News that new owners are taking over management of the Cinemas Palme D’Or in Palm Desert, California on July 1, while continuing to book specialized programming, comes as a relief to those working in the trenches of independent film. Closing the nine-screen complex would have been a major loss. Its current owners include actor Bryan Cranston and journalist Steve Mason.
California’s Tristone Cinema Group is taking over the theater (“the Grand Prix of Cinema”) located at the Westfield Shopping Mall, while LA-based specialized booking firm ESP will assume film buying responsibilities. “Tristone Cinema Group will continue to cater to the arthouse and local audiences that have supported the theater over the years,” they stated. Renovations are planned. “Our goal is to preserve the art of film for wide audiences at an affordable price.”
This specialized complex is one of the most reliable players of a wide range of arthouse films outside the usual top cities, and the largest in the country.
Palm Desert is in the Coachella Valley about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, near to Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage. Though the combined population is no more than a small city (under 250,000 people), the area is full of active moviegoers, mostly older, who search out independent film over a broad range of entries, including the now difficult to find subtitled ones. Although the area has another art house (the Camelot in Palm Springs, one of the homes of January’s successful Palm Springs Film Festival), the number of screens at the Palme D’Or allows local residents to see a wider range of movies than many larger cities in the country, and for longer runs. Currently their films include “Eye in the Sky,” “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” “Everybody Wants Some!!,” “Miles Ahead,” “Born to Be Blue,” “Dough,” “April and the Extraordinary World,” “The Invitation” and “Louder Than Bombs.” That’s an extensive range beyond what likely any other single complex in the country is playing now.
But some titles are missing: current releases “A Hologram for a King” and “Elvis and the King,” as well as the recently expanded “Midnight Special.” And that explains part of the theater’s problems. They are located two miles away from Cinemark River Multiplex in Rancho Mirage, which plays studio movies and insists on “clearance,” or area exclusivity, on all its films (an exhibitor practice still, amazingly, in practice around the country). This resulted in a lawsuit initiated by the Palme D’Or partnership, still under appeal after a state court made a ruling in their favor. But this could take years to resolve and the legal bills for such an undertaking can be enormous. They will continue to pursue their case and hope to recover their claims irrespective of their backing away from the theater.
Companies owned by studios (Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features) or those with proven crossover appeal (Bleecker Street, A24, Weinstein) can get access to big chain complexes, but only for bigger films and in the cases of smaller companies, only after getting their foot in the door, usually by first playing independent theaters eager for their product. And subtitled films—no specialized foreign film has cracked the $2 million mark nationally since “Phoenix” last summer— have a tougher time. The Cinemas Palme D’Or played “Phoenix,” but also important films like “The Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Mustang” and even “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence” (the latter couldn’t even get a full-week dedicated screen in Los Angeles). “They’ve played nearly every title we’ve had,” per Bill Thompson, Sr VP of Theatrical Films for Cohen Releasing, a major distributor of subtitled films currently. “They are the only available outlet in the area for most of them.”
Co-owner Steve Mason confirmed that the July 1 departure is a result of not being able to renew their lease with landlord Westfield Management, owner of the well-trafficked regional shopping center. He and his partners leave, he says, with a strong sense of pride in their programming. “We wanted to play films that we knew wouldn’t do a lot of business because they were worth showing. But to do that we also needed to supplement adult-oriented studio films.” The demands from Cinemark limited that possibility, although in recent months they were able to book “The Bridge of Spies” and “The Revenant” (in both cases with Cinemark not playing). He also said that he didn’t rule out getting back in to theater management. “If the right situation was presented, we’d consider it.”
In the remaining two-plus months of their tenancy, said Mason, they will continue presenting high-end programming as well as well-attended question/answer events (over 400 over the life of the theater).
With the small totals many of these films amass nationally, losing even one big venue is a huge blow for distributors with few alternatives. And the symbolic value of losing not only a complex this vital and one that has been a leader in promotion would depress an industry going through a tough time. Though multiple films continue to gross over $10 million that appeal to specialty crowds, other smaller theaters are struggling with “artier” films, which are vital to introducing the talent than later producers want to work with, from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell and Jon Favreau to directors of subtitled films like Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro G. Inarritu. While the largest chains do support some indie screens, they don’t dig down to this level.
So having as many theaters as possible is crucial to the health of the industry at large.