the time Banowsky left in fall 2000, he was pulling down a high six-figure salary, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and looking for something else fun to do.

With an old colleague from the radio world, Geoff Armstrong, Banowsky started exploring the possibility of getting into the movie-theater business. By 2000, almost every major theater chain in the country was looking to ditch some of its screens. Almost immediately, they found themselves in a position to buy Dallas-based Silver Cinemas, which had filed for bankruptcy--and was, at the time, the owner of Landmark Theaters.

To raise cash, Banowsky and Armstrong brought in Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, but last May they lost their bid. Silver Cinemas sold its stake in Landmark to Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management L.L.C. for $40 million, which was beyond what Banowsky and his partners were willing to pay for Landmark's aging facilities.

But the experience did whet Banowsky's appetite for getting into the world of independent film (or specialized film, as it's now called by those who realize indie films are often financed by the major studios). He saw a scene dominated by one major player, Landmark, and copious other mom-and-pop organizations--none of which were nationally distributing the smaller, non-mainstream films they were screening in their own theaters. It had been done before, by Barenholtz and Dan Talbot in New York, but not recently and not by guys with deep pockets. The world of indie film wasn't integrating vertically. For the most part, it was lying horizontally next to guys like Harvey Weinstein, who long ago climbed into bed with Disney anyway.

In early spring of last year, Banowsky met with Pete Warzel, the former president of United Artists Theater Circuits Inc. and one-time chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners--in other words, an insider who knew the biggest players in the exhibition biz. Warzel was Banowsky's "cinema guy," Banowsky says--the man who essentially taught him how to acquire and manage theaters while giving him access to industry bigwigs instrumental to expediting Magnolia's growth. "Pete really adds value not in just helping us acquire theaters but in operating them," Banowsky says.

He then needed his "film guy," so with business plan in hand and a California investment banker in tow, Banowsky went to New York last spring to seek the advice of men wiser than him when it came to the movie business. One afternoon, he found himself in the offices of ContentFilm, run by veteran producer Ed Pressman (Wall Street, The Crow) and John Schmidt, co-founder of October Films, which released such films as David Lynch's Lost Highway and Robert Altman's Cookie's Fortune. When Banowsky laid out a plan that combined distribution with exhibition, they told him to seek out one man: Eamonn Bowles.

"At the time, Bill was there, and Eamonn was looking for a job," says Schmidt, with whom Bowles briefly worked at October when Bowles was a marketing consultant in the late '90s. "It was a natural fit. Magnolia's...running theaters and booking them and acquiring films and running a distribution company. Eamonn can cover all sides of that equation. Plus, when we worked together at October we really became fast friends. I love finding people in this business who do things intelligently and with style and a sense of humor. Those are the people I like to be with."

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