Crowded House

More movies, fewer screens, and a new game in town means cutthroat competition for indie-film distributors

It's Friday night, and the ticket-holder line stretches around the block. Latecomers can forget it; the 8 p.m. show is sold out. The lobby's abuzz, as vintage-clad hipsters, film students, and cineastes just off their day jobs rush to buy organic popcorn, Jacques Torres chocolate bars, and David Lynch's "Signature Cup" espresso before the show. It's a familiar scene at Manhattan's art-house theaters. But this snapshot of exuberant cine-mania belies gloomier truths about the current state of New York's art-house marketplace.

Gotham may be famous for its indie films, but the exhibition landscape is an increasingly contentious and competitive space, with too many movies struggling to stay alive on too few screens.

"The exhibition situation has changed far more dramatically than the audience or the films themselves," says ThinkFilm's Mark Urman, a longtime distributor and marketer of art-house films. "Manhattan is scandalously under-screened, and the rate at which theaters playing specialty films are renovated and created is far behind the rate they've been dying."

"I've had films thrown out of theaters making $8,000 to $9,000 in a weekend"— a sizable gross, in line with Hairspray's stellar opening-weekend per-theater average. "And that's heartbreaking."

Blame the usual suspects—luxury condos, corporate-industrial land grabs, and big-chain multiplex buyouts—for many of New York's art-house deaths. But save a little wagging finger for New York's newest venue, the IFC Center, which has also impacted the downtown landscape. Regardless of fault, the cruel reality is this: For today's indie films, as with Hollywood, opening weekends are everything and word of mouth is impossible to sustain. As one executive describes it, "It's survival-of-the-fittest exhibition."

With more companies than ever vying for art-house box-office dollars, from Hollywood's powerful specialty divisions (Fox's Searchlight, Warner's Independent Pictures, Paramount's Vantage, et al.) to new ventures entering the market every day (City Light Pictures, Peace Arch Releasing, Overture Films, et al.) to DIY releases seeking theatrical runs merely to promote future DVDs, there's an increasing array of options for filmgoers. But there's also more clutter (see: Arctic Tale, Cashback, Dedication, Descent, September Dawn) for good films to cut through.

Even on the artiest end of the spectrum, the last two years have been especially difficult. "It's a very, very volatile business," Film Forum's longtime first-run programmer Karen Cooper acknowledges. "There are times when changes in the cultural texture have temporary effects," she adds, referring to past slowdowns, such as 1986, when video stores entered the market. Now, of course, there's Netflix, whose mail-order service has been a boon to indies on DVD, to the detriment of their theatrical performance.

Making matters more complicated is the arrival of the IFC Center, which launched in Greenwich Village with much fanfare and fuss in 2005, following solid box-office sales for Miranda July's offbeat debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know—to date the theater's highest grosser—and a dispute over not hiring union projectionists. While the IFC Center offers distributors much-needed extra screens, and lovers of esoteric foreign and alternative American cinema a slick new venue, it comes with a catch.

Funded by the Independent Film Channel, a property of cable giant Cablevision, the IFC Center screens movies from IFC Films' First Take initiative, a program that shows movies simultaneously on video-on-demand. The service provides an innovative and arguably financially viable way for IFC to distribute art cinema, but it also floods the marketplace with more movies—some of which are terrific films that deserve theatrical exposure, such as Ken Loach's Cannes winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Shane Meadows's recent This Is England. But others—Alone With Her, Snow Cake, Unknown—do not, and only serve to crowd an already saturated marketplace. To be fair, determining what "deserves" a theatrical release is largely subjective (though trust me on Unknown), and First Take's 2008 lineup, which includes a litany of Cannes winners and granddaddy auteurs, is better than its first year's—but that still doesn't help with the sheer mass of titles hitting the market.

IFC Center vice president and general manager John Vanco argues that First Take films receive no special treatment at the center. "Do I know the First Take slate more intimately? Sure. But once they get in, it's a meritocracy," he says. "We have to kick out the low-gross; [Werner Herzog's] Cobra Verde kicked out a First Take picture, so it's not a monopoly."

That may be true, but First Take films get preferential treatment from the get-go, simply by having a guaranteed screen at the center—a venue that Tom Bernard, a veteran of the indie-film wars who co-heads Sony Pictures Classics, doesn't consider a "legitimate theater": "It's a promotional item for television day-and-date broadcasting, and it puts films in the market that are not up to standard."

Still, some distributors (and critics and audiences) welcome the IFC Center as a viable new venue. In many cases, the center has become the de facto destination for movies neglected by Film Forum or those looking to extend their runs. For example, Milestone Films premiered Charles Burnett's 1977 film Killer of Sheep at the IFC Center after Film Forum offered a mere one-week run—a miscalculation on Film Forum's part, as the movie went on to play for 12 weeks at the IFC Center, grossing more than $140,000 and ending up as one of the center's top five box-office performers to date. And Film Forum premieres from Zeitgeist Films, Ballet Russes and Manufactured Landscapes, enjoyed subsequent showings at the IFC Center.

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