How Hollywood Is Killing The Art House, Pt. I
Doug Champion cocks his head like he's picking up signals from outer space. Then he jumps up and dashes into the projection booth, waving me to follow. He's not a second too soon.Just as the film begins to slip off the reel, Champion switches the projector off and engages the one beside it, preserving the river of light that pours out of the booth and onto the screen."That was close," he says, grinning at me.If you tapped Doug Champion's bloodstream, you'd find movies and popcorn; like his dad and granddad, he exhibits films for a living.In the '80s, when his local art-house cinema -- the Rialto -- was going to seed faster than Norma Desmond, Champion stepped in and bought the joint, saving the old movie palace for lovers of independent and foreign film. Operating your own "unchained" movie theater has never been easy. After you count the gross receipts (called the "pot"), deduct your expenses (the "nut"), give the distributor an agreed-upon percentage (usually 90 percent), you're not exactly looking at pots of money."It's a labor of love," Champion says simply.It had better be. Because seismic shifts in Hollywood's infrastructure have given indie exhibitors like Champion plenty to hate.It all started in the bad old days of the Reagan administration. When the Hollywood studios (and the conglomerates that own them) got wind that Ronnie was in a deregulatory mood, they started gobbling up theater chains for breakfast. They weren't supposed to. In the landmark Paramount decision of 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court told the major studios to put an end to nasty practices like blind bidding, block booking and, above all, vertical integration, whereby a studio controls all three divisions of the movie business: production, distribution and exhibition. The justices decided that the major studios could own distribution or exhibition, but certainly not both. But in the '80s, production, distribution and exhibition started slowly drawing together again, like continental drift but in reverse, and the new Hollywood began to look an awful lot like the old Hollywood.Reagan's Justice Department promised to "monitor" the situation. In the same breath, though, the government said it had no plans to oppose studio acquisitions of movie theaters.So Columbia/Tri-Star gobbled up the Loew's theater chain. Universal ate up Cineplex Odeon. Warner Brothers and Paramount halved the Cinamerica theater circuit.Variety reported that in 1986 more than 4,357 screens changed hands at a cost of $1.62 billion.So how's all this affect your favorite art-house cinema? Well, simply put, studios like to keep money in the family. Champion is still steamed about what happened with Henry V."I had just got the Rialto," he says. "I did a lot of research. I knew the movie was going to be hot. Got a contract for it. But Henry V. was distributed through MCA/Universal, which a couple of months before had bought 49 percent of Cineplex Odeon, and Cineplex Odeon had bought a local theater."" 'I have a contract,' I said."" 'Well, we're breaking it,' they said."What is the present Justice Department doing about vertical integration?"Nothing I know of," says Bill Brooks, who works in the Department's Antitrust Division.Would that were the end of the story.But in the '90s, the studios started dining on a second course: independent distributors -- the very businesses that supply art houses with the bulk of their films. Unlike studio acquisitions of movie theaters, there's nothing illegal about the new feeding frenzy. Just something mighty scary.After sex, lies and videotape, The Crying Game and The Piano hit big at the box office, the studios saw the writing on the wall, and it said Miramax. Formed by brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein from Queens and named after their Ma and Pa, Miramax was the cleverest indie distributor of all, having sensed early on the breakthrough potential for indie film.The year of The Piano, 1993, Disney gobbled the indie distributor right up. Two years later, Time Warner, which owns the Warner Bros. studio, bought indie distributor New Line (Hairspray, Metropolitan, My Own Private Idaho). The studios who couldn't buy an independent distributor? Well, darn it, they just started their own. Gave them classy names and pretended they weren't related. Gramercy Pictures? Universal's baby. Sony Classics? Belongs to Columbia/Tri-Star.Now real, honest-to-goodness indie distributors do still exist. Operating out of somebody's garage, they put out a couple of films in a good year. But that isn't enough to keep places like the Rialto in business.So our local art houses have to do business with Miramax, Fine Line (an offshoot of New Line), Sam Goldwyn and Sony Classics. To call those distributors "independent" is, according to Fine Line president Ira Duetchman, "to define us by what we aren't instead of what we are." Duetchman prefers the term "niche company."These "indie" distributor guys are getting mean. "The Weinsteins picture themselves as modern-day Louis B. Mayers," says John Munsen, who co-owns the Rialto. "They want to be movie moguls. They pulled Restoration 10 days before it was supposed to show. So we had to scramble to get something in its place."But here's the most disturbing part: Little by little, picture by picture, studios are determining the shape and content of the "indie" feature films released through their "indie" distributing companies."Disney said they weren't going to touch Miramax at all, just own it," Champion tells me. "But then Kids [the film that made HIV-infected youths look groovy] came out and they refused to let Miramax distribute it. So Disney creates a fake film company called Shining Excalibur to release the movie."If that doesn't alarm the film lover in you, get a load of what Miramax has in store: Sharon Stone (just signed a five-movie deal), Tom Cruise (stars in a future release) and The Devil Inside (an abortion movie that takes a pro-life stand). And Harvey Weinstein has set his sights on television. (Guess which network? Hint: It has ears.)So what's the difference between your garden-variety "independent" film and its commercial cousin? Well, um, the packaging is different. Deep down, a Quentin Tarantino spouts the same macho politics you'd find in any Arnold Schwarzenegger flick, but it looks a lot hipper.Unless indie exhibitors hook up with indie distributors to beat the studios at their own game, the future's not hard to make out. "Independent" films will migrate to the cineplexes (they've started to already). Starved for product, indie exhibitors like Doug Champion and John Munsen will close their doors forever. A couple of decades later, Disney will open old-fashioned "indie" theaters with big screens and an ambiance of small town America. They'll make a killing. "I despise the mouse," says Doug Champion. "And you can print that." SIDEBAR: The Independent guide to the movie businessFirst off, the movie business is really three businesses. You know gobs about one of them: production Don't tell me you didn't know (long before the movie was released) that Demi Moore was going to play Hester Prynne in a happily-ever-after riff on The Scarlet LetterIf you're the rarer type who keeps tabs on Variety, the show biz Bible, you know about the second business--distribution -- and you can skip this paragraph and the next. If you're a big studio, like Disney, you toddle off your brand-new flick to one of your own private distribution companies, like Buena Vista, which decides how many prints to make and who it wants to rent them to. You don't pay somebody to sell your picture, because you own production and distribution.If you're not a big film studio, it's a lot harder to get that brand-new flick distributed. Like Raleigh's Cambrai Liberation Collective (The Delicate Art of the Rifle), you have to convince an "independent" distributor, like Miramax or Fine Line, to buy and market your film. Otherwise, your cinematic masterpiece is going to languish in somebody's closet.The third business is exhibition. Exhibitors that show first-run movies come in two basic flavors: commercial cineplexes owned by giant corporations and independently-owned art-house theaters, which offer independent and foreign film. Of the three, exhibition is the one right under our noses, determining what films we see and how we see them, maybe even what and how we think.