The Sunshine Returns

Feb. 01, 2002

-By Andreas Fuchs


/filmjournal/photos/Sunshine.jpg
"Art films and the theatres dedicated to them are more alive than they have ever been."

—Bert Manzari, Executive VP, Landmark Theatres

"The opening of the Sunshine Cinema has fulfilled Landmark's 27-year-long ambition of joining the New York exhibition community. As a company, we were always inspired by the ideals of the great New York independent theatre pioneers, and now with our new theatre we can bring our own style of independent spirit from coast to coast."

—Paul Richardson, President & CEO, Landmark Theatres

"There's no other venue like this, serving Manhattan's downtown community. We felt that the restoration of the Sunshine would turn the theatre into an instant destination for the smart moviegoing public."

—Ray Price, Vice President of Marketing, Landmark Theatres

'On December 21, after 50 years in the dark, the Sunshine returns to lower Manhattan.' Alongwith a hip, Ghost World-style graphic-novel approach, those are the immortal campaign words forged by the Landmark Theatres marketing department for the opening of their newest state-of-the-artplex. Built in conjunction with local partners Tim Nye and John Morisano of Sunshine Amalgamedia, North America's largest circuit for the specialized market has found a New York home. Housed in an 1898 structure on Houston Street between First and Second Avenues, right next to Yonah Schimmel's fabulous knishes and a stone's throw away from Katz's even more famous knockwurst, the Sunshine Cinema building formerly was the Houston Hippodrome motion picture house and a Yiddish vaudeville theatre. However, it is not another venture of our enterprising publishers. Serving as a hardware warehouse for over 50 years, the space was gutted by America's largest and only circuit dedicated to specialized product, and a modern glass annex was added to make room for five screens with a total of 1,000 seats. All feature Dolby Digital EX, three are built with stadium rakes, and two expose an incredible view of the original ceiling beams.

'We have cultivated a long tradition of building and restoring unique structures,' Landmark's executive VP Bert Manzari confirms with pride. 'Each one of our 52 cinemas is of a different architectural design. No two theatres [among 169 current screens] look alike or feel alike. Landmark strongly believes in giving audiences the rare opportunity of experiencing exceptional independent films in an equally unique environment.'

The Sunshine features rare attractions such as a Japanese rock garden, a two-story waiting area behind the historic window arch, and a viewing bridge at the third story of the glass annex. Before the stylish completion with glorious post-modern color walls and bleached birch wood, the team had to overcome major obstacles that included no less than four feet of standing water in the largest auditorium.

Beautiful Sunshine has not only returned after so much rain, but it also marks a distinct silver lining for the company itself. 'Over the years, Landmark Theatre Corp. has had several owners. The project had been started when the original Landmark management team was still in place, prior to the acquisition by Silver Cinemas in 1998,' president and chief operating officer Paul Richardson reviews. In May 2001, he and his colleagues returned to the company they managed together for years. 'Specializing in sub-run and budget theatres, Silver Cinemas had different ideas about how to run the circuit.' Even though the concept of combining two market niches appeared logical to many in the industry at the time, Richardson cautions, 'one could not have chosen business models that were more opposed. Applying the economics and philosophy of discount-cinema operations to a highly demanding upscale audience, in essence, did not work. An integral part of what makes Landmark so successful is the marketing and service extras we offer, along with the efforts expended on the moviegoing experience.'

In addition, over the past seven to eight years, continued decline in attendance of discount cinemas led to the inevitable bankruptcy proceedings. 'Landmark went along on the downhill ride, so to speak,' Richardson recounts. 'On its own, Landmark certainly would've stayed on track, as it has done many, many times over the years. While our theatres continued to be profitable, the discount side took it all down.' After the 100-percent purchase by Los Angeles-based buyout firm Oaktree Capital, which has partners in the post-Chapter 11 purchase of United Artists, Edwards, Regal and Loews Cineplex Entertainment, about half the number of Silver Cinemas have been closed. 'There are a dozen reasons why they no longer worked, 'Richardson explains. 'Starting with the economy, longer theatrical runs and the resulting smaller video windows, the fact remains that they were second-tier environments. Those screens that are still with the company are profitable and will remain in business as long as they are performing well. However, we are not growing that side of the company. The real irony of the situation is that the sub-run theatres are much easier to operate, so to put discount management in charge of the art circuit was not a good idea. Culturally, both models are very different, and we treat them as such, but we also apply to the discount arena some of the resources—like advertising and marketing—that we have at Landmark's disposal.' According to Manzari, no re-branding of "art" into "discount" or vice versa took place because 'they really are two different businesses. Back-end administration, film buying and concessions are similar, but the front-end operations have nothing in common.'

