The rattle and roar of Chicago’s Lake Street ‘L’ is constant. It drowns out the words of Brian Andreotti and Bill Schopf, two of the principals with specialty film start-up Music Box Films. Inside a second-floor office adjacent to a modern art gallery, located in an industrial stretch of West Loop Chicago, Music Box Films performs its business behind a low-rise brick building without notice. For the four-month old distributor responsible for the surprise art-house hit of the summer, the lack of attention does not seem fair.
Film company execs are frequently stylish types but Schopf is a soft-spoken, inconspicuous, middle-aged man. He’s a litigation attorney by profession and a film company founder by happenstance; meaning that few in the specialty biz know who he is. The same can be said for Music Box Films and the art-house film crowd. In the minds of moviegoers who frequent recent specialty favorites like “The Visitor” and “Mongol,” Music Box Films is an unknown commodity with far less awareness than larger art-house companies like Fox Searchlight, best known for the pregnant teen comedy “Juno,” and Miramax Films, currently on-screen with its British period drama “Brideshead Revisited.”
Music Box’s low profile looks to change with the success of its third release, director Guillaume Canet‘s French thriller “Tell No One,” based on the popular Harlan Coben novel and featuring Francois Cluzet as a grieving husband who believes his murdered wife may still be alive. On July 28, “Tell No One” was the top-grossing specialty film in the United States with weekend earnings of $421,821. This past weekend, it ranked nineteenth on the overall box office charts and has earned $2.88 million since opening in a handful of theaters July 2. The significance of “Tell No One’s” success is clear. Chicago-based Music Box Films is about to put its fingerprint on the landscape of art-house movies. “”Tell No One” makes us looks like geniuses,” Schopf says, speaking at a conference table at the company’s one-room office. “Of course, you have to take credit when you’re lucky because you always get the blame when you’re unlucky.”
There have been two other Music Box Films in theaters prior to “Tell No One.” Their first release, director Wang Quan An‘s Mongolia-set family drama “Tuya’s Marriage,” opened in early April to modest business, grossing only $56,681. “OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies,” a retro spy spoof starring French actor Jean Dujardin, fared slightly better in mid-May. It grossed $282,920.
Looking over the “Tell No One” grosses, tabulating dollar amounts higher than they’re used to seeing; Andreotti and Schopf admit to being surprised by their success after just their third release. Music Box Films is about to become one of the success stories of 2008 specialty film thanks to “Tell No One;” surprise news for a company headquartered far away from the entertainment capitals of New York City and Los Angeles; smack in the middle of flyover country. “I think their chances for long-term success are good,” said Ryan Krivoshey, director of distribution for The Cinema Guild; a small specialty distributor that’s been in business for forty years. “They have picked up interesting films similar to ours and are having a great run with “Tell No One.” I know there’s a lot of doom and gloom talk going on but if you can be thrifty about how you spend money and look into new revenue streams like video downloads and on-demand TV, you can do well.”
Chicago can be a conservative city; filled with locals envious of the coastal media centers. Yet Music Box Films, a Chicago success story, also remains below the radar of its hometown. True to the classic Midwest work ethic, the small staff behind Music Box Films does its job without fanfare or self-promotion.
Brian Andreotti, 40, is the longtime Music Box manager responsible for booking such break out hits like “Memento” and “March of the Penguins.” Schopf is the attorney and property owner who served as the Music Box’s landlord for 22 years. He took over management of the theater in 2004 when its original owners, Bob Chaney and Chris Carlo decided to retire. Soon after, Schopf spent an estimated $100,000 in renovations on the Chicago cinema. In early 2006, Schopf proposed the idea of branching out and starting a distribution company under the Music Box name. It was decided that the expansion of the Music Box into a distributor as well as an exhibitor would be a win-win proposition. Ed Arentz, a specialty films veteran from Palm Pictures and Empire Pictures came on board as co-founder and managing director in late 2006. The final details came together and a formal press announcement launched Music Box Films in 2007 at the Cannes Film Festival.
