Where 'Brooklyn' Is the Top-Grossing Film: An Art House Exec Explains Indie Film Strategy

Ted Mundorff - Getty images - H 2016
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On the eve of ShowEast, Landmark CEO Ted Mundorff opens up about 'The Birth of the Nation' box office, his decision to book 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' and why the movie chain is a magnet for Oscar voters.

When Landmark Theatres CEO Ted Mundorff turns up at ShowEast — the annual fall gathering of theater owners — he won't be as focused on the upcoming blockbusters that the major studios are set to screen during the convention as most of his colleagues will be. That's because Landmark — operating 56 locations in 27 cities, including the Sunshine Cinema in New York City — is the largest U.S. movie chain devoted to art house fare and foreign films. Its flagship high-end multiplex on Pico Boulevard in West L.A. is a favorite haunt of film-industry types and Oscar voters, and was among the first cinemas in the area to offer reserved seating and upscale choices for foodies (hot pretzels from La Brea Bakery, anyone?).

Mundorff, whose bosses are Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, spoke on the eve of ShowEast about why he's glad to see the major studios jumping into the Oscars game and the surprise reason why the drone drama Eye in the Sky became an indie hit. He also is pleased that the convention, produced by the Film Expo Group, is moving about 20 miles south from Hollywood, Fla., to Miami Beach since he likes new environs. And, no, he's not worried about Zika: "That's not my personality."

Many indie films have been struggling at the box office over the past year or two. Why?

The biggest challenge is quality product. But a couple of good films and the world is good again. We had a surge in August, and part of the reason was Hell or High Water. We can hold on to a film longer than most commercial houses, and that movie fell right into our wheelhouse.

Hell or High Water is the top-grossing indie film of the year, with nearly $26 million in ticket sales, followed by Eye in the Sky with $18.7 million.

Eye in the Sky performed so well because it played not only to the core older art house audience but to the millennials. Bleecker Street, which is releasing wonderful films, really hit a sweet spot. Maybe it appealed to millennials because of the tech angle. I was surprised. 

How do you think Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation will do?

We have booked the film, but I look at Birth of a Nation as a wide play. It will open up in some 2,100 theaters and then fall 50 to 60 percent. I don't think there is an expectation beyond that. [Four days after this interview, Birth of a Nation had a $7 million opening weekend.]

On any given day, your marquee is crowded with films no average multiplex would dare offer. What are Landmark's top-grossing titles of the past year?

Brooklyn, Spotlight, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Big Short, Cafe Society, The Lobster, Love & Friendship and Room.

Why did you book Force Awakens, considering it was playing virtually everywhere?

You couldn't avoid it. We knew no one was going to any other movie but that one, and we did not want empty theaters. Also, think about it: Our audience was the original Star Wars audience, so it was a natural fit for us. We also played Deadpool because it played smart and we knew adults wanted to see it.

Does foot traffic at the Landmark in West L.A. increase during awards season?

The fourth calendar quarter is the biggest quarter for the Landmark chain, anyway. That includes all the theaters, not just Pico. And it's encouraging to see the six major studios getting involved in the awards discussion and releasing Oscar-type films. We once could only rely on the independent distributors. It puts more food on the table.

Speaking of food, you were one of the first chains to offer more food choices. Has it paid off?

Food is an amenity. But popcorn and Coke are still the biggest sellers. 

This story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.