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Crowded House

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

Even so, Zeitgeist's Emily Russo also laments the fact that IFC is releasing a movie every other week. "There are just too many releases," she says, "many of which are not justifiable theatrical releases, and that's where the squeeze comes in."

Cablevision isn't the only culprit. Billionaire Mark Cuban, who owns distributor Magnolia Pictures, the HDNet television network, and the country's largest art-house chain, Landmark Theatres—which operates the Sunshine Cinema on Houston Street—advocates a similar "day-and-date" strategy; by doing so, he is also responsible for the production and distribution of more films that might otherwise never have entered a movie theater. "It's a problem that screens in Manhattan are being dedicated to that," says one veteran distrib. "Critics have to show up, and that's a space and screen that I can't get." (Art-house theaters, of course, are meant to show hard-to-find or demanding movies that might not otherwise see a big screen; but the industry, ironically, is falling victim to its own success, cannibalizing audiences now that everyone wants a piece of the non-Hollywood pie.)

Some industry insiders say the IFC Center presents a specific challenge to the long-standing Film Forum, which is just some 1,500 feet away. Film Forum, whose nonprofit status makes it unique among venues, remains "the place to go," say distributors, offering the best chance for robust ticket sales for challenging films. "But I do think that IFC has given them a run for their money," says Kino International's Mike Schmidt. "They catch Film Forum when they're not looking," he adds, citing Killer of Sheep and The Devil Came on Horseback as two films that seemed like natural Forum fits but played well at the IFC Center.

Karen Cooper admits that Forum programmers can "make mistakes" and "let good films get passed over," but she also feels that the physical proximity of the theaters is "not a big deal." "Is Saks more competitive with Bergdorf's than it is with Bloomingdale's because it's a few blocks closer? Chances are, if you shop at one, you're shopping at the others."

Indeed, if the Forum is facing a tougher climate today, distributors say it's less a result of internecine feuds with downtown rivals than a by-product of changes in indie release patterns and the Forum's steadfast policy of booking exclusive runs. Unlike the theater's heyday, when indie films could stay in one venue for a long time, many art distributors now favor more broadened release patterns à la Hollywood. "The trend is to go in more theaters and burn out faster," says one boutique distrib—a strategy that goes against the Forum's single-screen opening deal.

Even so, the Forum's exclusivity hasn't hurt its strong fall calendar, which includes American History X director Tony Kaye's abortion doc Lake of Fire, music-video director Anton Corbijn's Joy Division biopic Control, and (in a telling share with the Lincoln Plaza uptown) Todd Haynes's much-anticipated experimental Bob Dylan film, I'm Not There. Then again, the apparently high-caliber lineup may simply indicate these films' more modest commercial prospects rather than any programming coups; safely tucked into a Film Forum screen, they're momentarily inured from the cutthroat multiplex mentality of the rest of Manhattan.

And it is out there where the real problem exists, with too many movies being produced and a net loss of sizable art-house screens. Sony Classics' Bernard remembers the Upper East Side as "the Boardwalk to Park Place of specialized exhibition, with the Cinema 1, the Beekman, the Baronet and Coronet—and that's fallen off. If there were a theater that had the trappings of the Angelika on the Upper West or East Side today, they'd have a license to print money. That is the heart of our audience," he says, "and there's a big hole with nothing there."

Ultimately, the savior of art-house exhibition may lie outside of Manhattan altogether. "Brooklyn," says Bernard, "is thriving."

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