You love the movies, but have no time for the theater? You crave the trailblazing films of the independent cinema, but none of the local multiplexes shows them? You'd keep up with the latest Hollywood has to offer -- if you could do so from the comfort of your sofa?
Larry Meistrich is offering a solution. For $19.95 a month, the Manhattan-based entrepreneur and former producer ("You Can Count on Me," "Sling Blade") will send you DVDs of films -- while they are still playing in art house theaters. You may not get "Spider-Man," but you'll have the chance to see first-run films without having to leave home.
"People are appreciative that they can now participate in really good movies without having to put in the effort that is required when those movies are playing in only one theater in a city," Meistrich says.
Though his Film Movement may not be putting theaters out of business, the service is part of a nascent sea change in how audiences view movies. Already, mail-order rental services such as San Francisco-based Netflix (which has 2 million members and a 30,000-title catalog) are threatening to render obsolete those trips to the neighborhood video and DVD rental stores. While Film Movement won't release subscription figures, it claims members in more than 2,100 cities in North America.
Smaller companies offer similar services targeting niche audiences. For $21 a month, Spiritual Cinema Circle, begun in March by relationship experts Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks and film producer Stephen Simon, offers its 12,500 subscribers a monthly DVD containing four films with spiritual themes.
"The theater-going experience has become distasteful for a huge number of people," Simon says from his California office. "They've become disillusioned with the films, and it's become a very expensive process. With the proliferation of DVD players, home entertainment systems and things like that, people are looking to be entertained at home."
What the Cinema Circle offers filmmakers with a spiritual bent, Film Movement offers independent producers: a new and immediate way of distributing their films. They also grant audiences, long held hostage by theater owners' idiosyncratic tastes and changing schedules, more control over the film-watching experience.
"What we try to do is make it very easy for the basic consumer," Meistrich says. "What our subscribers get is access to the Sundance, Cannes and Toronto film festivals in their living rooms."
Film Movement has sent its subscribers such films as "Lick the Star," the first work from Oscar-winning director Sofia Coppola (made in 1998, five years before her breakout success, "Lost in Translation"); "The Party's Over," a documentary about democracy in America featuring actor Philip Seymour Hoffman; and "Witnesses," the story of a Balkans family struggling to endure the scourge of war, from Croatian-born director Vinko Bresan.
This month, members are receiving Danish-born director Rolf de Heer's "Alexandra's Project," a hit at this year's Toronto Film Festival.
All are films that might be presented by art houses such as Baltimore's Charles Theatre. But James "Buzz" Cusack, who owns the five-screen venue, doesn't expect business to be affected much -- at least not soon.
"The thing they don't take into account is the social experience of going to a theater," he says. "It's an encroachment, but a small one. But who knows what it will be like 20 years from now?"
For now, most movies, especially those released by the major studios, will be seen in theaters, at least until they're released on DVD (usually eight to 10 months after their theatrical premieres). But films without major-studio backing, like those pushed by Film Movement, rarely get shown outside major metropolitan areas.
"There are some really good films out there that don't have Spider-Man in them or don't star Tom Cruise." Meistrich says.
Film Movement offers to its subscribers movies that have been shown at major festivals and have been vetted by a panel of curators, whose resumes include work with the American Film Institute and Robert Redford's Sundance Institute. Often, they're booked for limited runs at art house cinemas in large metropolitan areas.
Art house films shouldn't be restricted to big-city audiences, Meistrich says. "We don't think consumers in the rest of the country should want to or should have to wait for the films to come out on video."
But Film Movement has proven just as popular in New York and Los Angeles as it has in suburbs and rural areas. "We actually trend exactly by population," Meistrich says. "Our biggest market is Manhattan."
Just because people are too busy to get out to theaters doesn't mean they don't want to see movies when they're first released, it seems.
Alejandro De Las Penas, a 43-year-old father of twins who works as a researcher for the Johns Hopkins Health Systems, has been a Film Movement subscriber for nearly two years. "It's a great way of watching non-Hollywood movies," he says. "It's like when you go to a film festival, you don't love every single film you watch, but just the possibility, the choice of watching these films, makes it worthwhile."
Chris Kaltenbach is a movie critic at the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.