The Art (House) of War

It is the Saturday before the new year, and buried somewhere beneath the plastic and sawdust and buckets of paint and construction workers' boots is Dallas' newest art house, the Magnolia Theatre in the West Village. Tearlach Hutcheson, the imposing Australian tapped to run the place, stands in the middle of the chaos and gives the tour, pointing to empty spaces that in just days will be filled and open for business. "There's the concession stand, where we'll sell CDs and DVDs and books along with your popcorn," he says in his deep accent, "and around the corner's the bar, which will be called Fuel." And on he goes, through the cozy confines and five theaters equipped with comfortable stadium seats, and suddenly it all seems very familiar--this tour of the unfinished product, the scintillating hint of a promising new venture.

Just a few months ago, Ellen Cotter, vice president of business affairs for the Angelika Film Center and Café, gave such a sightsee of her then-unfinished theater in Mockingbird Station. By the first of August, the Angelika opened, and with it so did this city's art-house scene. Where Dallas had long been home to a single movie theater willing to screen art-house movies--that is, films made outside the major Hollywood studios, created by writers and directors with visions of things other than quick dollars--suddenly there was another player with eight screens.

Until the Angelika opened, there was only Landmark Theatre's Inwood, with its one big screen and two cramped upstairs screening rooms. The Angelika raised that number to 11; the Magnolia Theatre, which opens its doors Friday, ups it to a whopping 16. And that doesn't include the single-screen Bijou Theatre in Deep Ellum or the Regent Highland Park, which may continue to show small, independent offerings on one or two screens "at some point," says Regent's Los Angeles-based head of theater operations, John Lambert.

In an astonishingly short period, Dallas has gone from being one of the most underscreened art-house markets in the country "to having an art-house theater on every fuckin' corner," says author and producer John Pierson, who helped bring to screens such films as Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It and Kevin Smith's Clerks. It's not a little ironic that the Magnolia's location, at the corner of Lemmon and McKinney avenues, was once supposed to be a second Landmark site--until that company fell into the bankruptcy pit out of which it only recently climbed.

The opening of the Magnolia promises more than just another boutique cinema for judicious moviegoers looking to satisfy eccentric tastes with alcohol and the avant-garde. It could well signal an enormous shift in the landscape of local cinema. What Hutcheson calls "progressive" could well be interpreted as aggressive, as the Magnolia attempts to break a long-standing practice of booking independent movies into only one theater--a change of pace in a city that's long been content with taking what scraps it gets.

Shortly before the Angelika's opening, Landmark President Paul Richardson told the Dallas Observer that the Inwood expected to lose 20 percent of its business to the new theater, at least initially. But by all accounts, that didn't happen--despite the fact the Angelika, according to Cotter, has exceeded its expectations.

And so the January 11 opening of the Magnolia Theatre--funded almost entirely by Dallas- and Austin-based investors--heralds even more good news for filmgoers weary and wary of big-studio product. Not only will the theater open this week with a mixture of old and new films, most never before seen on local screens (including Jules Dassin's 1957 French crime film Rififi, which was supposed to open at the Inwood last year, and the first two installments of Krzysztof Kieslowski's 10-part The Decalogue), but its president is one of the most liked and respected figures in the New York independent-film scene, Eamonn Bowles.

Bowles comes to the Magnolia after stints with the now-defunct Shooting Gallery, Miramax and Samuel Goldwyn. He was responsible for overseeing Shooting Gallery's traveling film series, which brought such films as Croupier and Judy Berlin to Dallas during the last two years, and, as an acquisitions executive at Miramax, he bought Larry Clark's loved-and-loathed Kids in 1995.

It was, in large part, Bowles' connection to Magnolia that convinced Hutcheson in October to quit Landmark, where he was a director of publicity and promotion, and take over as Magnolia's head of theater operations.

"In all honesty, when I found out about the Magnolia, I thought they were insane trying to open a movie theater with the Angelika and Inwood and Regent all doing art," Hutcheson says. "What changed my mind was I got the chance to sit down to talk to the people behind the company. I got a chance to talk to Eamonn Bowles, and I knew about his history. A lot of it was about their attitudes toward the film theater business, and they seemed to be extremely progressive in their attitudes." So progressive, in fact, the Magnolia will dedicate one screen to rare classics never seen in Dallas, including Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob the Gambler.