The company itself is impressive for a business model of little overhead and a small operating budget. Arentz works out of the Palm Pictures offices in New York City. Andreotti works out of space at the theatre and office manager Dianne Puhr maintains the Lake Street office in addition to handling Schopf’s multiple real estate holdings. Just like its single room office in the industrial West Loop of Chicago, Music Box Films is a compact operation and in that way, the perfect symbol of what works best for the new company.
Through the years, the Music Box Theatre has gained prominence as one of the last remaining calendar movie theaters in the country as well as for its Spanish Baroque architecture and massive 749 seat auditorium. Andreotti summed up the theater’s importance like this: film buffs make pilgrimages to watch a movie in the Music Box Theatre. Yet, Schopf, its new owner, felt that the theater would be the foundation of a larger business.
“It looked like to me what we were doing in the exhibition business; we were promoting films for people to make money in video and television,” Schopf says. “We were the billboard, number one, and number two, were a stand alone operation with two screens. Granted, a wonderful history and great reputation but real limits with what we can go with that.”
Granted, Music Box is not the first film company to combine the revenue streams of theater exhibition with the business of acquiring and releasing films. It is a model as old as the Hollywood studios themselves and common in the specialty film business; Magnolia Pictures and Landmark Theatres; Regent Releasing and Regent Theaters, Shadow Distribution and the Railroad Square Cinema in Maine. Yet, the timing of their arrival is somewhat out of sync with current market conditions without the specialty film biz.
In May, Warner Bros. announced shutting down its indie film labels Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse. In June, Paramount announced it was absorbing its specialty division Paramount Vantage. The independent distributor ThinkFilm has continued to face financial hardships. These imminent closings emphasize the challenges facing specialty film companies, a business rocked with downsizing and concerns over a shrinking audience and increasing competition over art-house screens. If the long-term viability of Music Box Films remains in question, Andreotti and Schopf insist that they have the stamina and the resources to make this work. “”We are a little contrary in today’s market,” Schopf says, speaking at a table in the company’s one-room office. “Everyone is folding up their tent and we’re opening it up.”
For Andreotti, the success of “Tell No One” guarantees the international exposure for Music Box Films. The film’s early success has already paid off. Phone calls have arrived from various producers and film companies. “Tell No One” was considered the do-or-die release for the fledgling company. It was thrilling news for a company still looking to prove that adult art-house films can connect with sizable audiences. With the success of “Tell No One,” on their minds, the follow-up question is what else the Music Box Theatre can be. “It felt great to report back to the director and foreign producer that we took a film that could work and made it work,” Andreotti said, sitting alongside Schopf. “We obviously did not have a track record and we were able to convince them that they should to trust their film with us and now we can go back and say your trust was well placed.”
In the meantime, the small Music Box staff remains busy with box office reports, press campaigns and ad buys. A home video deal exists with MPI and a TV sale for “OSS 117” has been completed with the Sundance Channel. An August expansion to 105 theaters is planned for “Tell No One.” Talk of an expanded company includes several new Chicago area Music Box theaters. Upcoming films include “La Leon,” an Argentinean drama about a solitary gay man facing off against intolerant neighbors, coming to theaters in late August, and the French romantic comedy “Shall We Kiss?” opening in late October.
It is not clear how much is at stake with the exhibition business and the Music Box Theatre. Public response to their movies will determine their financial solvency of their business plan. They talk about films with a degree of newness but also ones that have to engage moviegoers, bottom line. Asked about the future, Arentz confirms that its primary focus will remain on foreign language films. “We’re going to explore all the leading electronic distribution platforms like iTunes but our focus will continue to be on theatrical success,” says Arentz, speaking later in the week by phone. “I don’t envision people walking down the street watching “Tell No One” on their iPod. Ours is not a business plan that you can take to bankers. It’s about picking good films. It’s really that simple and good movies play best in theaters.”
Later in the day, Andreotti drives via lower Wacker Drive to the below-street loading dock at the Tribune Building. He is dropping off screeners for upcoming films at the Music Box Theatre. His is a longtime dream of creating a specialty distributor from scratch but he’s aware it can be gone tomorrow. He’s not fearful or pessimistic. It’s just the drama of helping run a small business. It’s the drama of life. It’s also the drama felt in the best movies. Questions about the future of specialty film distribution remain but some fears can be answered by a visit to the Music Box Films office and news of its breakout, French-language hit.