“I’m not doing this for some greater good – I want to make more money. I love to fuck with people, and I love finding ways to make more money.” – Rich guy, April 2005.
For a movie lover, news that a new 12-screen multiplex with reserved stadium seating and oversized leather chairs is being opened by a company that describes itself as “the nation’s largest theatre chain dedicated primarily to exhibiting and marketing independent film” should be a cause for celebration, right?
Yeah, I’m not so sure.
The problem is that the company in question, Landmark Theatres, is owned by 2929 Entertainment, a company co-owned by a dot-com billionaire, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and originator of the quote above – no, not Montgomery Burns, but Mark Cuban. To be fair, Cuban’s quote was not about The Landmark, the new multiplex his company is opening June 1 in West Los Angeles. In fact, he was talking to Wired Magazine about plans to revolutionize the movie business through digital distribution and presentation. I don’t have an opinion on that subject, but Cuban’s specific words make me wonder what his priorities really are. If he wants to make pots of cash owning theatres, that’s fine, but does he even like movies?
When 2929 purchased Landmark Theatres in 2003, I feared the worst. However, I have to admit, so far my fears have been groundless. Landmark is still showing the same kinds of movies it did before. It’s true, more mainstream fare has crept into the lineup at a few of its theatres, but Laemmle Theatres (L.A.’s other art house chain) does the same thing in certain markets. As of this writing, Laemmle’s One Colorado theatre in Old Pasadena is showing Shrek the Third and Spider-Man 3 alongside Black Book, Day Night Day Night and Lives of Others with Pirates of the Caribbean 3 on the way. In Hollywood, the popular Arclight (a sister company of Pacific Theatres) has made the mix of indie and mainstream programming in an upscale setting into an entire business model and it appears to be very successful. If mainstream and independent and foreign films can coexist successfully, then there’s no problem, but is that Cuban’s plan?
For the time being, Landmark might not have a choice. Fearing that regular multiplexes attract too many teens, gangs and problems, influential homeowners associations have taken to pressuring new retail developments to offer theatres that feature more adult oriented fare. The fears aren’t completely groundless. Once a movie-going mecca, the Westwood neighborhood near UCLA developed a bad reputation in the late 80’s and early 90’s. In 1988, a visitor was killed in crossfire from a gang-related shooting and in 1991 a near riot broke out when a screening of New Jack City was oversold and hundreds of moviegoers were turned away. 800 kids were ultimately involved in breaking windows and looting stores until riot police could restore order.
Cuban’s 12-screen Landmark, part of a renovation of Westside Pavillion mall required a zoning change that might not have been possible without appeasing homeowners who were perhaps mindful of the problems in Westwood. According to Randy Brant, head of development for the project “The homeowners associations in that area are very actively concerned and vociferous. They know their city council people and they visit them often. They let us know they wanted a theater that showed art and independent film.”
That’s good news, but it seems someone forgot to tell Landmark Theatres chief operating officer Ted Mundorff. Mundorff claims in a recent LA Times article that if The Landmark were open today, Spider-Man 3 would be on three of the screens. That’s only 25% of the screens the multiplex has to offer, but once the theatre is up and running, will Landmark honor their agreements? I wonder if Cuban is even interested in independent cinema or if he is simply trawling indie waters because that’s the niche where a smaller company can get a foothold. If Landmark grows and develops enough clout with distributors to get more popular mainstream films, will Cuban decide to move on to bigger fish leaving independent and foreign cinema lovers in the lurch?
In Los Angeles, it might not much matter at least as long as family-run Laemmle survives, but what about a city like Seattle where Landmark is the only art house chain in town? In another scenario, what if Landmark gobbles up Laemmle like it did Seattle’s Seven Gables chain in the 80s? That’s pure speculation, but as I said, Cuban worries me. I fear he’s more concerned with technology and making money and things like ‘vertical integration’ than he is about providing an alternative outlet for independent and foreign films. Disturbingly, the slideshow announcing The Landmark talks more about the decor and the parking than the movies themselves. The marketing eagerly points out such features as the modern LCD panels that will list movie showtimes as though we’re supposed to be impressed by the technology for its own sake. What difference does the technology make if the only movies displayed on the special LCDs are lame sequels and remakes of TV shows?
Maybe I’m making something out of nothing. Maybe Cuban is a savior of independent cinema and he deserves to make a profit. Maybe I should consider myself lucky to live in a city with a lively independent cinema scene when so many communities have none at all. Maybe, but still I worry. Wherever you live, if you love movies you should worry too.