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Are Indie Arthouse Theaters Fighting for Their Lives?

Are Indie Arthouse Theaters Fighting for Their Lives?

Last week, I blogged about the successful run of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Three Times” in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre — the vintage northside gem that faces tough competition from the Landmark mall multiplex but a couple miles away. Chicago is an interesting test case for regional art-house exhibition — and I wonder if what’s happening in the Windy City is similar to other markets outside of New York and Los Angeles. With Robert Redford’s Sundance Cinemas chain finally (it seems) taking off with a few upcoming venues (in Chicago, among them), the race between competing art-houses will become even more cutthroat.

The 3 Penny Cinema, for example, another independently-run theater in Chicago, was recently closed after failing to pay the City’s Amusement Tax, which the theater claims, “is an impossible tax for small theaters to pay.” In addition to such costs, I imagine it will become even harder for non-chain theaters, like the Music Box, to compete for big-name indie titles with the arrival of Sundance’s flashy name recognition and Landmark’s continuous bullying tactics.

There is a bit of a silver lining for arthouse indies in that the corporate entities could be shooting themselves in the foot. Three Times, for instance, which is a part of IFC’s First Take series, isn’t playing at the neighboring Landmark monolith because of ongoing disputes between IFC parent Cablevision’s Comcast and Landmark’s Mark Cuban. As long as such infighting exists, venues like the Music Box can take advantage.

Like other cities, Chicago may also be facing the result of newspaper’s downsizing of its film critics. I believe I painted a somewhat all-too-rosy view of critics’ influence in Chicago. While the Sun-Times’ uber-critic Roger Ebert continues to fight cancer in and out of the hospital, Wilimington was recently ousted as chief critic at the Tribune, and as one Chicago insider tells me, “Both papers continually threaten to devote less space to art film.” With fewer film critics or editorial space devoted to championing movies like Three Times, things will get increasingly difficult in regional markets.

The success of Three Times was “a bright spot in an otherwise dark summer,” one distrib told me. Let’s hope it’s not the last.

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