'As Landmark redefines the moviegoing experience,' Manzari continues, 'we recreate the markets we serve. New York, however, is a unique case in the United States and it takes time to make a home there. Locations are a premium and everything from construction to film buying is significantly more complex. The exhibition industry is completely different from the rest of the country because it is such a densely populated, successful moviegoing market.' Having built the largest specialized circuit, Landmark does not need the clout of a Manhattan presence, he adds. 'But being part of what is, without hesitation, the best art market is only logical to us. It's a dream come true.'

Dedicated to first-run independent and foreign films, along with non-traditional programming, Landmark's head buyer for Manhattan, Marty Zeidman, aims to play "exclusive" runs whenever possible: 'We are going to feel ourselves through this market as well. Every theatre we have ever opened, anywhere, has always been about figuring out what can be accomplished. We have never taken the approach that what works in Los Angeles or San Francisco has to work in San Diego, New Orleans and Boston as well. Landmark tries to be community-sensitive and create its programs accordingly.' In view of the dramatic competition in Manhattan, Manzari contests, 'There are very few films that play exclusively anywhere these days. We are quite content with sharing an uptown engagement with such established local institutions as the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas or Paris Theatre. We have known and respected Dan Talbot for many, many years; he's a real force in the art-film world and we consider it an honor to share the same market and a similar taste in films. The economics of distribution can no longer justify playing a film in only one theatre.' Manzari has seen 'circuits enter and leave the specialized arena. Most of those attempts are reactive rather than proactive. There is competition absolutely everywhere, as many of the regular circuits have realized that there is money to be made with an upscale, sophisticated audience.'

Landmark's success stems from hard work and the continued belief in grass-roots promotional campaigns. Unlike cutbacks at other theatre circuits, Landmark's emphasis on marketing has continued to grow. Coming out of the guerrilla marketing days of repertory programming ('not small budgets, no budgets'), 'we bring more value to the table than any other circuit,' says Ray Price. The company's well-rounded VP of marketing promises, 'With our network of regional theatre managers, we work films harder than anybody in the country. Landmark provides the nation's largest advertising and publicity agency devoted to independent film. We have over 40 people anchored in 18 markets that are supported by in-house departments for art and design, co-op advertising, marketing and promotions. Our approach is one from the bottom up. Each of our theatres is very much based in the community and cultivates relationships with critics and public alike. The help we provide for independent films to reach their audience has become an important backbone to the film industry. Our marketing is as important as the films we show.'

According to Manzari, 'Anyone thinks they can be an art theatre—all you have to do is book an art film. Landmark Theatres pride themselves on much more of a holistic approach, not to mention that we conduct our line of business in an exclusive and consistent matter. We will not compromise our quality programming, for this will only water down the well-established image. Other circuits which are trying to get into this segment are commercial operators. If they get into a pinch or when they receive pressure from the major studios, they have to show commercial product.' The other side of the competition coin is more advantageous. As titles with a traditionally limited appeal—like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Amlie or Memento—break out into the mainstream plexes, Manzari is 'grateful to every film that cuts away at the subtitles barrier. People watch a Cinema Paradiso and have such an enjoyable experience that they actually forget they were reading. We were nervous when the broadening of certain films first happened,' he admits, 'but experience has proven that the core audience continues to attend the type of theatre it identifies with this particular type of film. On a release that has a platform buildup, we can provide the sense of specialness that gets carried forward into the expanded commercial run. As additional advertising continues to enhance the awareness for such a title, new audiences are reached and we will profit from the additional marketing that would not have been spent otherwise.'

