Landmark Theaters Champion Art Films


AT a time when independent art-house cinemas are closing down and fewer foreign films are finding their way into this country, the Landmark Theater Corporation has been able to expand and cultivate new audiences for non-Hollywood movies.

Art-house cinema has come to mean movies by independent or foreign filmmakers that have smaller budgets and distribution than the big commercial-release films that Hollywood turns out. Art films do not readily fit into any particular format and often deal with subjects too complex or touchy for mainstream studios.

It's not easy to make an art-house theater work because, except for a few high-profile foreign movies like "Cinema Paradiso," alternative films do not draw the faithful counterculture following they did in the 1960s and '70s. To succeed requires a deft hand in film selection, an understanding of the art-house audience in any given area, and a dedication to building audience interest.

Landmark's marketing techniques emphasize the building of audience loyalty. There's a down-home and in-house conspiratorial feeling among Landmark's staff when it comes to film selection.

"It's trial and error in each market," says Landmark's president Steve Gilula. "We can't afford to do big demographic studies or market research, but those of us involved in expansion have been doing it so long we bring 17 years of experience and expertise with us."

When the staff is exploring how to program one of their theaters, they start by getting a feel for the neighborhood.

"We have subscriptions to every major alternative newspaper in every market as well as many of the daily papers," says David Swanson, marketing director. There is, he says, a minute-by- minute interaction between Landmark buyers and their marketing personnel. Specialized films for specific audiences find their home at Landmark as filmmakers make more films around black themes, women's themes, etc.

The selection process begins with Landmark buyers fanning out to nearly all the major American film festivals. They debate and pick out films that they feel will suit the theaters where the movies will play. Once the decision is made about what to buy, local managers are involved in designing marketing strategy, an unusual process since most commercial-theater chains simply receive what the home office sends.

Regular Landmark patrons respect and trust Landmark in a way commercial chains simply cannot rival. One reason is the localized programming. Another is the fact that Landmark is the only major chain whose primary product is independent film. Still another is that Landmark has made an effort to restore well-loved historic theaters such as the Mayan in Denver to their former glory. Even as a multiplex, the lavishly decorated Mayan makes attendance at every film feel like a special event.

Then, too, Landmark actively cultivates new audiences. Young people are not being educated to appreciate film as art as they once were when the works of masters like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Francois Truffaut graced nearly every college campus. In cities where Landmark screened Kenneth Branaugh's "Henry V," high-school and college English classes were invited to attend at reduced admission. The same treatment went for foreign language films.

Perhaps, most importantly, the Landmark succeeds because the staff loves movies.

When Mr. Gilula and Gary Meyer first took over the Nuart theater in Los Angeles, which paved the way for the startup of the Landmark Corp., they were struck with the fact that certain films, such as "Clockwork Orange" and "King of Hearts," would disappear completely after a week or two in a few theaters. And the classics such as "Casablanca" and "North by Northwest" were unavailable on the big screens.

"We provided a venue for films that could not be seen elsewhere," says Mr. Gilula.

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