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A specialty-film boom brings waves of change to the art-house circuit.

February 15, 2004|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

The Landmark Theatre at the Westside Pavilion needs cosmetic surgery -- the seats are old, the floor is sloped and the bathrooms are tiny. If all goes according to plan, however, it will soon get more than a makeover -- there will be 14 screens, stadium seating, restaurants, a bar and 2,000 additional parking spaces.

And at 50,000 square feet, it will become the nation's largest multiplex solely dedicated to specialized film.

Not that long ago, there were mainstream movie houses and there were art-house movie theaters, and no one would mistake one for the other. The art-house theater, haunted by cinephiles and counterculture couples, was known as much for its dank carpets, torn seats and stale popcorn as for its selection of foreign and very-limited-release films. But during the past five years, the so-called specialized film has grown in definition, audience and venue. Now an art film could be anything from a foreign-language film like "City of God" to a homemade indie like "The Blair Witch Project" to a small film made under a major studio's boutique imprint like Fox Searchlight. Its audience is increasingly fleshed out with baby boomers, and its venues have become corporate-run, state-of-the-art businesses complete with ushers, wide screens, surround sound and stadium seating.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 24, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Art house theaters -- An article about art house theaters in the Feb. 15 Calendar section misstated the cost of a ticket to the ArcLight in Hollywood as $12; with parking, the cost is $14. The article also mistakenly said the ArcLight was the model for a proposed theater at a Glendale mall. The model for that theater is the Grove Stadium 14.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 29, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Art house theaters -- An article about art house theaters in the Feb. 15 Calendar misstated the cost of a ticket to the ArcLight in Hollywood as $12; with parking, the cost is $14. The article also mistakenly said that the ArcLight is the model for a proposed theater at a Glendale mall. The model for that theater is the Grove Stadium 14.

Nationwide, art-film exhibitors are stepping up to the demands of their audiences by modernizing their complexes and showing a growing selection of specialized art films alongside Hollywood popcorn flicks.

Two years ago, Southern California-based Pacific Theatres opened the ArcLight, a high-end megaplex in Hollywood that leans heavily toward art films, one complete with reserved seating and a restaurant, bar and gift shop. Ticket prices for reserved seating at first seemed prohibitive at $12, but the theater has been such a success that Pacific plans to replicate the ArcLight in the top 40 markets, places like San Francisco and Chicago, and the proposed Grove-like Glendale mall.

In Northern California, Century Theatres is building CineArts complexes (multiplex theaters that offer art fare and a bar or restaurant) in San Jose and Sacramento. In Evanston, Ill., the company divided its 18-screen multiplex into two separate theaters, one offering 12 screens for mainstream movies and the other with six for Cine product.

"What you are seeing is the mainstreaming and upscaling of the art house," said Bert Manzari, executive vice president of Landmark Theatres. "We want to go beyond the culture-vulture audience."

As the nature of the film industry changes, the art-house theater has been transformed from ghetto into launching pad.

On the radar with 'Tu Mama'

In spring 2002, independent distributor IFC Films found itself flooded with calls from mainstream theater owners eager to book a most unlikely film.

"Y Tu Mama Tambien" -- a Spanish-language, unrated, two-hour racy drama starring unknowns -- was the talk of the exhibitor world.

The movie title (translation: "And Your Mother, Too") was so exotic, exhibitors didn't even know how to pronounce it.

"It started with 'I heard you did a lot of business with that 'Why Too Mama,' " recalled Jeanne Berney, an industry publicist who helped her husband, Bob Berney, then head of distribution for IFC, answer phones. Then, she said, it turned into "Gimme that 'Hoochy Mama.' "

But the theater bookers did know the film had packed art-house theaters, and they were willing to bet there was an audience in places like Omaha and Des Moines. They were right.

The film went on to gross $13 million and became the first unrated movie to play in every major U.S. theater chain.

During the past decade, specialized studios have worked hard to maintain a steady flow of product. Now that hard work is paying off -- audiences from the cities to the suburbs are demanding specialized films in their local megaplexes. Now, nearly all the major chains are as likely to offer the low-budget "Monster" as the mega-blockbuster "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

Many studios have begun capitalizing on the broader audience for specialized film by creating divisions devoted to smaller-budget, artier projects. So the creation of venues devoted to such crossover films seemed the obvious next step.

"We feel that with the graying of America there was a supply and a demand for an upgrading of the so-called art venue," said David Shesgreen, president of Century Theatres that owns and operates 930 screens in 11 states, mainly in the Midwest and West.

Locally, National Amusements has the high-end Bridge: Cinema de Lux in Westchester that offers not only Imax movies and specialized films but also a concierge, flower service, ushers and a bar and lounge. The chain has another Cinema de Lux in Philadelphia and recently opened one in Moscow.

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