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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.

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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