Behind the Screens

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

"We have no interest in creating hostilities with Landmark," Banowsky insists. "Eamonn has had long, good relations with them, and we're not after them. But circumstances have been such that our first theater was in their market, Tearlach saw something in us that attracted him to us, and Denver presented itself to us."

Landmark's vice president of marketing Ray Price is old pals with Bowles. But he will offer no comment about the Magnolia or Monster's Ball on the record. Besides, he says, since there aren't enough "A titles" to fill this town's 16 art-house screens--three at the Inwood, five at the Magnolia and eight at the Angelika--sooner or later, everyone will be unhappy. "And then we'll all have to take up meditation," he offers.

Bowles and Banowsky use words like "patient" and "methodical" to describe their approach. They insist they will only open as many theaters and acquire as many films as make sense--maybe six a year, might be four, could be 10. Right now, Magnolia is slated to handle distribution for three films: ContentFilm's thriller Wendigo, directed by Larry Fessenden; Harry Shearer's comedy Teddy Bear's Picnic; and the Israeli romantic comedy Late Marriage.

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.

But if all goes according to Banowsky's business plan, Magnolia could indeed be on the so-called bleeding edge of film distribution and exhibition. Last week, representatives from Microsoft gave Banowsky, ContentFilm's John Schmidt and developers from Texas Instruments a startling demonstration of digital projection and distribution--using, in no small part, technology any consumer could pick up at Fry's for a few thou--that could transform the way films are sent to theaters and seen by audiences. In a matter of weeks, the Magnolia will be the first art-house theater in the country to receive and project films digitally, which drastically reduces the costs of getting films into theaters. After all, a distributor no longer needs to spend thousands on making a print when the images are being digitally transmitted to theaters.

That's but one of the reasons why ContentFilms, which will handle films shot on digital video, wanted to partner with Magnolia in the first place. When Wendigo debuts this month, it will be screened digitally in Seattle and Dallas but on film in New York and Los Angeles.

"With digital distribution, instead of schlepping prints all around the country, you can have a Thursday night of special programming--say, Italian cinema--in 12 cities without having to create and ship 12 prints, which would make the economics very dubious," Bowles says. "I still like the look of film, but there are certain realities you face, and if it exposes you to more content, then it's great. If I can expand my programming and turn people onto more things, that's a good thing."

Many of Bowles' old New York pals insist he did not have to take the Magnolia offer. He had plenty of other companies bidding for his services, most for a pile of dough. Bowles insists now he signed on with Banowsky and Sughrue because he wanted his shot at running his own company. No longer would others take credit for his vision and work. No longer would he pull someone else's wagon. As far as he's concerned, the Magnolia will be his last job. "I want to grow this into a larger company," he says. "If I could spend the rest of my life releasing films I like and making a profit on them, I'd be very happy."

When Banowsky convinced Bowles to sign on as Magnolia's president, he turned a start-up into a player almost instantly, which is essential in a business populated by either dilettantes or diehards. He brings reputation and credibility--the kind that gets attention in the trade papers, the kind that forces a major independent-film distributor like Miramax or Lions Gate to play ball with the Magnolia no matter how crowded the field has become. The indie-film business is as much about politics as it is economics: Miramax, say, wants to make as much money out of a film as possible without offending a chain the size of Landmark, a tricky balance. But in an instant, Magnolia comes to the game with its own ringer, and he swings an impressive bat.

"Let me put it this way: I can get taken seriously, but at the end of the day, distributors are gonna do what's right for the film and what they see as the biggest economic clout," Bowles says. "They're not gonna just sell to us because I'm here, not by any means. The fact that I'm here means they'll listen to me when I tell them we have a great theater. But in a couple of months, we'll be absolutely rocking. I feel very, very confident about that."

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