Forecasting Louisville”s film future

Jul 10, 2007 at 7:32 pm

Movie experts see big changes ahead. But what does that mean?

Vogue: Photo by Bryan Hurst
Vogue: Photo by Bryan Hurst
In mid-May, a dozen or so people who had met via the Internet ventured outside their homes. Instead of just waiting for their Netflix to show up in the mail, these members of the Louisville Movie Fans Meetup Group (Indie Edition) convened at Baxter Avenue Theaters and debated which movie to see. They eventually settled on the French romantic comedy “Avenue Montaigne.”

Then they reconvened right across the street at Ramsi’s Café on the World to reflect on the film. Joe Mays, a 43-year-old IT professional and the group’s organizer, says that discussion turned him onto interpretations of the film he never would have discerned on his own.

“You think about (another interpretation) more when it’s being made by someone you’re sitting there with, and the two of you can exchange thoughts about it,” he says. He adds that such an experience is a much richer experience than just “reading someone’s comment on IMDB.”

Mays started the group in February as a way to preserve the experience of watching film outside the home. “There is still a wonderful communal aspect to seeing movies in a theater that is difficult to re-create anywhere else,” he says.

Over the past 50 years, that experience — the way people see movies — has changed, and especially in smaller cities. Some of the changes have clearly been for the better: For people content to watch independent, art house or foreign films at home, this is a golden age, with its avalanche of challenging DVDs that offer affordable home viewing. Thirty years ago, there was no way to see a rare and respected movie after it left theaters, unless it aired on TV or a local repertory theater screened  it (in which case, you had to free up your calendar because it might be years before another such showing). These days, anything — from a season of “Sanford and Son” to Japanese horror movies — is available for rent at outlets like Wild and Woolly Video.

But for intrepid movie fans who want to see indie movies in the theaters — and who live in smaller markets like Louisville — this moment in film history can be frustrating, to say the least. Although indie films still earn money — “Brokeback Mountain” brought in about $100 million before it even went to DVD — and dominate the Oscars every March — “The Queen” being this year’s example — they are increasingly getting squeezed out of the theaters, particularly in those non-major cities.

With rare exceptions (Indianapolis boasts a dedicated art house theater, Landmark’s Keystone Art, which is currently showing seven different indie flicks), theaters in smaller cities offer little variety. Louisville fare tends to mirror that of other Middle American cities where audiences see a small group of studio-financed “indie” prints such as “Waitress,” “Away From Her” and “The Namesake.”

The weekend of July 6, there were three quasi-indie films showing in Louisville theaters: “Evening,” “A Mighty Heart” and “Sicko.” Other than those three, what did we have? Blockbusters. Cincinnati had a relatively good weekend; four indies that have never shown here. However, Nashville had nothing new for us. Neither did El Paso.

 Beyond that, it is all about the big pictures, which are only getting bigger.
That’s because the large studios and the multiplex theaters that cater to them prefer a few big movies to a number of small ones. In a story headlined “Big Pictures” in the Jan. 8 issue of The New Yorker, critic David Denby lamented the current bloated state of moviemaking. Even adjusting for inflation, movies now are much more expensive than ever. Movies such as “Cleopatra” or “Ben Hur” were once rather rare; every couple of years or so, studios would try to pry people away from their TV sets with outrageously expensive epics. Mostly, though, these behemoths were kept in check by an industry that preferred to spread its risks across a wide variety of films with different budgets and different expectations. Now, it seems, there’s a “Cleopatra” every week for the entirety of the summer movie season.

“The $550 million taken in by ‘King Kong’ was ... considered disappointing,” Denby wrote. “How much theatrical gross is enough?”

According to Denby, “enough” these days is usually $1 billion. That’s right — by the end of this year, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise should have brought in the GDP of some Caribbean countries!
Why the super size? According to Denby, it’s because the studios aren’t just studios anymore, they’re part of a “tent” of entertainment media beholden to stockholders. It’s not just their responsibility to make money in ticket sales, but they have to bring in DVD money, book money, TV money, toy money.

Sadly, if you are in your 20s or younger, you probably think movie theaters always lacked diversity. But for most of the last century, theaters were abundant and filled with a wide spectrum of movies. Until the 1950s, Hollywood put out around 500 films a year to entertain a country with less than half our current population. A movie house was the center of a community.

Then television bit into the market. By the 1960s and 1970s, the studio system was in ruins, and Hollywood was putting out only about half as many movies as it had only a few decades earlier. Still — largely because the financiers spent less time meddling into the affairs of films — it was a great time to go to the movies. Films such as “Taxi Driver” (with a budget slightly over $1 million) and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (barely more than $100,000) were generally small-budget affairs designed to limit the financial risk, but they found fame among theater audiences and turned nice profits for the studios. It wasn’t until 1977 and “Star Wars” that Hollywood began regularly and aggressively turning out blockbusters.

