Double Feature

Two theater companies vie for one audience

It was just a coincidence, but Ellen Cotter, the Manhattan-based chief operating officer of the Angelika chain of art-house theaters, happened to be in Dallas the very day Landmark Theatres was sending in its troops to assume control of the Magnolia Theatre in the West Village. Cotter, spotted at lunch in Mockingbird Station that dreary November day, said she heard rumors that the Angelika's competitors might be merging. After all, it was only inevitable: In October, Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban had bought the Landmark and its 56 theaters nationwide, and both men were investors in the Magnolia. So Cotter wasn't shocked. Or, turns out, even all that worried.

When reached at her New York office a few weeks later and asked to discuss just what the merger means for the Angelika, and for the Dallas art-house theater scene, Cotter said, well, not much. At least, not yet.

"For us, we're just gonna keep doing what we're doing," she says. "The theater's been really successful, and we're gonna keep up the good work. Landmark is a pretty powerful competitor, and they will, I am sure, try and get all the good films. That doesn't mean they will."

The obvious question is this: Can Angelika, with three theaters across the country (in Dallas, New York and Houston), compete with Landmark, which has 200 screens in some 14 states? Will the Angelika Film Center and Café, now 2 years old, continue to book quality, money-making films now that Landmark can literally put the squeeze on film distributors with the Inwood on one side and the Magnolia on the other? Cotter insists that things haven't really changed: Her theater's still competing with the same number of screens. Different people own them, that's all.

"It's hard for the Angelika to compete against Landmark nationally, but if they have the best theater in that market, they can compete," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Inc., which charts such developments nationwide. "Just because someone has a lot of theaters around the country doesn't mean they have the best theater in that particular market."

A look at the Inwood, Magnolia and Angelika's schedules does suggest there has been a slight change in the landscape. The Angelika, which typically has shied away from big-star, mainstream studio product, will open on Christmas Day Cold Mountain, the Nicole Kidman-Jude Law Civil War offering. The next week it gets Calendar Girls, a female Full Montyfrom Disney. Magnolia has long mixed in big-studio product among its art-house fare, which will include in coming weeks some of the most acclaimed indies of the year.

"You're always concerned when a rival is bought out and becomes bigger," Dergarabedian says. "The good thing for both theaters is the product. If it's different, they can sustain. So it comes down to how nice the theaters are, the demographics, the parking situation. (Parking at both the Angelika and the Magnolia is a nightmare. Here's a hint: A Lincoln Navigator is not a "compact.")

To that end, Wagner has promised to revamp the moldering Inwood. Presumably, its two upstairs theaters, cramped and creaky, will be gutted or removed altogether; God knows they ought to be. Then again, the Magnolia is the only art house in town with a digital projector. So everyone will have to keep up, lest they fall behind and, pardon, out of the picture altogether.

 
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