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.

More important to the future of local art houses, Hutcheson and Bowles last week tried (and failed) to convince Miramax Films to allow the Magnolia to open with Amélie and In the Bedroom--both of which are already playing, the former at the Inwood and the latter at the Angelika. Hutcheson says Miramax essentially refused to make a decision until a later date and that he'll continue trying to convince major distributors, such as Sony Classics and Lion's Gate, to give him films already booked into or promised to the Magnolia's competitors.

While no one flinches when Ocean's Eleven or Monsters, Inc. opens at 20 multiplexes across town, Magnolia's actions are unheard of, at least in Dallas. In New York and other big cities, it's not uncommon for the same art-house offering to open on the same day at cross-town competitors. But in Dallas, the three big art houses aren't terribly far apart from one another, and the Angelika and Inwood insist on getting guaranteed exclusive runs.

One issue is whether the Inwood, Angelika and Magnolia are considered to be in the same general neighborhood and likely to draw the same crowds. Moviefone, with which the Dallas Observer has a partnership, places the Angelika and Inwood in the same zone; The Dallas Morning News does not. Likely, the Angelika and Magnolia will be listed in the same area, as they're only a couple of miles apart.

"But we're four and a half miles away from the Inwood, and if this was a commercial theater, it wouldn't even be a consideration," Bowles says. "It's going to be an interesting debate opening up with the theaters. I'm sure the Landmark doesn't want to give up their exclusivity, so they'll probably try to hold on to that. Not that I blame them or anything, but it's basically up to the theater companies and distribution companies to respect the clearance or not.

Ray Price, Landmark's vice president of marketing, insists the Magnolia's desire to show the same films as its competitors is bad for business--and bad for audiences. He says it "serves no purpose," because opening these smaller films on multiple screens will cause theaters to burn through them more quickly and leave ticket buyers with fewer options--and, even worse for the theaters, it will cut into potential revenue and lead to potential financial disaster. If the Inwood and Magnolia were to share, he says, a film that might have played Dallas for three months might last only a matter of weeks--which, Price insists, doesn't expand the audience but, rather, shrinks the opportunity for people to seek out such movies.

"You want to keep them in guaranteed runs and let them play a long time and let word of mouth do the job so you don't have to spend more advertising money than the film's worth," he says. "To put them out in multiple runs is to risk them imploding." Ellen Cotter agrees, insisting the Angelika absolutely will not share films with the Magnolia. She says there are enough quality films to go around, so why share and harm each other?

"The only ones who will benefit are the filmgoers," she says.

Which, Hutcheson says, is just the point. He says the current situation forces audiences to see films where theaters want them to be seen, not where audiences want to see them. For moviegoers, he says, it should be a matter of comfort and convenience, and simply because they haven't had a choice for years doesn't mean they shouldn't now. Quite simply, the Inwood's terrified of losing its audience to shiny new theaters filled with luxurious amenities, and it has every reason to be afraid. The theater's in desperate need of an overhaul, and Landmark's long-standing promise to pour the necessary thousands into the Inwood seems a far-off possibility, given the chain's financial problems and the late-December opening of its Sunshine Cinema in Manhattan's East Village.

"What concerned me about independent cinema throughout the U.S. was that for many people, there's a catchphrase: It's about films that matter," Hutcheson says. "But it's not. It's about good facilities and good customer service and creating an atmosphere that allows people to talk about and educate each other about cinema...One of the things that appealed to me about Magnolia was they saw it wasn't about putting bums into seats and selling popcorn."

And there are some exhibitors who don't disagree with Magnolia's assertion that there is, in fact, room enough in Dallas for two runs of some art-house films. Regent's John Lambert points out that precedent already has been set: At the end of 2000, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon played both the Inwood and the Loews Cityplace near downtown. "Films of that magnitude should have multiple runs," he says. "But in the independent market, there are only several films a year that can break out and support playing on two screens for a long time."

Ultimately, it will be up to the distributors: If they can make a few extra dollars by booking their films into multiple theaters, they will, and if they decide to go that direction, theaters can choose to play along. From the sound of it, Landmark and Angelika, at least, will not. And Regent may, in fact, be a non-issue: It's currently running only mainstream fare, including Kate & Leopold and The Majestic, and real estate magnate Henry S. Miller, the landlord for both the Highland Park Village and West Village, has told associates that he doesn't think an art house is appropriate in the Highland Park shopping center, despite Regent's modest success with independent films there.

Further complicating matters is the fact the Magnolia Theatre's parent company, Magnolia Pictures, will also distribute films--films it will hope to get into Landmark and Angelika theaters in other cities. Magnolia recently partnered with the New York-based production company ContentFilm, run by veteran producer Ed Pressman (The Crow, American Psycho) and John Schmidt, co-founder of October Films, which released Breaking the Waves.

This year, Magnolia will release ContentFilm's Wendigo, an art-house horror movie from writer-director Larry Fessenden. Bowles and Ryan Werner, another Shooting Gallery escapee who's now Magnolia Pictures' vice president of acquisitions, also have picked up distribution rights to Israeli writer-director Dover Kosashvili's romantic comedy Late Marriage and Harry Shearer's Teddy Bear's Picnic, a funny, low-budget look behind the velvet curtains of an exclusive Northern California retreat.

The film distribution business is nothing but politics, and Bowles doesn't want to so infuriate his competitors they won't play his films. Indeed, he says he even imagines a scenario where a Magnolia film might play the Inwood.

"We're just going to be very fair and put them in the places we think they have the best shot to do well," Bowles says. "That's what it comes down to...I like our theater a lot, and I look at it and think, 'Wow, it has amazing grossing potential, and I'd like to play everything there,' but it's not out of the realm of possibility one of our films could play another theater in another zone."

It's doubtful, of course, that situation will ever arise: To book your film into a competitor's theater and not your own would smell, to some in the business, of surrender. Besides, Bowles says one of the main reasons he signed onto Magnolia was to use the theater as a marketing tool: When Magnolia Pictures signs a movie to a distribution deal, Magnolia Theatres will advertise that movie in its lobby and on its screens, using posters and trailers as part of the company's on-site advertising campaign. And Magnolia Pictures hopes to expand its number of sites quickly. Bowles says he expects to open half a dozen more theaters by year's end; Denver is likely to be the next location, and there have been hints Magnolia might even expand within the Dallas-Fort Worth market.

Last summer, the Angelika's opening was the feel-good event of the year. The Magnolia's debut likely will not engender as much good will among competitors. In the end, Cotter's words echo loudly: Only the filmgoers will benefit.

As John Pierson says, with a small laugh, "Dallas is now the Afghanistan of the art-film world."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky