If I Could Just Get It On Virtual Paper

Saturday, June 24, 2006

With the addition of Steve Mason's Now Playing, Box Office Prophets is able to offer a unique perspective from an independent theater owner, one that is usually missed in the big picture of overwhelming wide releases and our frenzy to discuss their successes and failures. His most recent column for us gave me food for thought - are art house theaters an endangered species? Are we at risk of no longer being able to see small-scale, truly independent releases at the movie theater? Will they be relegated to DVD at some point?

As someone who resides in Knoxville, Tennessee, the corporate headquarters of theater chain behemoth Regal Entertainment Group, I have some familiarity with their practices. While I am a huge fan of the small art houses (the Music Box Theatre in Chicago is a favorite of mine, and the town where I grew up has two old single theater houses that do a fine job presenting both classic and indie films). With all that said, I have to say that Regal does an exemplary job of making movie-going an appealing leisure activity here. They have a variety of locations across town, and they are all well-kept and pleasant places to go. Two of the megaplexes are embedded in malls, with the other one being a year-old, massive spectacle of a place known as The Pinnacle. It has cushy seats, amazing sound, and digital offerings for all of the event films. They offer unique food and treats, and often host some premieres and such (Will Ferrell will be in town in a couple of weeks for Talladega Nights).

That brings me to Regal's "Cinema Art" program. As described by Mason in his newest article, one would think that this gives Regal the chance to offer some indie, arthouse type titles at the big multiplexes. I can't really speak to the practices of AMC and Century Theatres, but that's not precisely how the concept works here in my hometown.

Regal actually has a specific theater - less than a mile away from its googleplex at the mall - that specifically houses their Cinema Art movies. Sure, occasionally they'll play a major release that is at the end of its theatrical run (last week they had Poseidon on a screen), but for the most part, this is where the indies go. Rather than try to push these movies at the big joints, instead, Regal has cultivated a loyal, vital following by continually offering terrific indie fare at this Downtown West location. Those films like Schultze Gets the Blues, Apres Vous, Asylum and Ask the Dust all got at least a week in this theater. I've seen an eclectic mix of films at this Regal location - and I'm happy to have that chance. Art house theaters are a rare commodity in places like Knoxville…or Nashville…or Peoria. Sure, the folks in the major cities have every opportunity to frequent the art house, but that's just not something that most towns in flyover country, as it is so kindly called, offer.

This week, Regal's Downtown West gives me the choice of seeing An Inconvenient Truth, Keeping Up With the Steins, Sketches of Frank Gehry, Wah-Wah, Down in the Valley, The Proposition, Water, Look Both Ways, Brick, and long-timer Thank You for Smoking. None of those are big blockbusters, and only An Inconvenient Truth or Thank You for Smoking are big money makers. Over the years since I've lived in this community, I've seen movies I would probably only have been able to rent on video otherwise. Examples are Millions, Howl's Moving Castle, Broken Flowers, Layer Cake, The Squid and the Whale, A Very Long Engagement, Before Sunset, I Heart Huckabees, Seducing Doctor Lewis, The Triplets of Belleville, Roger Dodger, Waking Life, Spirited Away and a host of others. You get the idea. Regal very much treats this cinema as an "art house" location in its own right, giving the indie films a chance to shine and in the process, they have developed a customer base that comes back time and again to see what's out there. Certainly it helps that this is a college town, but when I went to college in Central Illinois (at a university that boasts a student population of 20,000), I didn't have that kind of opportunity. As for small art house locations in Knoxville, we have one called the Tennessee Theatre, but it is really geared more to concerts, entertainment spectacles, and classic movies such as Rear Window (playing this weekend) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (coming soon).

Getting to the point, I can completely understand and empathize with Mason's concern that art houses are getting injured to some degree if major chains in the large cities are taking on some of the indie films in the big multiplexes. I do think it bears noting that two of the films he mentions as damaging the art house, An Inconvenient Truth and A Prairie Home Companion, are really specialty divisions of larger companies (Paramount and New Line Cinemas, respectively). It's natural to some degree that these companies will show some inclination to work with the larger locations that have found them success - especially when stuff like An Inconvenient Truth starts showing some wider appeal and becomes deserving of expansion.

Given the loyalty of a very targeted segment of movie-goers to indie films and their creators, I truly believe art houses will always have a home. Indeed, in times when audiences can enjoy big releases like Superman Returns and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest in the comfort of their homes at their own convenience, with no interruptions from things like cell phones, young children, or rude talkers, it is really, in my opinion, the big megaplex that is in the most danger. Art houses, on the other hand, offer a unique experience and a dedicated audience that finds solidarity and socialization in attending the little films that no one else sees. Small, independently owned theaters know exactly how to cater to such customers and should capitalize on the opportunity to offer something different and special.



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