Raiders of the Lost Art

Has the artsyplex boom housebroken the independent film? A partisan's manifesto.

As for Thieves: "We screwed up," he said. "We should not have tried to book anything for that period." He explained that there are simply too few screens in Minneapolis to "get deeper into eclecticism," adding that in cities like Seattle, where Landmark controls 28 screens, the programming better suits my personal taste. I told him that the point isn't my taste, but the need for more variety and more titles from smaller distributors. He told me it was too bad I didn't live in Seattle.

Manzari went on to explain that Landmark has to pay for the Lagoon complex, built two years ago in a pricey urban location. Of course. But would one screen out of six really jeopardize that goal? The traffic through these theaters is always brisk, and on weekends they're often jammed: Put something weird and great on one of those screens, place a few tiny ads, and, especially as reviews of Landmark films appear to be given priority at local newspapers, the audience will come. And if they don't? Consider it a worthy investment in the local film culture, dividends to follow.

As it stands, the Uptown and Lagoon do show some great films; and some of these, owing to their distributors' acquisition power, are among the very best of the year. And that, in fact, is the rub: In terms of its steady access to high-profile product, Landmark has a virtual monopoly on art-house moneymakers. By contrast, U Film Society has been able to snare only two premiere runs of mini-major product in the last 12 months: Miramax's barely supported Albino Alligator in mid-May and Fine Line's stigmatized Gummo in December, the bookings of which clearly evinced their distributors' lack of confidence.

It wasn't always this way. Three years ago, at the time of the Miramax/Pulp Fiction boom, U Film Society enjoyed an exclusive, 15-week premiere engagement of Miramax's Clerks, which was enough to butter U Film's bread for the rest of another typically risk-taking season. Miramax must have rightly figured that Clerks' core audience lived on campus, and that a long run even at a second-tier arthouse would help the film gather word-of-mouth momentum.

But everything changed with the arrival of Lagoon's five screens a few months later (on the very day after Clerks closed up shop at U Film, ironically). Landmark was able to hold-over successful titles as long as it needed to extract a film's full gross, which added further to the appeal of a theater featuring modern decor, state-of-the-art projection and sound equipment, and a well-trod location.

Of course, these advantages are of great interest to independent distributors as well--to the extent that the vast majority of these independent companies won't consider booking their films anywhere until Landmark has passed on them (which can take several months). And since Lagoon/Uptown's repertoire in the last year has included the occasional foreign and/or independent title on slow weeks (e.g. Fire and Guantanamera), the promise of a Landmark playdate now carries the hint of likelihood.

Oddly, to squelch competition in this way could only be to the distributors' disadvantage. Granted, independent theaters cannot afford the same rental agreements as Landmark, nor are they likely to bring in as many ticket buyers. But some box office is better than nothing--which looks to be the reward of locally unscreened films like Nowhere and This World, Then the Fireworks. These and other titles have either been released to video or are headed there soon because their distributors feel that if they can't get into Landmark, there's no use trying elsewhere.

Here's where the arrival of other arthouses such as the Reading Cinema chain's newly acquired St. Anthony Main could be beneficial--not least in convincing distributors who underestimate the Twin Cities' art-film culture (no thanks to the caricatured yokels in Fargo) that there is a buck or two to be turned even at a non-Landmark venue. Competition of this sort would likely solidify Landmark's commitments to playing the titles it wants--leaving the others free to find their own exclusive engagements. There's plenty to go around. (On the national level, the recent announcement of Robert Redford's deal with the mainstream General Cinemas chain for the creation of Sundance artsyplexes also bodes well in terms of increasing competition and exposure--especially if this chain adopted a measure of the Sundance festival's benevolence toward uncommercial films and/or those without distributors.)

The obvious counterpoint here is the risk of oversaturating the art-film market. But it's equally obvious that the audience for The Full Monty is not the same as for Sonatine or Soul in the Hole--just as, in the local theater scene, Jeune Lune is able to pay its bills despite Rent. The reality is that there is a substantial audience for off-Uptown indie fare, as proven by the number of successful one- and two-night-only engagements this year. In September, Oak Street packed the house for its sneak previews of Michael Moore's new documentary feature The Big One (acquired by Miramax for a song--and after the Oak Street gig had been booked, natch). Two back-to-back screenings were sold out, and a third at midnight might have been, too, had Miramax not forbade it. (Suggestion to Miramax: How about giving Oak Street a crack at running this philosophically independent film when it opens next year?)

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