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Art-house films find a colder welcome in L.A.

Foreign, documentary and independent films are finding fewer venues to screen them and smaller audiences to watch them in Los Angeles compared with New York and other cities.

January 09, 2011|By Mark Olsen, For the Los Angeles Times
  • Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni costar in "Dogtooth," from Greece.
Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni costar in "Dogtooth," from… (Kino International )

"Dogtooth" — an enigmatic Greek film about family life, with intimations of animal mutilation, incest and "Flashdance" — has been among the most divisive and talked-about movies on the festival circuit since its award-winning premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2009. Greece's official foreign-language submission for this year's Academy Awards, the film has also turned up in numerous critics' lists and 2010 best-of polls.

The film opened in New York last June. But apart from a single screening last summer, L.A. film fans had to wait more than six months longer to see it. Finally, it opened Friday at the under 200-seat Cinefamily theater on Fairfax Avenue — the first time that that venue, mostly known for repertory programming, has booked a movie for a one-week run.

"Dogtooth" is emblematic of how many recent art-house titles are struggling to find, let alone hold, screens in Los Angeles. Though the specialized distribution business has deep historical ties to New York and that city has always been a more natural home for foreign-language, documentary and fringe American independent film than the more Hollywood-oriented L.A. marketplace, the gap between what can be seen in the cities seems to be widening. More and more art-house films are opening in New York first and then coming to Los Angeles many weeks or months later — or not at all. Even the most dedicated moviegoers in Los Angeles may not realize how much they are missing.

"It's such a strange thing that we are the movie capital of the world and yet when it comes to interesting foreign films or independent films that Los Angeles never seems to be a community that supports these kinds of movies," said Marcus Hu, co-president of Los Angeles-based distribution company Strand Releasing. "If you look back to the '80s or '90s, there was a much better sense of adventurous taste in filmgoing."

Several factors may be contributing to the coastal disparity. Some in the business say that with limited marketing budgets, smaller distributors have little left for advertising in L.A. after an initial New York push.

The closure in recent years of art-house friendly venues like the Showcase, the NuWilshire and the Fairfax as well as the Beverly Connection and Beverly Center multiplexes has created a scramble to find screens for smaller films. Traffic and parking may also be making it harder to connect certain films to audiences.

While modern, high-volume theaters such as the ArcLight Hollywood and the Landmark in West L.A. show specialized titles, they typically come from such relative powerhouse distributors as Focus Features or Fox Searchlight Pictures. These are films with stars and bigger marketing budgets such as "Black Swan" and "Blue Valentine," which are edgy compared with something like "Little Fockers" but are downright behemoths relative to a "Dogtooth."

Box office returns at theaters such as the Nuart or the Sunset 5 can be extremely hit or miss because the venues seemingly lack a core audience that shows up regardless of the title. With Laemmle Theaters possibly leaving the Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills, the competition for micro-distributors to find screen space may become fiercer.

"I think L.A. has been in decline for a decade or more," said Gary Palmucci, vice president of distribution at Kino Lorber Inc., the New York-based distributor of "Dogtooth." "It's almost pro forma that you want to play L.A. because there is a certain level of press and companies there that follow what's going on, but I think many people will concede that you don't expect good results. You expect to lose money most of the time when you play L.A."

The German film "Everyone Else," a drama that chronicles a young couple splitting apart, landed in the top 10 on three major 2010 critics polls. When the Cinema Guild released the film in New York City in April, it grossed $11,000 its opening weekend. When it came to the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood in May, in its first weekend it made about $2,500.

Another Cinema Guild release, "Sweetgrass," a documentary about a Montana sheep drive and another critical favorite, opened to $10,000 in New York in January and $4,000 in Los Angeles in March. The film played only one week in L.A., while it managed longer runs and higher total grosses in cities such as Seattle, Minneapolis and (understandably) Boise, Idaho.

"What is true unfortunately is that it has become increasingly difficult to open a foreign or documentary film in L.A.," said Ryan Krivoshey, director of distribution at the Cinema Guild. "L.A. is still an important market, but a lot of variables need to line up perfectly in order to have a successful run. And it's not always necessary for L.A. to come right after New York. These days, it's not uncommon for a film to gross more in other cities than L.A."

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