Renovated art-house cinemas turn profits

Theaters now feature stadium seating, latest technologies

Good news for grown-up movie fans: Hollywood is learning that there's money to be made in "art" movies as well as mega-blockbusters.

As a result, the art-house cinemas, long associated with sticky floors, sprung seats, and dodgy sound systems, are being reinvented. Newly built or renovated art houses are getting "all the bells and whistles in terms of the latest technologies," including stadium seating and digital sound, says cinema executive Leonard Schein.

But the new technology is being complemented with a different set of amenities to help draw older, more sophisticated viewers, "who might not feel as comfortable with the noise and excitement" at a new-wave suburban megaplex, as Mr. Schein puts it.

Here in Toronto, Alliance/Atlantis Cinemas, of which Schein is chief executive, has just opened The Beach, a brand-new six-screen art-house complex in the city's vaguely bohemian Beaches district, not far from Lake Ontario.

The piped-in music is classical; before showtime you can head over to the snack bar to nibble on gourmet pizza or sip a decaf cappuccino. Books, magazines, videos, and CDs are available in the Indigo Light Book Store in the lobby.

If your date is late, you can wait comfortably at the 14-seat "reading bar," which looks like a table in the public library, with a row of reading lights.

The Beach is one of the pioneers in what's being billed as Canada's first nationwide art-house cinema chain. It's a joint venture of Alliance Communications Corporation and Famous Players (part of Viacom), which are respectively this country's leading motion picture distributor and exhibitor.

The plan is to acquire or build 60 screens at 12 to 15 sites across the country over the next three years.

"National art-house chain" may sound like an oxymoron. But the concept is spreading. There's a national chain, Landmark Theatres, based in Los Angeles.

"We're the only art-house circuit with a [US] national presence," says Landmark marketing vice president Cary Jones. "We're fairly small" as cinema chains go, he says, "but we are the largest in North America."

"The majors are realizing that there's money to be made in these kinds of movies," says Gordon Imlach, marketing manager for Landmark Cinemas of Canada, another art-house circuit (and no corporate relation to its US namesake).

" 'Pulp Fiction' is the film that turned this around," he adds. Indeed, many of these "art" films are Hollywood products, typically marketed through the boutique arm of a major studio.

They may not make as much money in absolute terms, but relative to their much lower production costs, they can turn quite a handsome profit - rather like that undervalued stock your broker keeps trying to sell you.

But the art-house cinemas are quick to point out that they do much of the work of making the public aware of these "undermarketed" films. "A lot of the work Landmark does is at the grass roots," says Mr. Jones. "We really have to work these films."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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