Although this era brought the demolition of most of the movie palaces of the 1920s, there was still a wide variety of theaters to see a comparatively wide variety of movies. Into the 1970s and 1980s, drive-ins catered to kids trying to get away from their parents. Louisville’s Fourth Street and the West End showed “blaxploitation” movies for predominantly African-American crowds. The Uptown and the Vogue — theaters that endure in loving memories and fond observances of local movie fans — showed daring independent and foreign movies. There was even Showcase Cinema Louisville, which took up about as much space as a small dairy farm, combining the shopping mall experience with movies.

In the wake of “Star Wars,” big budget movies dominated the 1980s. At the same time, home video became increasingly widespread, further prompting the studios to produce huge “event” movies, which became the most dependable way to get people out of their homes.

That combination of television and home video viewing and the industry preference for huge, blockbuster movies proved to be about all local movie theaters could withstand. Fourth Street dried up. Most of the drive-ins disappeared. Worst of all, in 1998 the dearly beloved Vogue closed; it was a crushing blow for Louisville film fans. Mays observes: “How many theaters do you know that have people leaving roses in the doorway when they close?”

By 2000, only one theater, Baxter Avenue Theatres (built in 1996), could be depended upon to regularly show something not playing at all the other theaters across the country. This was the model in many cities: All the repertory, independent and low-budget theaters were condensed into one art house theater or, worse, one screen at a multiplex.

Recent news doesn’t foreshadow a recovery anytime soon. In 2005, theater audience attendance dropped more than 10 percent from 2002. While attendance grew slightly in 2006, the overall size of theater audiences has remained stagnant over the last decade.

History shows that theaters have always had to adapt to keep ahead of the competition, but the last 20 years or so have brought increased urgency. One noticeable example from the past few years: Studios have presented commercial films to the IMAX as a way of offsetting improvements in home theater technology.
That current reality prompts a common refrain from film fans: “Why don’t they make better movies and not just more expensive ones?” In the eyes — and wallets — of Hollywood, those kinds of films are too unpredictable. It’s hard to evaluate quality, but they know “big” when they see it. To the studios, their main competition is other entertainment media on a technological front, not an artistic one.

That brings us to the current state of repertory cinema, which I recently examined with other film critics, culture editors and feature writers at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. It was there that David Kehr of The New York Times offered his take: “We’ve never had more restored prints, and

Vogue: Photo by Bryan Hurst
Vogue: Photo by Bryan Hurst
we’ve never had it worse to see movies if you live outside a few cities.”

So, there it is in a nutshell: The old movie theaters close, multiplexes come in, diversity shrinks, and the studios become international conglomerates.

And movie fans in smaller cities like you and I? We’re sitting at home with the remote.
Meanwhile, a combination of studio efforts and current technologies are shaping how we will see movies in five or 10 years, and the ultimate picture of watching films outside the home largely depends upon how people in Louisville respond to larger national trends.

Next year, one of those trends will be evident in Commack, N. Y., where National Amusements will open a new Cinema de Lux as part of its chain of upscale theaters. What does that mean? Try WiFi, a concierge, in-seat dining, VIP rows, a piano and a martini bar. It’s the type of place Marie Antoinette might go to see a movie. And many informed people think this is the real future of movie-going.

But these plush movie palaces are not really indie-movie friendly. Instead of opting for variety or quality, the big players put all of their eggs into one very large, very tacky basket. Think of the Cinema De Lux 16 at Preston Crossing Boulevard (also owned by National Amusements). Then multiply it by 50, and you get an idea of the direction some industry people want to go.

That doesn’t necessarily complement the desires of film buffs. Take Tracy Heightchew, who was an instrumental part of the University of Louisville’s Film Liberation Unit, a motivated group of students who showed first-run and repertory films on campus in the Floyd Theater. She now works with the prestigious Facets Home Video in Chicago.

“I went to a nice deluxe theater in Chicago, but it was very Yuppified. … and way too expensive,” she says.
Andrew Schanie, who runs the Last Call Film Festival — a showcase of independent short and feature films that he screens at the Rudyard Kipling — scoffs at the idea of Yuppie megaplexes.

“Wine bar? Sure, right after I check my stocks,” he wrote in an e-mail that also suggested his choice scenario. “Here’s the plan. I go to the Back Door (bar) before a movie, watch the movie at Baxter Theatre, then drive to (the Rudyard Kipling) to discuss and or make fun of it. Wine bar? Pffft!”

