Behind the Screens
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 Banquet and 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 videotape at 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."
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.
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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 Apostle and helped broker the deal that brought Billy Bob Thornton's much-sought-after Sling Blade to 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 Eraserhead and 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.
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."
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."
All Banowsky had to do was convince Bowles to take the leap. Problem was, at first, he just wasn't interested. He says that when Banowsky came calling, he "didn't expect much." He agreed to the meeting because the guy from Texas was buying lunch.
Eamonn Bowles, raised in New Rochelle, New York--home to Rob Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show--studied film like most young filmmakers in New York in the 1970s and '80s, by hanging out at theaters with romantic names like the Bleeker Street Cinema and the Thalia catching double bills of European and obscure American films. Bowles and the other art-film brats--many of whom would become directors, distributors and pals over the years--would routinely catch a dozen movies a week, which barely satisfied the starving students of cinema.
He studied some film at SUNY-New Paltz--"a total drug school," Bowles says of the university also attended by John Turturro--but upon graduation found himself stuck in odd jobs. After stumbling into Ben Barenholtz, he'd never want for film work again. Indeed, when he left Barenholtz's Libra Films in 1983, he immediately went to work for a company called TeleCulture, which handled U.S. distribution for writer-director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 15-hour film Berlin-Alexanderplatz--the longest movie ever released in this country.
In 1986, he landed at Samuel Goldwyn: He had seen Alex Cox's Sid Vicious bio Sid and Nancy and wanted to work for the company that distributed it. He was hired on as head of East Coast sales, meaning it was his job to get Goldwyn films into theaters along the Eastern seaboard. Before long, he received a promotion and packed his bags: Goldwyn was shipping Bowles to Los Angeles to head up its theatrical distribution department--hell of a gig, but in a lousy town. He and his wife would spend the next two years trying to figure out how to leave L.A. In the meantime, he and Goldwyn had a long string of successes.
"They were surprised I was competent," Bowles says, laughing. "And we had a great run when I was head of theatrical at Goldwyn. We had Much Ado About Nothing, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Madness of King George. We also had the Martin Lawrence concert film You So Crazy, which at the time we picked up from Miramax, which couldn't release it because it was NC-17. Then we turned around and three weeks later had it on over 400 screens and grossed over $10 million, which was huge for us."
Then Harvey Weinstein came calling, several times, offering Bowles one of a handful of available jobs at Miramax: He could head up the West Coast marketing office, he could run the New York acquisitions department or he could start up a new specialty division Miramax was developing to handle potentially controversial, hard-to-distribute films. In May 1995, Bowles and his wife, with 3-year-old twins and a third child on the way, opted to move back to New York to take the acquisitions gig. Almost immediately after landing in Manhattan, Bowles found himself in charge of Miramax's new division--a job he never wanted. Nonetheless, he was instrumental in setting up the Shining Excalibur offshoot for the Weinsteins to handle Larry Clark's 1995 film Kids, set in an adult-free world where skatepunk teens drink and screw beneath the shadow of AIDS. By August 1995, he was on CNN defending Miramax's decision to release the movie, assailed by some critics as dolled-up kiddie porn.
"I didn't mind dealing with Kids," Bowles says. "I just thought as a long-term thing, after Kids, I'd get saddled with films Miramax didn't know what to do with. I was afraid of that. But Kids I really wanted to do, although it was a bit nerve-racking. I had to put the phone in my wife's name. I knew it was going to be insanely controversial and high-profile."
The Miramax job provided Bowles with what is essentially the best gig in the indie-film world: As head of New York acquisitions, he saw hundreds of films a year and was a major figure in deciding what Miramax bought and what audiences eventually saw. "You become like a god," he says facetiously. But it was also an exasperating experience, since Bowles couldn't make the decisions himself; instead, he could only suggest things to Harvey and Bob, who had final say-so. Ultimately, it got wearying doing their bidding. It's hard to maintain your own vision when you're always looking through someone else's glasses.
Bowles did have his successes at Miramax: He oversaw the marketing of such art-house hits as Kolya and Shall We Dance? and brought Sling Blade to the Weinsteins' attention before other distributors snapped it up. He even convinced Shooting Gallery, the New York-based production company that financed Thornton's directorial debut, to send Harvey a tape hours before distributors in New York and Los Angeles were to screen the movie in anticipation of making their own bids. Harvey was in France, yet he still managed to make a deal before the Los Angeles screening was over. In the end, Miramax paid some $10 million for the movie--a blockbuster deal for a small picture that wound up grossing $25 million during its U.S. run in late 1996 and early '97. Not long after that, Bowles was out the door.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
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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