If it works, the newest Landmark Theatres complex may truly be a landmark - to movie culture in Los Angeles as well as to the independent/specialty film business nationwide. That's because the 12-screen, 2,000-seat destination arthouse that opens this Friday, called The Landmark West Los Angeles and described by the chain's chief operating officer as a "boutique hotel"-like operation, is the boldest example to date that if you build a really upscale movie theater, indie/specialty film buffs will come in increasing numbers. It becomes the flagship theater of the chain, which was established in 1974 and has grown to 61 theaters in 24 markets.
That is especially the hope in Los Angeles, where grosses of specialty films -- including foreign-language titles and documentaries -- tend to cool off after starting well in New York. Because L.A. is such a media and population center -- as well as home of the film industry -- most such movies open there either the same time as or right after New York.
If Los Angeles could become stronger, many indie distributors believe, it could help their films get bookings and publicity in the rest of the nation. It could also help the films stay longer in L.A. and thus make more money in America's second-most populous metropolitan region.
"Los Angeles with this theater becomes a lot stronger art market," declares Ted Mundorff, Landmark's chief operating officer and head film buyer.
Landmark's new $20 million complex is located in the heart of the city's busy, film-savvy Westside at Westwood and Pico boulevards, strategically placed between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica and across from two quintessentially colorful L.A. restaurants -- the tiny, counter-seat-only Apple Pan hamburger joint and Junior's deli. But it's also part of the Westside Pavilion shopping mall, replacing an open-air section of the otherwise-indoor mall that failed to take hold with shoppers. It is next to a remodeled Barnes & Noble and a Nordstrom's.
The theater presents itself to the street with a modernist, demure wall of glass -- set off by a tan frame -- revealing escalators inside. There will be a blade-shaped marquee announcing the theater but no outdoor flashing neon, garish billboards or wall scrims promoting specific films. "We certainly aren't going to have anything like Times Square," Mundorff says. "We're trying to have what we think will be a boutique hotel - when you walk into the lobby we'll have a concierge and a feeling of complete public service."
Inside the theater, three of the auditoriums will be small "living rooms" with relaxed seating. There will be a wine bar and customers can take drinks into screenings. The concession stand will sell fresh pizza from a local restaurant as well as Korean-style frozen yogurt. The theater will also have a store. Auditoriums will have digital sound; some will have digital projectors. 9 of the 12 theatres will be stadium seating and will take reservations (the 3 "living rooms" won't take reservations).
"I'd be comfortable saying it has the potential of being one of the big arthouses in America," says Stephen Gilula, chief operating officer of Fox Searchlight Pictures as well as a co-founder and president of Landmark from 1974-1998. "The impact depends on how Landmark books it."
He remembers working on plans for this theater in various configurations in the 1990s, but that was put on hold when Landmark was sold in the 1990s. After Dallas entrepreneurs Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner purchased Landmark in 2003, they gave the go-ahead on the long-gestating project.
"L.A. is not as responsive to smaller art films as New York is, but there are fewer theaters receptive to these films in L.A. than Manhattan," Gilula said. "But the Westside has been severely undercooked. With traffic becoming worse, location becomes more and more important. It's hard for people to go across town to see a movie."
Metropolitan L.A. has theaters dedicated to indie/specialty fare -- Landmark currently has three screens exclusively on the West devoted to such films and used to have four rather dated screens in the indoor-mall section of Westside Pavilion. And Laemmle Theatres, the region's premier art-house chain, has nine theaters throughout the area, including a single-screen house on the Westside and older multiplexes in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. It has a new five-plex opening in July in the college town of Claremont, south of L.A.
There are those who say L.A.'s car culture, which renders it more suburban than urban, is the key reason indie/specialty films can disappoint here. Ideally, most such films open in one or two theaters and depend upon word-of-mouth to justify holdovers and expansion. In New York, especially in the Village, it's easy for film buffs to get to the theaters via subway for a well-reviewed art film. But in L.A., driving and parking can be such a problem and expense that it takes a lot of motivation for dedicated buffs to get quickly motivated to see such films, however highly praised. As a result, the films don't last.
Here, the new theater has a big plus - 3,000 free parking spaces in an underground garage originally built for the shopping mall. "Someone asked me the other day what I was most excited about in the theater and I said, 'unlimited free parking,'" Mundorff says. "If you're arriving by car, there are so many parking spots you can actually take two."
Landmark especially seems to be looking at the chic, state-of-the-art, adult-oriented Pacific ArcLight multiplex in Hollywood as a model. Since opening in 2002 with 14 auditoriums, including the renovated Cinerama Dome, it has become an attraction in its own right by mixing Hollywood fare with higher-profile specialty films, festivals and special presentations. Currently, for instance, "Away from Her" and "Once" are screening alongside "Shrek the Third" and "Spiderman 3." It also has a cafe, bar, gift shop, reserved seats and parking garage. Not so much an art-house as a luxury theater, its grosses have been impressive.
"I do think L.A. has traditionally over the years not been as strong a market as people's expectations," says Mundorff, who used to work for Pacific before joining Landmark in 2004. "I think ArcLight has given people a reason to think that is changing. It offered an alternative -- going to a new facility and seeing specialty films in a modern facility built after 2000. Adding an additional theater to the Westside, that will offer upscale amenities and a unique atmosphere, will increase business. Having 12 screens will increase the business."
The extent to which Landmark's flagship will emulate the ArcLight remains to be seen. "We certainly welcome playing major studios' product that is offered," Mundorff says. "People are inclined to want to see everything from 'Spiderman' to 'Paprika.' But there's a certain niche audience who doesn't want to go to a theater than has video machines and emphasizes the 'popcorn' type of movie. So what we're going to offer is an atmosphere where you can see many kinds of movies. While the independent films and specialty films will be our primary focus, we'll also offer certain studio films as long as studios want us."
That could be tricky because Landmark West Los Angeles is in the same exhibition zone as the new and glitzy AMC Century City 15, which is more mainstream than the ArcLight but does show higher-profile releases from studio "classics" divisions, like "Babel," "The Namesake" or "Waitress." It's highly unlikely both theaters will be able to open such films simultaneously, as that could divide the gross when such titles needs high per-screen average in New York and L.A. to create buzz and establish a platform for national release.
Many of the films that will open at the new complex on Friday are exactly the kind that traditionally need a boost in L.A. - "Golden Door," "Bamako," "Paprika," and "ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway." (Others opening include "Mr. Brooks," "Gracie" and "Day Watch.")
For Dori Berinstein, director of "ShowBusiness" -- a documentary about Tony Award-nominated musicals in the 2003-2004 season -- this new showcase is exciting. "What a thrill to have this film screened in such a state-of-the-art theater," she says. "When I heard the possibility, my reaction was, "This exists? They're building something like this?' Hopefully, this is the beginning of rolling out theaters like this across the nation."
[Steven Rosen is a Cincinnati-based film writer and former movie critic at the Denver Post.]