Artful Dodging

Alternative-theater operators believe the megaplex wars won't affect them

The frenzied battle among movie-chain giants will likely see the closing of several familiar theaters in town, but fans of so-called art-house films need not worry too much: Those cinemas aren't even involved in this fight.

The Landmark theaters at River Oaks and Greenway Plaza and the Angelika Film Center downtown -- the places to go if you want to see the latest black-and-white subtitled Czech coming-of-age story -- are, for the most part, innocent bystanders to the mud-wrestling among the megaplexes.

"I'm not trying to sound overly confident when I say what they do doesn't affect us, but it's really apples and oranges when it comes to what we're trying to do," says Sarah Gish, city manager for Landmark Theatres.

To some degree the differences are obvious: Megaplexes eager to offer several screens for Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo are not going to try to compete with the art houses for Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., a documentary about an oddball who denies the Holocaust ever happened.

But the need to fill all those screens has caused some overlap. Any art-house film that shows even a bit of mainstream potential is likely to make the jump to a screen or two at a megaplex these days. Topsy-Turvy, for instance, which traces the creation of a Gilbert and Sullivan production, is playing not only at the Landmark River Oaks but at two AMC megaplexes.

Megaplex showings of those movies are not overwhelmingly successful, however, according to Gish. "Even when they do play art-house films just to fill a screen, they make so little on it it's not even funny," she says.

The kind of people who enjoy art-house films are to a large degree the kind of people who will do whatever they can to avoid a giant, noisy, crowded, 30-screen "entertainment destination."

"Our audience considers us a refuge from the megaplexes," says Steve Buck, the Angelika's managing director. "I like to say we're the only theater in town with a bar instead of a game room."

The Angelika, which has the stadium seating of the megaplexes, tends to play more mainstream films than the Landmark -- it's currently screening the Bruce Willis comedy The Whole Nine Yards, for instance -- but Buck still doesn't see the chains as direct competition.

"We create a completely different atmosphere, and that's what the audience appreciates," he says. "There's not a lot of kids running and screaming around the lobby."

Still, the days when the art houses had an exclusive on nonmainstream films are gone. "When I was working at the Greenway, we had La Cage Aux Folles, and we ran it all by ourselves for a year and a half," Buck says. "Now, if a film starts looking at all successful, it starts branching out to other theaters."

The most obvious example of that was the phenomenon surrounding last summer's The Blair Witch Project. Originally marketed as an art-house film, it was at first shown exclusively at the Landmark River Oaks; ten police cars had to be called out one night to handle unruly patrons who had purchased tickets but been denied entry because too many people had snuck in. The film quickly went to the megaplexes, where it earned well over $100 million.

Gish says the film broke all box-office records at the 60-year-old River Oaks theater, making money long after it opened on more screens around town.

Even if the art houses occasionally lose their exclusive hold on semi-mainstream films, they don't sound too worried.

"It's interesting to watch" the battle between the theater chains, Gish says, "but it just doesn't affect us. We're not players in that game."

 
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