DESPITE ATTEMPTS TO quell the rumor mill, word spread quickly this past week that the St. Anthony Main Theater was about to be purchased by the New York-based Angelika Film Centers. The premier arthouse in New York (if not the country), the Angelika's downtown Manhattan theater was itself acquired a couple of years ago by Reading Entertainment Co., a real-estate company that has been buying up East Coast film venues at a clip. Everyone from United Artists (UA), which currently owns the St. Anthony theater, to the corporate heads at Angelika all declined to comment in detail at press time, conceding only that if all goes well, the St. Anthony Main will indeed change hands on December 5.
Speculation abounds about how savvy this business venture would be for Angelika. The St. Anthony Main complex as a whole is commonly considered a bust, with many of its store spaces having stood empty for years or been turned into offices. Among the few viable businesses is the theater, one of only two in the downtown Minneapolis area to screen first-run films (the Skyway Theater being the other). Yet even with the Northeast neighborhood renaissance, attempts by the theater to integrate art films and revivals into its repertoire have been largely unsuccessful. "Art-house movies like Wedding Bell Blues never did well here," says Jeff Kloehn, a theater staffer.
Even so, today's updated St. Anthony schedule features such high-profile indie fare as Miramax's The House of Yes and Sony Pictures Classics' The Myth of Fingerprints--both recent run-offs from the Landmark Theaters chain's Lagoon Cinema multiplex in Uptown. St. Anthony staffers were informed of the programming change, and have heard tell that the new owners intend to sell bagels instead of popcorn. It's even possible that Angelika may attempt to add an adjoining cafe to the theater, as it did to a newly acquired arthouse in Houston.
But the question running through the local film community is this: Can the Twin Cities support yet another arthouse? With the independent U Film Society and the Landmark-owned Uptown Theatre and Lagoon Cinema screening a wide variety of indie titles between them, an Angelika theater in Minneapolis would probably go after the same product. "Access to first-run films is going to be affected pretty seriously by the new Angelika screens," says Michael Silberman, October Films' senior VP for theatrical distribution. "But Minneapolis has always been a terrific film town. The people there embrace odd, quirky films much faster than in other markets."
Not surprisingly, it would seem that mini-major distributors like October, Sony, and Miramax Films will be most likely to benefit from a bidding war on first-run indie titles. If the films that screened at New York's Angelika this past weekend are any indication (e.g., corporate indies like Sony's The Tango Lesson and Miramax's The Wings of the Dove), the new St. Anthony theater's programming would go head-to-head with the local Landmark by offering the same brand of high-profile, high-grossing indies.
In response, any move to start screening more obscure titles at Lagoon/Uptown seems unlikely at this point. "When we first built the Lagoon, we thought we could be more adventurous," says Bert Manzari, regional representative for Landmark. "Instead, we're finding that we are running successful films longer, not more films."
U Film Society has already encountered Angelika's type of threat two and a half years ago with the arrival of the five-screen Lagoon--and survived it, at least for now. U Film adapted by focusing more exclusively on second-run and obscure indies, but the opening of yet another arthouse (one closer to campus, moreover) could be the final nail in U Film's coffin. U Film has been a local film staple for the past 35 years, but its dwindling funds and diminished exhibitor status relative to Landmark and Angelika have made it increasingly difficult to compete. The rare first-run exclusive at U Film--such as Fine Line Features' Gummo, scheduled to open December 5--would likely become even more infrequent amid further competition.
So it's with good reason that U Film director Al Milgrom is outraged at the news of Angelika's local bid. "[Angelika] is a chain that runs the standard independent boutique titles," Milgrom says. "By 'boutique' I mean all the trendy stuff that gets reviewed in the Times, the Village Voice, and all the other Eastern press that everybody else in the country seems to be influenced by. They offer a very limited series of titles. They are running a Landmark-type program with more of the same. We're dealing with the provinces here in Minneapolis--there's this provincial mentality here that we've been fighting for 35 years."
Bob Cowgill, founder of Oak Street Cinema, isn't as alarmed by word of the new theater. Although Oak Street and its St. Paul offshoot, Seventh Place Cinema, may share some of the same clientele as the arthouses, they're defined as repertory theaters and don't often compete for the same titles. Otherwise, Cowgill says he's skeptical of Angelika's chances. "I don't like predatory capitalism," he says. "While St. Anthony Main is closer to campus than the Lagoon, the U isn't a hotbed for indie-film viewers; the best film audience is in South Minneapolis. People who go to movies like ambiance--St. Anthony Main is better in the summertime, but in the winter the whole complex is eerie. And people who go to movies have habits. I'm sorry, but I don't think they're going to be able to replace popcorn with bagels any time soon."
James Diers contributed to this story.