INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: The Arthouse Survivor; Eamonn Bowles Keeps On Ticking with Magnolia
by Matthew Ross/indieWIRE
[Editor’s note: indieWIRE is expanding our interview coverage to include conversations with some of the essential players in the independent film industry who don’t make their living behind the camera. Look for a new Industry Spotlight each month.]
(indieWIRE/ 05.30.02) — The independent distribution landscape is accustomed to regular earthquakes. Just ask Eamonn Bowles. In the past 20 years, the specialty film maven has acquired, marketed and released art movies for Libra Films, Samuel Goldwyn Films, Miramax Films, the Shooting Gallery and is currently plying his trade as president of Magnolia Pictures, a new distribution and exhibition outfit funded in part by Dallas billionaire Mark Cuban. Two of the companies where Bowles formerly worked — Libra and the Shooting Gallery — no longer exist, and Magnolia is just one of three major new ventures (along with ContentFilm and ThinkFilm) that have jumped into an already-crowded arthouse marketplace within the past year.
In the midst of getting his new company off the ground with former Shooting Gallery exec Ryan Werner, Bowles has also found the time to record a new album with his rock band, the Martinets, as well as program the international film section for the first Tribeca Film Festival, which wrapped May 12. Magnolia’s 2002 slate includes “Wendigo,” the current release “Late Marriage” and the forthcoming “Read My Lips.” indieWIRE spoke with Bowles about his new gig, the perils of distributing risky art movies, and getting into the exhibition business.
indieWIRE: When you designing the business plan for Magnolia last year, what lessons did you take from your past experiences in distribution, specifically from working on the Shooting Gallery Film Series?
Eamonn Bowles: The Shooting Gallery Film Series was one of the most fun things I ever did. It left a mark on me because it taught me to get involved with movies that inspired me. It taught me that you have to find the economy to make the things you like work, rather than the other way around. I want to have a substance-based company that releases film because there’s a reason for them to be in the marketplace. I’m trying to find the economic framework to make that work. That may mean that the film might not go out on 800 screens. But the fact of the matter is, that might be all that the economics of the film might bear. If a film is working, we can bring it to any level it deserves to be at. Another thing I learned from working at the Shooting Gallery is to stick to the knitting. Sticking to the core business at hand is really what we’re resolute about.
iW: What is that core business?
Bowles: My business model? It’s really the promulgation of quality cinema, getting good films out to the public. The more people are informed about film, the more exposure they get to really good smart cinema that’s not cookie cutter, not formulaic, the better it is for all our businesses. I firmly believe that. It’s not single handedly that anyone will be able to turn this around, but I just think the more exposure and the more commerce these films get, the more people are going to go to them. The upside on cult art films is greater than ever. The downside is scarier than ever. A couple of years ago, the record for a foreign language film was $20 million. That has been shattered four or five times just in the last couple of years. That tells you something right there. There is an audience that is willing to take chances out there now. And now that they are getting things shown, it’s better for everybody.
iW: It seems to me that a lot of different companies in a variation of forms are incorporating exhibition into their model. How did you incorporate distribution and exhibition together?
Bowles: Right now we’re still a fledgling exhibition company. We have gotten an incredibly great start in Dallas. Down the road, to get some sort of exhibition platform just helps your efficiency in distributing films. There might be cases where we might not even play our own theaters. But we do have that platform, that exhibition platform to rely on. It can cut down your cost in marketing and you can do a lot more on-site marketing. And you just have a lot more awareness at the point of purchase — which is the theater — to help your distribution efforts. That’s one big part of it. It creates more efficiency and more synergies.
iW: When you’re looking for a movie to buy, what’s the first question you ask yourself, after you’ve decided that you like it?
