Behind the Screens

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

"Basically, at the end of the day, Miramax was all about Harvey," he says. "Hats off to him. I really respect the Weinsteins a lot, I learned a tremendous amount, but I wasn't doing my thing. I was doing their thing, and that was the ultimate frustration there. It was not personally fulfilling. But I left on good terms. There was no major blood or anything. It was all very amicable...It was just time for me to go on, and I was very happy to."

For a while, he was content to consult for John Schmidt and Bingham Ray's October Films and Shooting Gallery, with whom he'd worked while at Miramax. At October, he advised on the marketing of The Apostle, in which writer-director Robert Duvall played a Texas preacher accidentally tripping over his own salvation while on the lam in Louisiana. Bowles convinced October to market the film to church leaders, especially in the Bible Belt; in essence, he sold the movie from the pulpits, and it did better business in Dallas than in Los Angeles or New York.

Bowles then took a full-time job at Shooting Gallery, where he debuted that company's traveling film series, which was launched in 2000. He took a dozen ignored indie films to big theaters around the country and proved, with modest success, that the megaplex audience could indeed withstand smart, thoughtful films made with a vision of things other than dollar signs dancing in their empty little heads, like so much Hollywood product. In 2000, he showed it was possible to turn a profit with films such as Mike Hodges' Croupier and Eric Mendelsohn's Judy Berlin, both of which had been passed over numerous times by other distributors.

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.

"In a lot of respects, it was a dream position, because you could take a chance on films you love," Bowles says. "It was very satisfying, and ultimately that worked out really well. You did something you liked with films you liked and could get behind, and it worked. It had resonance with the public."

The series would last only two years: Last June, Shooting Gallery imploded when it was revealed the company had lost $70 million of its investors' money. The company wasted its cash chasing nonexistent dot-com dollars and laid off all its employees, without warning or severance pay. Today, Shooting Gallery, which was also responsible for 2000's much-heralded You Can Count on Me, exists only in the thousands of pages of legal documents currently circulating through New York courthouses.

As one longtime indie-film veteran observes, you can tell how much Bowles is liked in the business by the fact he managed to avoid the stink of the Shooting Gallery shitstorm.

"Eamonn's really had to work through the ranks for a number of years and recently went front and center," says John Pierson, who helped raise the money to make such films as Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It and Kevin Smith's Clerks. "Ever since he had to set up the Shiny Excalibur division to handle Kids, he's been able to come out of the shadows of other veterans and legendary distribution types. His interests are a lot more wide-ranging than other people, and that's beneficial to the kinds of films he likes and the ways he makes them work. He's the only one who emerged unscathed from Shooting Gallery, because he didn't know what was going on. He was too busy plugging away with the film series."

When Banowsky first came calling, Bowles was still working for Shooting Gallery. The second time they met, when Bowles flew to Dallas to look at the theater site off McKinney and Lemmon avenues, Shooting Gallery was a week away from self-destructing. This time, the skeptic was already a true believer.

"Really, after talking to Bill for five minutes, I could see he had really done his homework," Bowles says. "Everything coming out of his mouth was right. Everything he said was everything I would have said."

John Sughrue, a local real estate investor who last summer helped secure the West Village location, came on as one of Banowsky's partners, and late last summer, Banowsky and Bowles started raising capital for the venture. Steve Hicks signed on early, as did Dallas-based venture capitalist Bennie Bray. They also went back to Mark Cuban, who threw his balls onto the court.

"I think Bill is a very smart guy who has put together a great business plan, so I invested," Cuban says. "That simple."

In the end, Bill Banowsky is pleased he didn't wind up with Landmark. Magnolia provides him and his partners a chance to reinvent the art-house business, rather than inherit second-hand product. Besides, they got some of Landmark's best properties without having to pay top dollar for a bankrupt company: Last fall, Magnolia hired Tearlach Hutcheson as its head of theater operations after he quit Landmark as a director of publicity and promotion. They took the West Village theater, which was Landmark's until that company fell into bankruptcy. With Monster's Ball, it snares a film scheduled to play at Landmark's Inwood Theater. And come early April, Magnolia will once more go head-to-head with Landmark in Denver, when the company is scheduled to open a new theater in conjunction with the Starz Encore cable outfit and the Denver Film Society. Landmark already has three theaters in Denver.

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