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Less Wait for Films of Weight : Expanded Laemmle theaters in Encino will bring more foreign and intellectual movies to the Valley sooner.


When "Un Coeur En Hiver" opened at the Laemmle theaters in Encino on Wednesday, it marked one of the few times that a foreign film has arrived in the San Fernando Valley on the same day that it debuted in other parts of Los Angeles.

Foreign and low-budget intellectual movies--so-called "art films"--have traditionally received short shrift here. Laemmle is the only cinema north of Mulholland Drive that shows them on a regular basis. And the family chain has always premiered these films at its Beverly Hills or Westside theaters for six to eight weeks before bringing them over the hill.

But now Laemmle has expanded its Encino theater to five screens, which means Valley film buffs should get more art films and get them sooner.

"I think it's great," said a woman who went to see the French film "Indochine" at Laemmle's reopened Town Center 5 on a recent weekday. She had tried to see the subtitled movie over the Memorial Day weekend but it had been sold out. She said: "Obviously, we need more theaters that cater to foreign films."

Before remodeling, Laemmle showed mainstream movies on at least one, and often two, of its three screens. Art films such as "Life Is Sweet," which won the 1991 National Society of Film Critics' best picture award, never made it to the Valley.

"You have to take the Hollywood films because they're successful," said Robert Laemmle, the chain's owner. "We were never that consistent when it came to art films."

The expanded Town Center can show several blockbusters and keep two screens open for lesser-known titles.

"Specialized films, foreign or in English, can do very well in the Valley if they are shown in the right theater," said Bingham Ray, co-founder of the New York City-based October Films, which distributes "Un Coeur En Hiver." The film opened in both Encino and Beverly Hills.

"We like to be aggressive," Ray said. "We're always looking to broaden a market when we can."

Laemmle worries that not all distributors will think likewise. There is an industry perception that art films can't make money in the Valley. Executives say there isn't a big enough audience and that people who want to see art films can simply drive over the hill to such theaters as the Laemmle Music Hall, the Cineplex Beverly Center and Samuel Goldwyn's Nuart.

Even Ray shares some of these reservations.

"The Valley is especially tough," he said. "Los Angeles is not New York in terms of the audience for specialized films."

So some distributors cling to a practice called "platforming." They open their films in a single, well-known art house and let it run for a month or more, hoping to generate strong reviews and word of mouth.

Only after a buzz gets started will they spread the film to other theaters.

Several years back, Laemmle persuaded many of these distributors to open simultaneously in Los Angeles and Pasadena, arguing that two geographically different audiences were being served. With the debut showings of "Un Coeur En Hiver," he is hoping to expand on that precedent.

"The Valley is still thought of as part of Los Angeles," he said. "If this film shows some strength, it will encourage other distributors to let us do this more often."

The past two years have certainly been successful for art films. "Howards End," which was severely platformed in its opening weeks, became a widespread hit and won a best picture Oscar last year. Films such as "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Enchanted April" also enjoyed success.

So Laemmle recently opened a multiplex devoted to art films at Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards. And the chain spent all winter, and more money than it cares to divulge, enlarging the Encino location.

The Town Center reopened on May 21. It remains a relatively small theater, with a simple tile lobby that displays posters of past art-film triumphs, movies such as "Ma Vie de Chien" and "Metropolis." The snack bar offers more than the usual popcorn and soda, selling gourmet chocolate bars and bottled water, for example.

Opening off a subterranean patio of the Encino Town Center, the Laemmle can seem a tad claustrophobic, decorated in deep purples, peaches and browns. But the theaters are comfortable, with both high- and low-backed chairs.

Two of the rooms are relatively spacious, seating 240 viewers. There is a mid-sized screen with 180 seats. Two 120-seat rooms are small, but not as tiny as the 60-seat rooms in other theaters.

In its first month, the Town Center provided a lineup that must have been heartening to film fans. At one point, the theater was showing three art films--"Indochine," "Like Water for Chocolate" and "Strictly Ballroom"--along with an animated feature and a mainstream movie.

"We're happy to see it," said Gloria Salitrero of Granada Hills, who came with her husband Hector to see "Like Water for Chocolate," a subtitled and critically acclaimed Mexican film. "We need more of this communication in both languages."

This week, three mainstream films are showing beside two art films, a mix that Laemmle says is more representative of his outlook for the theater.

"People watch for consistency," he said. "They watch to see if they can count on you."

Distributors will be watching, too, though some are already sold on the idea. Triton Pictures of Santa Monica is eager to bring more art films to Encino after opening "A Brief History of Time" there last year.

"We found it to be very successful," said Robert Berney, Triton's senior vice president of marketing and distribution. "There's a separate, big enough audience so that it doesn't detract from audiences on the Westside and in Beverly Hills."


Location: Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

Tickets: $7 general, $4 for seniors and children under 11, $4 for bargain matinees. Parking is free.

Call: (818) 981-9811.

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