Bowles: Some films I really like have subject matter that is particularly bleak or hard unpleasant sort of things that are going to be too upsetting for a general audience and for critics. Those films are going to be hard to sell. You have to spend a couple of thousand dollars minimally to get a film out there. And is there any chance of you getting it back? You have to make these business decisions as well. It’s not just: “I love this film, I’m going to make it work.” How are you going to make it work? Sometimes you can’t come up with a good answer.
iW: There are always going to be those risky movies…
Bowles: I’m a big fan of taking aesthetic risks on the art side, you know. But then they have to be counter-balanced by some sort of level of protection on the commercial side, on the financial side. As brave as we all want to be, a couple of really bad total flops and you’re jeopardizing being able to put out your films. Sometimes, that’s just the reality of it.
iW: What is the plan for the next 12 months? How many theaters are you planning on opening?
Bowles: We’re doing it on an opportunity basis. We already have another theater in Denver. We want the theaters to be good business deals. We’re looking for the right deals where we can take chances on films and where we kind of can do our own programming, and can be able to withstand some of those small bumps in the road because we have a good deal with the theater.
I would say there is a good chance that by the end of the year we’re probably in six over all. Which is kind of on target for what we’re looking for. And next year, possibly another six. But if the opportunities arise or the opportunities don’t arise we’ll speed up or slow that down as much as need be.
iW: How are the company’s resources divided between distribution and exhibition? Or are they fully integrated.
Bowles: They’re pretty integrated. They are separate pools of money for the most part, but starting up exhibition takes more money. Because, even if you take over an existing theater, there is refurbishing, there is equipment upgrades. We like to redesign and restyle our theater when we go in as well. That takes more capital than the level of distribution we’re doing now. We are being very frugal all across the company. But those capital investments are definitely more on the exhibition side right now. And once the theater is up and running, it’s a cash flow situation. Then the revenue is generated back.
iW: You’re competing with established exhibitors and distributors, as well as the new crop of newly formed distributors run by people like yourself, who have a lot of experience. How would you say your business model is different than some of the other new companies?
Bowles: Everyone is always looking for the great idea, the great system that just triggers everything. But what it comes down to is that things are substance-based and execution-based. I can show you 40 different plans, because people send me their business plans. And everyone has a foolproof idea, you know. There must be a lot of fools out there, because not all of them seem to work. It comes down to your selection and your execution.
What you distribute and how you distribute is a lot more important than just having a widget going to A and coming out B. I just think it’s much more important getting the substance and doing the right things with it. You know, going to the core audiences and building upon that. That simple mundane stuff that doesn’t sound so good on paper is what makes things work. There is no magic formula to it. It’s hard work, it’s experience.
iW: Do you think, given the huge crop of new independent distributors along with the existing crop that was already there for over a year, do you think that the marketplace is too crowded right now?
Bowles: The market will always be crowded until you get a good film. If you ask a producer, he’ll say the market is not crowded enough, because there are actually a lot of films that are out there that are actually worthwhile. And they may be risky commercially but they’re worthwhile in a certain forum. So the marketplace is always crowded. But if you can get attention for your film and you can get people, it’s a film people want to see, you can get theaters, that’s not a problem at all.
iW: Would you say that the lack of arthouse theaters is the biggest challenge for you?
Bowles: That’s one of the other reasons to be in exhibition as well. For me, one of the problems with art film distribution is art film exhibition. You know, there is Landmark out there, and there is really not much else dedicated to them. That’s not a good situation. You just have one theater chain that’s not even in every city. And a lot of these places are just kind of haphazard. The chains don’t really have the attention to detail that you need for this kind of a release. They don’t do this kind of marketing on a local level for the most part. So it just means that people have to spend more and more money to release their films, just like a major would do to get that kind of mall audience attention. That’s one of the other reasons for getting into exhibition — it enhances the distribution side, because you have people on the local level who are in tune with what makes films work.
iW: Are you looking for a specific niche in terms of content or subject matter?
Bowles: I’ve always been attracted to films that tend to be critically driven. Because those are generally the films I like. I just like basically quality cinema and films that aren’t full of shit, That’s what I look for and if the branding comes from that, sure.
iW: How many films are you planning on releasing each year?
Bowles: We’re not going to do a huge amount. I think this year we’ll probably end up releasing six films. And we’ll see what the market is doing. We’re not picking up films to fill a slate by any means. Exactly the opposite. We see films we like and we try to figure out how we can accommodate them.