One of the country’s biggest specialty theater chains is under fire from competition. Leadership from numerous arthouse enclaves have banded together for an anti-trust lawsuit against Landmark Theaters and its parent company, 2929 Entertainment. The Sept. 27 complaint from Denver Film Society (DFS), Cinema Detroit, West End Cinema and the Avalon Theatre alleges that the national chain of 51 outposts is “coercing agreements from film distributors for exclusive rights to screen art, independent, foreign and documentary films,” thus blocking the arthouse plaintiffs from showing what their audiences most want to watch.
Now, many of the key figures involved in the lawsuit are speaking out to elaborate on their concerns.
According to the complaint, filed in Washington, D.C. district court, distributors typically notified indie exhibitors from the outset that they could not present certain films, citing “clearances”—release-related agreements—with Landmark. Yet in several instances, distributors backtracked (either temporarily or permanently) on providing films they had promised to those theaters, with little notice.
That is what happened when nonprofit Cinema Detroit—which co-founder Paula Guthat describes as both the greater downtown area’s lone “truly independent” and seven-days-per-week movie theater—attempted to show A24’s “Room” last year. “Twice we put out showtimes and they were syndicated to all the sites and then we had to go out and say, ‘Sorry, we’re not gonna have it on this date,’” said Guthat. “That was extremely damaging to us and our reputation.” Cinema Detroit was also never able to screen the 2016 Best Picture winner, “Spotlight.” Meanwhile, “Moonlight,” “Hell or High Water,” and “Birdman (or The Expected Virtue of Ignorance)” only arrived there weeks after their local Landmark debuts.
Despite DFS’s efforts, “Moonlight” did not screen at the Denver non-profit during its theatrical run or after winning the Best Picture Oscar this February. DFS Executive Director Andrew Rodgers said that he was made aware of the Landmark clearance hurdles well before his first day on the job, back in February 2016. “We were told by A24, ‘No, I’m sorry, you can’t have it. Landmark’s got it,'” he said. “We ended up showing it once or twice after Landmark had dropped it.” The situation was especially troubling given the organization’s history with “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins. “We know him personally…we’ve shown his work before,” Rodger said. “We had an audience with [‘Moonlight’] and before it had won any Oscars we were really interested in showing it.”
DFS manages the respected Denver Film Festival—turning 40 in November—and Rodgers said it’s “doubly frustrating” that “we’re trusted for showcasing films at the festival, but not within the theater because of Landmark.” Besides “Moonlight,” “My Cousin Rachel” is the only other film mentioned in the complaint where DFS lost out on the chance for a simultaneous screening with the chain.
However, Rodgers said that since DFS moved into its space in 2010, “We have never once got a film that Landmark was playing.” While a significant swath of the audience “just sort of check[ed] out,” others filmgoers are much bolder with their criticism. “We get these people who say things like, ‘Wow, your guys’ programming sucks, you never show any good movies,’” he continued. “We try to explain to people: we don’t have an opportunity to show the movies that Landmark shows.”
The additional two plaintiffs, both based in Washington, D.C., have had similar experiences. Per the complaint, for-profit West End Cinema never showed “The Illusionist,” and was only okayed to screen “Anita” and “The Lunchbox” after their Landmark tenures; for “dozens of films” since 2015, the non-profit Avalon Theatre was only able to secure distributor licenses after they departed Landmark.
Rodgers said that minutes before talking to IndieWire, he spoke with “a very well-known distributor” that was “really excited about the possible outcome of what’s going to happen here, they think this is going to lead to some great change, they think that a lawsuit is the only way it was going to change.” Guthat concurs that the distributors are “really caught, too” in the crosshairs of Landmark’s power to wield clearances. For the past year, the four plaintiffs have working with the Hausfeld law firm to build their case (Rodgers said that prior to the filing, one not-DFS plaintiff “did spend considerable time”—to no avail—”working with Landmark to try to identify, ‘Is there a way that we could make this work?'”
Landmark Theaters is part of Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban’s media holdings, and the company sued Regal Entertainment in January 2016 for strong-arming distributors with its own clearances, a case that was settled eight months later.
A representative for Landmark declined to comment on the new lawsuit.