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Giving the art house a complex

Landmark's upscale 12-screen multiplex could shake up the local market.

May 20, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

IT'S the center of the filmmaking universe, a high-income slice of town both swollen with industry executives yet far from overflowing with state-of-the-art theaters. Bringing a new multiplex to West Los Angeles should have taken no longer than it takes to crank out another "Saw" sequel, not more than a decade.

But sometimes exhibition moves at the same glacial pace as Westside traffic. After a series of false starts -- with plans alternatively sidetracked by ownership changes, a bankruptcy and some neighborhood opposition -- Landmark Theatres finally is ready to open what it considers its national flagship venue.

The sleek 12-screen multiplex, which is called the Landmark and is scheduled to start peddling its wares, plus vegan cookies and La Brea Bakery pretzels, on June 1, promises to shake up the highly competitive local movie market. After a long box-office slump, ticket sales are accelerating, and some of the nation's highest-grossing theaters are clustered around Hollywood and the Westside.

In staking a $20-million bet on its new 2,000-seat complex at the intersection of Pico and Westwood boulevards, Landmark's new owners, Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban, will go toe to toe with one of the nation's most successful new movie complexes, AMC's Century City 15, while also trying to replicate the popularity of Pacific Theatres' ArcLight Cinemas. Both complexes feature so-called specialized films, Landmark's stock in trade.

When plans were first drawn up for the Landmark in the early 1990s, movies tended to play in two distinct types of venues. Films driven by glowing reviews, made by respected filmmakers and/or told in a foreign language were shown at so-called art houses, neighborhood joints like West L.A.'s Nuart or South Pasadena's Rialto. Big-budget studio films were showcased inside sprawling megaplexes, with modern auditoriums and stadium seating.

But as the lines between studio and art-house films started to blur (Disney bought Miramax; 20th Century Fox launched Fox Searchlight), the distinctions in exhibition began to change too. As audiences started queuing up in the mid-'90s for movies such as "The English Patient" and "Il Postino," theater owners started booking them into auditoriums once reserved for sequels and remakes.

It's a minuscule percentage of the nation's overall box office, but a significant and influential slice of the market, especially in Los Angeles and New York. On a recent weekend, the ArcLight filled screenings for both the Sundance Film Festival hit "Waitress" and the colossal sequel "Spider-Man 3."

Although Landmark's programming will focus more on films in the vein of "Waitress," "The Lives of Others" and "Little Miss Sunshine," the chain wants to put as many butts as possible in its reclining black leather seats. And that means, despite what some local homeowners might have been led to believe, the Landmark also may book more mainstream fare.

"The cities that mean the most for independent film are New York and Los Angeles," says Wagner, who with Cuban bought the once-bankrupt, 61-theater Landmark chain from private turnaround firm Oaktree Capital Management in 2003. "I have no illusions, but if we can even rival the ArcLight -- which is an incredible theater -- we've done a tremendous job."

Wooing distributors

THE Landmark won't just be challenging other theaters for moviegoers' affections; it also must prove to distributors that it's the best place to show their most coveted films.

Like car enthusiasts who want to be the first on their block with the latest hybrid, every theater wants exclusive access to the hottest new movies, such as "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and "Shrek the Third." But under the arcane rules under which studios, their specialized film divisions and purely independent distributors book their movies, not every multiplex gets to play the movies it wants. Although the name of this game is seemingly benign -- it's called clearances -- the consequences can be noxious.

Historically, distributors have divided Southern California into a number of moviegoing zones: Westwood is one zone, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills make up another, and so on. A new movie typically plays at one -- and only one -- theater in each zone. The Landmark will be in the same zone as the AMC Century City, meaning the two complexes often will be vying for the same titles.

The Landmark hopes it will enjoy equal, if not preferential, treatment. Exactly what films will be shown in the multiplex on its opening weekend are undetermined. "I am going to buy as many exclusive films as I can," says Chief Operating Officer Ted Mundorff. "We've had discussions with all the distributors about how they view the marketplace."

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