For films and audiences that have had trouble finding each other: a 'dating service'

Looking for a movie that's off the beaten path? A foreign film like "The Last Metro," a controversial drama like "Cutter's Way," an underrated musical like "New York, New York"?

Or would you prefer an old favorite, from Hollywood's past -- not on TV, but in a real theater, with all the trimmings?

Either way, the man to ask is Nathaniel T. Kwit Jr.

From his office in the United Artists Building -- the same room once occupied by Charlie Chaplin, a founder of the UA studio -- Mr. Kwit presides over United Artists Classics, which is trying very hard to revolutionize American moviegoing.

His stock in trade is the offbeat, the unsung, the special. His job is to find good-quality films that don't fit the usual Hollywood formulas and give them a boost into the marketplace. He's a dating service for movies and audiences that have had trouble finding each other.

It's a modest operation, manned by Kwit and 12 colleagues. But their influence has been large in the two years since he arrived on the scene. And there are signs that UA Classics is just the spearhead of a major trend toward widespread theatrical showing of films once considered too unconventional, specialized, or dated to attract attention.

Kwit and company have a long list of films in distribution for 1981. Many are bygone movies from the UA library, which includes old MGM and pre-'50s Warner Bros. titles. Not long ago, a mere handful of these pictures were shown in American theaters. Now some 500 films are in constant release.

More interesting still are Kwit's activities with recent movies -- oftehn "failures" that didn't make it at the box office, or didn't even get a chance to try. If he likes the style of a film, Kwit isn't deterred by its past record. Carefully choosing the time and place, he gives it a second chance, keeping it on screen long enough for audiences to discover it and start talking about it.

The current Kwit catalog contains several early disappointments that are faring far better the second time around, from "New York, New York" to "Where's Poppa?" UA Classics also distributes such "art" hits as Truffaut's "The Last Metro" and fassbinder's "Lili Marleen," and digs up forgotten films that have lain on the shelf for years, such as "The Canterbury Tales," By Pier Paolo Pasolini, and "The Trials of Oscar Wilde," with Peter Finch.

And recently the redoubtable Kwit took on the toughest task of all -- salvaging UA's $40 million flop, "Heaven's Gate," perhaps the worst financial disaster in Hollywood history. Working with a young editor and a tiny budget of than the original -- and will unveil it soon as "The Johnson County War."

The key to Kwit's operation is the recent boom in "revival" or repertory" movie theaters, which generally program old favorites, with occasional first-run foreign films. At least 200 American cities now contain such a showplace, according to Kwit, and "it's a growing trend."

Much of this activity can be traced to three unconventional theater chains. Bucking the general drift toward multiscreen "complexes" in suburbia, they have purchased shuttered movie houses in city areas and reprogrammed them with offbeat fare. The entrepreneurs are often recent college graduates who have studied film or run film societies, Kwit said during a recent talk over breakfast.

There's nothing esoteric about Kwit's crusade. "A film like 'The Last Metro' will be seen in over 200 American markets," says the man who has brought "Cutter's Way" to Seattle and "Just a Gigolo" to Long Island. "It's because we market things so differently."

What's different? "We believe that less is more," explains Kwit, who likes to keep his costs "Absurdly low" so he can afford to gamble on anything he considers worthwhile.

"And it's essential that we remain our own operation," he continues, "and we hire the same type of people we deal with -- the same perceptions, the same backgrounds, the same understanding of this type of production and the audience it would appeal to in different cities. You can't expect the usual local manager to market 'The Last Metro' in Austin, Texas. So we have no branch offices. We handle the whole United States and Canada from right here in New York."

How does the Kwit approach work in actual practice? For an example, without endorsing any particular film in the catalog, take his handling of "Cutter's Way ," which was a recent -- and total -- flop under the title "Cutter and Bone."

The movie cost about $6 1/2 million to produce. (The studio happened to be United Artists.) Some $150,000 more was spent to create an advertising campaign for its initial release. When it first opened in eight New York theaters (with an overhead of $49,000 per week), an extra $65,000 went for newspaper and radio ads.

Result: The film earned a total of $14,000 -- at all eight theaters combined! -- was instantly yanked from the screen and thrown into the vault.

This was such a resounding failure that UA resigned itself to taking a loss of the million already spent on "Cutter and Bone." But it hadn't counted on Kwit , who liked its style, and went to bat for it.

"I felt it should be seen,"m he says, "even if the audience rejected it. In its first run, it never had a chance. The run was too short, and the image was wrong. I knew it might fail again. But I say, let peoplem reject it. Don't let the systemm reject it."

His first move was to change the title from "Cutter and Bone" to something more attractive. "It sounded like surgery, or a meatpacking plant," he says, whereas the film is really a mystery with a fantastic twist, and the title referred to the names of the main characters. "We changed it to 'Cutter's Way,' which is consistent with the movie, since the hero is unusual and has his own special way of looking at things."

