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Landmark Has a New President, But Do Specialized Films Still Have a Champion?

Charles Cohen hired veteran film buyer Paul Serwitz. It's unclear if he has the mandate to maintain an unflinching devotion to indie film.

Erica Lange

With the hire of Paul Serwitz as president and COO of Landmark Theatres announced October 30, Landmark Theatres owner Charles S. Cohen quickly filled the vacancy created by the October 24 resignation of Ted Mundorff. It’s a surprising choice.

Formerly a VP Film at Regal Entertainment, Serwitz lay outside the expected shortlist of candidates. Regal is a distant second in specialized compared to the biggest chain, AMC, and even to Landmark itself. Landmark lives and dies by these films, and is particularly essential for smaller companies. With 251 screens in 51 theaters located in 27 markets, Landmark alone can create the backbone of a release that has a chance to succeed.

Parasite

“Parasite”

Neon

At Regal, specialty was a sideline for Serwitz, whose portfolio included oversight of up to 1,000 screens and supervising other buyers, including one who handled direct specialized contact. (That person is now at Landmark.)

Industry sources described him as a gentleman, thoughtful, judicious, and talented. But while he has one of Mundorff’s titles (his predecessor was CEO, Serwitz is COO), he doesn’t have the same skill set. Serwitz never attained the position of head film buyer after 25 years at Regal, and left the company earlier this year after it closed its Los Angeles office and moved to centralized film buying in its Tennessee headquarters. Mundorff oversaw not only film, but also operations, real estate, construction, and financing.

Vanessa Redgrave and Charles S Cohen'Money Monster' premiere, 69th Cannes Film Festival, France - 12 May 2016

Vanessa Redgrave and Charles S. Cohen at Cannes 2016

James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock

Those operational skills might not be as necessary with Cohen, a second-generation New York real estate mogul. But the choice of someone whose main credentials come in film disconcerts some observers.

Experience and past commitment to nurturing specialized films (for Regal, mostly those with broader appeal) makes distributors hopeful. However, under head film buyer Mabel Tam, Landmark is already regarded as having a top-notch staff guiding programming. Its biggest strength, arguably, comes from recognizing its responsibilities to the independent community.

Under Mundorff, Landmark has added certain adult-oriented wide releases in select locations. But for the most part, it doesn’t play “Joker,” or Marvel Films, or similar, even though it could. Doing more of that might be a quick fix to increase revenue, but it would come at the expense of screens for more vulnerable specialized companies.

And, while wide releases generally generate wider audiences, that doesn’t mean there’s inherent need for another wide-release theater chain at Landmark locations. Its audience goes primarily for the distinctive programming; Landmark’s reputation as a curator of specialized film remains unequaled (as contrasted to the successful Alamo Drafthouse theaters, which overwhelmingly favors studio product). A philosophical shift could be catastrophic for independent film.

Cohen moved into the film business when he launched Cohen Releasing, a distributor that focuses almost entirely on subtitled films like “The Salesman,” “Mustang,” and “Faces/Places” — films that would never have found their audiences without Landmark. Perhaps self-interest, as well as a kind of noblesse oblige and patronage, would encourage him to foster that Landmark ecosystem. For now, there is much trepidation among film distributors about what lies ahead.

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