With the advent of multi-screens, 'their built-in economic advantage is just as undeniably true for the art segment as in the commercial sector,' Manzari declares. 'We are the most successful operator around for single-screen venues. Our operating strategy makes a widely eclectic mix of theatres with a few screens work successfully. Many of our sites are former movie palaces from the 1920s or housed in old Masonic temples; others are brand-new structures in upscale shopping centers. The location and the ambiance are more important to us than the architecture. But the buildings somehow always fit the situation.'

While those theatres have weathered many nasty but unavoidable seasonal storms, the forecast promises more sunny skies. 'It's a big country and we are still missing a few good places,' Richardson states, noting that Landmark has plans for continued expansion. 'Traditionally, we have become what I call a 'recycler of cinemas.' That all-important process stopped during the Silver period. We are once again looking to fill in the gaps while strengthening our position in the markets we already have. There is a new eight-screen cinema under construction in Bethesda, Maryland, for a March opening; and we just took over the Regent in Westwood, Los Angeles, as a showcase property. In addition, Landmark is taking a close look at a variety of opportunities.' How's that for a sunny disposition?

Specialized Exhibition in the U.S.:

A Landmark History

Landmark Theatre Corp. was founded in 1974 with the 1930s art deco Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles. The Nuart quickly became an institution and remains so to this day. Landmark's origins predate the contemporary independent film movement, and its culture grew out of freewheeling college film societies of the '60s and the earlier (more austere) art-house movement. With an eclectic passion tutored by Pauline Kael, Jonas Mekas, Andrew Sarris and others, it pursued a film palette that sought to mix every area of film.

At the time, the exhibition world was in flux. There was a demand for eclectic programming that was not being met. Large theatre chains were playing the blockbusters and art houses were showing only subtitled foreign films. Taking its cue from great theatres like New York's Elgin Cinema, and putting its own spin on programming, Landmark developed a "repertory" format—combining American classics, foreign and cult double features which changed daily. The film bookings were advertised on a three-month calendar. The format became an instant success with audiences, and by the end of the decade, Landmark grew into the largest repertory/revival film circuit in the nation. Landmark's role in the revival of many classic and cult films mirrored its role in the preservation of many of the grand old theatre buildings that house Landmark theatres today, such as the Mayan Theatre in Denver and the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee.

As the West Coast independent movement grew, theatres sought out new areas of exhibition. The traditional first-run art houses were still locked into the foreign film tradition and had often ignored American films. Studios were consigning idiosyncratic fare, films like Ridley Scott's The Duellists, Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard, the classic Monty Python's And Now For Something Completely Different and Richard Rush's The Stunt Man, to their vaults as undistributable. Other films such as Paul Schrader's Blue Collar were, amazingly, relegated to exploitation houses deemed to be of no interest to middle-class audiences. There were heated debates as to whether crossover films like Brian De Palma's Blowout and Dressed to Kill could be shown in art houses without selling out. In this heated environment, the independent film movement was being born. Landmark successfully championed these first "specialty" or independent films and proved that people were hungry to see all types of films and that each film had an audience.

Starting in 1978, as the competition for first-run film product became more intense, Landmark began to shift from pure repertory. Embarking on a series of acquisitions to further strengthen its circuit of theatres that could better exploit the growing indie market, the company became a melding of smaller independent theatres with one thing in common—a love of film. The company continued to discover new films, give new life to old films and give a more successful run to films that opened poorly elsewhere. It also continued its tradition of preservation of older theatre venues, acquiring first-run theatres. Over time, Landmark became the largest national exhibitor of independently produced and foreign-language first-run films.

For the last decade, Landmark has been hard at work developing state-of-the-art multiplex projects including the nine-screen Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge (1995), which has established itself as both the largest and single most successful art house in the country; the five-screen Hillcrest Cinemas in San Diego (1991); the five-screen Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis (1995); the five-screen Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco (1995); the six-screen Embassy Cinema in Waltham (1998); the six-screen Plaza Frontenac Cinema in St. Louis (1998), and the seven-screen Century Centre Cinemas in Chicago (2000).

For more information, click on www.landmarktheatres.com (Text adapted from corporate information.)


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