Then came a new ad campaign. Disdainful of Hollywood's multimillion-dollar promotions, Kwit has been known to whip up an ad for exactly 2 cents -- the cost of photocopying a collage made with paste, scissors, and a felt pen. "But this was one of our expensive jobs," he recalls. "It cost $150, because our pasting wasn't very good, and we had an outsider do it over. But that's still a bit lower than $150,000" -- the cost of the original ad, which failed to accomplish anything.

Finally, Kwit decided to launch the film so that "market leaders" would start talking about it. He brought it to the Houston Film Festival, where it won several major awards, and then to the Seattle Film Festival, where it was also acclaimed. He opened it in Seattle immediately, to take advantage of the momentum. It's still playing, four months later.

Back in New York, site of its initial failure, Kwit opened "Cutter" in one small theater with a low overhead. He spent a fraction of the original amount on advertising -- about $10,000 -- and earned $32,000 the first week. That's more than double what it made in its first run at eight theaters. And it's still playing there too -- eight weeks so far.

From these cities,"Cutter' Way" had moved into others -- "it got the highest art-house gross in Boston History" -- Where audiences are now actively seeking it out. Result: A movie that fell flat on its face in a normal, heavily advertised release is thriving in a careful, theater-by-theater release that cost almost nothing, by industry standards. The main ingredient in Kwit's method is "word of mouth." He uses advertising merely to announce the presence of a picture in the marketplace, and relies on spontaneous communication to do the rest. All movie executives agree that "word of mouth" is essential to any film's success -- promotion and reviews can't do the job alone -- but they go ahead and spend their millions on advertising anyway. Kwit prefers not to. "Hoopla doesn't cost anything," he says.

Another important factor is his willingness to throw "market research" away (even though he used to be a market researcher) and go by "intuition rather than numbers." And he insists on long runs, giving the audience time to discover a picture and tell their friends, who may come in a >Continue on next page> >Continued from preceding page> slow stream rather than a sudden swoop.

"The normal way to open a picture like 'The Last Metro' or 'Cutter's Way' is to make 500 or 600 prints, spend $5 million or $6 million on national TV ads, and hope you make your killing in a week," he says. "But those movies would have lost money that way. We give the audience a chance to respond, and play the film as long as they keep responding. In any case, we don't prop it up with large amounts of advertising."

UA Classics is not alone in the field of specialized films, which is expanding at a good rate -- another indication that even with recent booms in pay TV and home video, there is a continuing place for theaters in the entertainment world. New Yorkers Films continues to distribute such fare widely. Libra Films is preparing to release six "art" movies over the next eight months, from a new interpretation of "Lulu" to a Spanish picture of Carlos Saura called "Blood Wedding." Kino Films has been moving cautiously into theatrical distribution, an is now handling two works by West German filmmaker Peter Lilienthal, in addition to the many old movies it handes for the large nontheatrical market.

As for US Classics, business is brisk right now. Within the next three months, Kwit is launching 12 films -- one per employee, he proudly points out. Items include a new Truffaut film, "The Woman Next Door," and a new drama by Volker Schlondorff, set in present-day Lebanon, where it was shot. Also on tap are "Lola," by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; another German drama called "Fabian"; and a Canadian film called "Ticket to Heaven," about kidnapping and "deprogramming" in connection with a religious cult. Also look for "Americana," directed by and starring David Carradine, and a reissue of the unsuccessful "Head Over Heels" under its original (and much better) title, "Chilly Scenes of Winter."

The secret to success in Kwit's offbeat business? "People are bombarded by a mass of home entertainment," he says. "Meanwhile, the Hollywood film is being turned into an 'event,' because only and 'event' will make a lot of money, especially with today's production and promotion budgets. But people want more than this. They want to see something special, that suits their own taste. And they want to see it in the ambiance of a theater -- not a "multiplex" with a tiny screen and popcorn all over the floor, but a nice and comfortable place. We fill that gap."

In line with this ambition, UA Classics may move into film production soon. Again, the approach will be very different from standard Hollywood procedure. "Everyone will work for scale," says Kwit, referring to minimum union wages. "Even top stars and directors will forgo their big fees, because the projects will be things they believe in. If the picture works at the box office, they'll own it, and they'll profit from it. If it doesn't work, they don't deserve to make a profit, and they won't. There are no expense accounts, trips, free meals. We allow no extra spending. And response has been terrific."

Among them, Kwit and his employees often attend some 10 screenings a day, looking at movies that may be grist for their mill. They reject most of what they see. But when something does strike their fancy, they back it with conviction.

"There is a very hungry audience out there," Kwit says. "We want to give them a great variety of films, including light entertainment as well as intellectual achievements. We just have one requirement. It has to be special."

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