Lights, Camera, Action

Lights, camera, action: Some people go to movies. Some people buy movie theaters--54 of 'em, to be exact, all across the country.

On Tuesday, Todd Wagner confirmed that he and some guy named Mark Cuban closed a deal to acquire Landmark Theatres, the nation's largest chain of art-house theaters. The deal had been in the works for three months, Wagner says, when he and Cuban, partners in several filmmaking ventures, decided it was time to own a company that exhibited them. They already own two TV networks (HDNet and HDNet Movies), a production company (2929 Entertainment) and the film and television library of Rysher Entertainment (Sex and the City). A chain of movie theaters that would allow them to exhibit and distribute their own product seemed like the next logical step. Wagner says one of the first things they will do is clean up the Landmark Inwood Theatre, making a "test tube" for improvements chainwide. That'll be a nice change from its current status as a petri dish. (Buzz still has knee pain from watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at the Inwood's cramped upstairs sweatbox.)

"If you're going after the independent filmmaker and the specialty segment, they are the player in that arena," Wagner says, adding that the deal will be completed in a couple of weeks.

The deal became a necessity, Wagner says, with the formation of HDNet Films (not to be confused with HDNet Movies), which likely will be based in New York City and acquire product on the film-fest circuit or finance less expensive films that will be shot using high-definition cameras. The way Wagner and Cuban figured it, they had two production companies and networks on which they could promote their movies. Might as well have a place, or a few dozen, where they could show their movies, too.

"You can really rethink the Hollywood model about how you pay for things and advertise them and promote them," he says. "That's always been our back-of-the-mind goal: How do we change the way it's been done for the last 50 years?"

But what's the fate of the Magnolia Theatre, since Wagner and Cuban are also investors in the West Village cinema? For now, Wagner says, the Magnolia and the Inwood will operate as competitors. "They will remain just as they are," he insists. "There will be some overlap, and over time we will look at whether it makes sense to bring them together, but for now they remain extremely separate entities. Bill Banowsky runs Magnolia, and Paul Richardson runs Landmark." Banowsky, based in Austin, won't say how the deal will affect Magnolia or its plans for nationwide expansion.

Banowsky actually tried to buy Landmark three years ago, when the chain's then-owners, Dallas-based Silver Cinemas, filed for bankruptcy. But in May 2001, Silver Cinemas unloaded Landmark to Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management L.L.C. for $40 million. How much Wagner and Cuban paid Oaktree for the theater chain was not revealed.

"Now we have the ability to make a movie or acquire a movie at a film fest, digitally distribute the movie and cross-promote and integrate HDNet and Landmark," Wagner says. "And if we're dead wrong, at least we bought a great asset. If Cuban and I are smoking dope, we bought a great asset."


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