Luxury cinemas bank on indie product

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In early June, Landmark Theatres opened its $20 million, 12-screen flagship facility adjacent to Westside Pavilion.

Early buzz said the facility would radically alter the indie exhibition landscape in Los Angeles by giving Westside denizens a luxe moviegoing experience previously available to them only at Pacific Theatres' ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood -- one complete with high-end snacks, sumptuous seating, state-of-the-art projection and, of course, a full bar.

The idea isn't necessarily new. About five years ago, multiplex operators around the country began moving toward a business model based on making patrons feel as though they had fallen into the lap of luxury, with stadium seating, surround sound and stepped-up customer service. But for circuits (mostly) dedicated to independent features, the move upscale couldn't have happened at a better time: The art house needed a makeover in order to compete with more affordable home theater systems and online services, like Netflix, that make even the smallest indie films accessible to almost anyone.

Even New York -- long the bastion of rickety down-market cinemas that oozed character but were a little short on modern amenities -- has gotten into the luxury act with the IFC Center, which opened in 2005 in the shell of the former Waverly Theatre. The facility offers moviegoers plush Quinette seats in three theaters that can accommodate nearly 400 patrons. Added bonuses include HD digital and 35mm projection, a short film before every feature, and a restaurant and bar -- though New York state law prohibits the consumption of alcohol inside the theaters.

Notes IFC Center vp and general manager John Vanco, "Our competition, more than anything else, is the couch. In this day and age -- no matter how frilly and fancy your theater is -- you're really trying to talk people into (getting) off their butts and away from their home theater system. We're trying to remind people of why the theatrical experience is so unique."

"Everyone is trying to give the moviegoing experience a new image," echoes Picturehouse president Bob Berney. "When you combine the amenities of these new houses with the new (projection) technologies, we're talking about shifts that will radically change our expectations of going to the movies."

Despite the best efforts of indie theater pioneer and champion Robert Laemmle, Landmark Theatres CEO Bill Banowsky believes that "the art theaters in L.A. have not been at the level they have needed to be at." Which is precisely why he opted to give patrons, in exchange for their $11, access to reserved seating, gourmet snack options courtesy of Pizza Rustica and La Brea Bakery, state-of-the-art Sony 4K SXRD digital cinema projection and several "living room" theaters furnished with comfy sofas.

Landmark has plans to open similar facilities in Baltimore and Denver in the coming months, and the company also has purchased the Ritz Theatres chain in Philadelphia, giving the circuit a presence in all of the top 10 markets. "A lot of markets that haven't supported specialty films that, well, we think are going to be receptive to a luxury experience," Banowsky says.

His optimism is well-founded based on the increasing number of independent films that are meeting with mainstream success: This year, movies like Fox Searchlight's "Once" and "Waitress" found favor with audiences across the country, as has Michael Moore's documentary "Sicko" and several other titles. "The public reacts to a great story," Landmark COO and head film buyer Ted Mundorff says. "As long as the films are smart, I don't care if the supplier is Warner Bros. (Pictures) or Fox Searchlight."

Berney says more screens for smaller films is a policy that has a big potential upside for the exhibition industry at large. "Right now, there are plenty of good specialty films and an audience hungry for them," he says, adding that the strong performance of Picturehouse's 2006 release "Pan's Labyrinth" -- which earned upward of $37 million in its domestic run -- was partly due to its popularity in suburban markets.

In May, hoping to reach those same moviegoers, art house circuit Sundance Cinemas launched the first of its branded theaters in Madison, Wis. -- a six-screen facility equipped with a stylish bistro, rooftop bar and upscale cafe -- and the exhibitor also is renovating San Francisco's eight-screen Kabuki to include stadium seating, bars and bistros. On the way are multiscreen venues in Chicago and Denver, set to open in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

Sundance Cinemas CEO Paul Richardson, a former senior exec at Landmark, says the development of high-end art houses is the result of growing support for films that are "a bit different. It used to be one art film would break through every few years. Now, it's more like two or three a year."

"What we're interested in is nurturing new places like a Madison -- cities that don't have a big art house crowd yet but have the people with the taste, attention and sophistication for them," says Focus Features distribution president Jack Foley. "A suburb like Contra Costa (Calif.) can do $20,000 in a weekend for us."

-- Randee Dawn in New York contributed to this report.



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