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Art-house scene passing L.A.

Category: Dear Frankie News
Article Date: June 21, 2004 | Publication: Thomas K. Arnold | Author: USA TODAY

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When Milestone Films recently brought The Clay Bird, a Bangladeshi film about growing up Muslim in a country about to ignite in revolution, to the U.S. art-house circuit, the film made its simultaneous debut in New York City and San Francisco, but not Los Angeles.

Movies such as The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi are opting to open in San Francisco in addition to, and often, instead of L.A. Miramax Film Corp.

That's a marked departure from the norm, which holds that art films should open the same day in New York and Los Angeles for maximum critical exposure.

But from a financial standpoint, Milestone's Dennis Doros says, L.A. just doesn't cut it.

"Nobody is making money in Los Angeles anymore," he says. "You have the best critics in the country, and the theaters are very good, but the audience it just isn't there."

Last year, Doros opened I'm Going Home, the acclaimed film from French director Manoel de Oliveira, in L.A. "It was one of the best-reviewed films we've ever had, and yet it didn't do well," he says.

Doros isn't the only art-film distributor who says Los Angeles, the home of Hollywood and heart of the movie industry, has lost its luster. More and more, distributors are adding San Francisco to the list of opening cities and, in some cases, even dropping L.A.

Gary Faber of Miramax Films, one of the country's major distributors of art films, concedes that L.A. "has historically been a very tough market to perform in."

Miramax's next two art films, Japanese director Takeshi Kitano's The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, which arrives July 23, and Shona Auerbach's Dear Frankie, which hits theaters in the fall, will open in all three cities on the same date.

"Every film will still go to L.A. and open in L.A., but the market in San Francisco is picking up so strongly that we are going ahead and opening a lot of our films in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco," Faber says.

In addition to a cluster of strong art houses like the Landmark Embarcadero Center and the Landmark Bridge Theater, San Francisco is viewed by other theater owners around the country as a better barometer of how a film will do.

"A year ago, when we opened The Magdalene Sisters day-and-date in San Francisco, we found it became a building block for how the film performed in the rest of the country," Faber says. "On opening weekend, other exhibitors looked at the numbers being done in San Francisco and related that to their towns and their cities."

Distributors blame lukewarm audience support in L.A., which they attribute to several factors, such as too many screenings and premieres of big theatrical releases along with a booming live-entertainment scene. [b]

"Los Angeles has never really been a great art-house town, and that's unfortunate," says Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films, which distributes about 10 art films a year. "Both Landmark Theaters and Laemmle Theaters are terrific exhibitors that work hard to promote art films, but L.A. does not deliver the box office one would hope for and expect from the entertainment capital of the world."

Steven DeMille of First Look Media agrees that L.A. is a "tough town" for art films.

"There are so many (entertainment) choices," he says. "It's such an industry town that a lot of the die-hard film fans are seeing films at screenings and at film festivals."

Compounding the problem is the cost of opening a film in Los Angeles. "You have to do more advertising in L.A.," DeMille says. "Because it's so spread out, it's harder to get the word out."


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