The Art (House) of War

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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