Art House Rules

After two years of aggressive expansion, the movie exhibition business in Chicago seems to be approaching a meltdown. Last year the local Meridian chain, struggling under the weight of a six-figure tax bill, closed the Broadway, Water Tower, Bricktown Square, and Old Orchard theaters. Last week the Sun-Times reported that the Loews Cineplex chain, which recently closed the Fine Arts, Hillside, Golf Mill, Orland Square, Rolling Meadows, and Town & Country, will add to that list ten more theaters in the Chicago area, including its two screens at 900 N. Michigan. And Larry Edwards, owner of the historic Biograph Theatre, has announced that the movie house will soon broaden its offerings to include music, dance, and theater.

Yet aside from the demise of the Fine Arts, the “art film” segment of the business seems to be bucking the trend. For the past two weeks the giant Imax Theatre at Navy Pier has been screening Ang Lee’s art-house hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This spring the Gene Siskel Film Center will open its new two-screen venue at State and Randolph. Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatres has opened two art-house multiplexes in the area: Renaissance Place in Highland Park and Landmark’s Century Centre at Clark and Diversey. And the newest player in town, Century Theatres, recently unveiled an 18-screen multiplex in Evanston, with a third of its screens–the “CineArts 6”–devoted to art-house titles. “We just felt that independent and art films deserved the same respect and theatrical opportunities as regular first-run movies,” says Nancy Klasky, vice president of marketing for the west-coast chain. “I respect very much what Landmark and the Music Box are doing, but we feel we have built a movie theater that surpasses them in the experience, especially in the presentation side.”

Based in San Rafael, California, Century Theatres is owned by Raymond and Joseph Syufy, whose father founded the company in 1940. It operates more than 700 screens nationwide, but the Evanston multiplex is the farthest east the company has ventured, and the CineArts 6, with its stadium seating and tony concessions stand, is its first experiment with programming art films. Klasky says the company chose Evanston for its ideal demographic: a university town with excellent public transportation, it’s bordered to the south by Chicago and to the north and west by upscale suburbs with proven support of sophisticated, adult material. The company’s sweetheart deal with the city didn’t hurt either; the new multiplex is part of Arthur Hill & Company’s $90 million Church Street Plaza development, which is supported by tax-increment financing.

But art-house multiplexes like Century’s and Landmark’s show how nebulous the term “art house” has become. In the 1960s and ’70s an art house was a theater that screened films by international directors like Bergman, Truffaut, and Fassbinder. But with the rise of the Sundance Film Festival and specialized distributors like Miramax, Fine Line, and October (all of them divisions of major studios), art-house exhibition now accommodates such mainstream titles as The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love. Independent, foreign-language films, distributed by smaller companies like Cowboy Booking International, Winstar Cinema, Strand Releasing, and New Yorker Films, remain the province of the Music Box, Facets Multimedia Center, and the Film Center.

For Charles Coleman, who programs Facets, venues like CineArts 6 are more interested in box office than the art of cinema. “They’re not really promoting the true art film,” he says. “They’re going after art films that could be popular or movies with luminous French stars like Catherine Deneuve or Nathalie Baye. I don’t think they particularly care how authentic or sincere their definition is. The people who used to really seek those films out were following directors in the 60s and early 70s. Now it’s a certain film to look for and not a certain filmmaker.” Coleman points to Run Lola Run (1998), the runaway art-house hit by Tom Tykwer, as an example of what the chains are looking for. “Even though it was in German, people talked about it in terms of commerce: the clothes, the hairstyle, the cutting, the music.” And unlike Facets or the Music Box, which cater to a local market of cinephiles, Landmark and Century program their films from “a central hub. They’re essentially just rotating titles, seeing what’s going to click.”

The Chicago area now has 13 first-run theaters showing art-house fare, and according to John Vanco of Cowboy Booking International, which has distributed George Washington and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, that’s an impressive number. “Chicago is in a very lucky situation, the very opposite of what I see in other markets such as Philadelphia, where there’s such a shortage of theaters that are appropriate to play specialized, foreign language, documentaries, and edgy American independents.” Yet he wonders if the advent of the art-house multiplex, with its stadium seating and espresso bars, could spell trouble for older venues. “I hope it’s not hurting the Music Box, though it is by necessity limiting the number of sources they go to for films. It might help smaller companies or films get their works into a theater like the Music Box. It’s good for us, and it helps spread things out a little. It brings out greater variety, and it might trickle down to theaters like Facets and the Three Penny.”

“Century is a large mainstream circuit,” says Dave Sikich of John Iltis Associates, a local public relations and marketing firm that now programs the Three Penny. “They don’t have a history of playing art films, and it remains to be seen whether they have the patience for it.” For her part, Klasky says that Century is excited about its new project. “We have slowly, carefully, aggressively gone after markets that we felt were underserved,” she says. “We feel very welcome in this market.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.