The alternatives to these new Yuppie palaces do exist — mostly in New York City. In the West Village there is The Film Forum, a 37-year-old nonprofit screen and maybe one of the most interesting theaters in the world. The Brooklyn Academy of Music opened up an art house theater a few years ago.

Still, there are examples outside the Big Apple. Moving away from the coasts, Austin’s Alamo Draft House serves burgers and beer while screening everything from blockbusters to classics — “It Happened One Night” or “Sabrina.” Lexington’s Kentucky Theater is a music venue and art-house theater owned by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government and leased to a private firm. The theater has screened amazing films lately, from the classic sci-fi flick “Forbidden Planet” to the 2006 Cannes winner “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.”

And Louisville did have the Kentucky Theater on South Fourth Street for four years. It tried to model itself on the Lexington theater, playing host to performing arts and offering the occasional film screening, such as the Louisville premier of the French animated masterpiece “The Triplets of Belleville.” Sadly, it closed last year.
Asked what his ideal Louisville theater would look like, Schanie mused, “It would probably be a mix between the Vogue and the Uptown but serving beer. I think people would understand the atmosphere of the theater and treat it with respect. If not, my bouncers would throw you out.”

If today’s trends continue, and art house movies are pushed out of movie theaters, then a return to the cine-club culture might be inevitable. A hundred years ago, places like Paris and New York were filled with cine clubs, where like-minded people would meet to watch the type of experimental movies that weren’t being shown in the vaudeville houses.

Heightchew is currently working with the brand new Louisville Film Society — a nonprofit cine club. Their goal is to be a flexible, passionate organization, surviving without a specific theater but able to take movies to a variety of venues: theaters, bars, libraries, schools, parties, outdoor events, whatever.
“One of the main purposes of our group, part of our mission statement is about community outreach, community enrichment and youth involvement,” she says.

Local outreach has meant taking interesting films outside of the movie theaters. They’ve screened rare 16mm films at the Nachbar. They showed children’s films at the Shotgun Fest in Germantown. And they’ve even been showing movies at Bernheim Forest (the fliers for the events say “Hike. Listen. Watch.”)

The renaissance of these clubs could accompany the growing affordability of small, portable projectors and make guerilla exhibitions — like getting a DVD and showing it in a warehouse or at a loft party — very economical. But that remains illegal. To show a movie publicly, the distributor wants a cut (that is, if the office bothers to return phone calls).

Also, consider telling a film company that a movie won’t be seen in a theater 30 times a week, but once or twice through a local cine club; executives will consider that arrangement cold comfort. And although the industry has begun preparing for a new way of doing things, it doesn’t like the idea of living without big ticket sales. Furthermore, a prevalent viewing of films via cine clubs could create an economy that undermines the production of $5 million pictures like “The Last King of Scotland” and favors more truly experimental, inexpensive movies. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

“I don’t think that the epitaph on film has been written yet,” Heightchew says. “Just because it will never be like it was in the ’30s or the ’70s” — heydays for Hollywood movies — “doesn’t mean that it’s dead. I think that it’s all according to scale.”

Of course, not everybody is in love with the idea of small social clubs and nonprofits replacing large community experiences. Dave Conover is an assistant manager at Baxter Avenue Theatres and one of the key figures in Louisville’s film culture; he used to write on film for LEO, used to work at the Vogue and helps put on the sci-fi fantasy convention Wonderfest.

He hates the idea of removing small movies from theaters and putting them into the hands of a few small groups — what he calls “ghettoizing” movies. This arrangement would make meeting different kinds of people and exposing people to surprising new films more difficult, he says. The kinds of independent movies that have become entwined with pop culture, like “Pulp Fiction,” “The Full Monty” and “Trainspotting,” would be limited to a more underground culture.

It’s likely that cine clubs will be made up primarily of people who have been active in the film festival explosion of the last few decades. When the indie theaters started shutting down in the 1980s, film festivals tried to leap up in their place — their advantage being, of course, that they don’t need a permanent home. These days, even such hubs of culture as Winslow, Ariz., and Erie, Pa., have festivals.

Louisville once had the Louisville Film and Video Festival. When that folded in 2002, the Baxter tried to organize its own festival with the Louisville International Film Expo. But, according to Conover, disappointing sales led to the program’s demise.

And other Louisville film festivals are hurting. Besides the deaths of LFVF and LIFE, the Asian Film Festival (probably my favorite of the local events) is currently looking for a sponsor. Its future, too, is in doubt.
Schanie started the Last Call Film Festival in 2006 because he was a “huge movie dork” and was tired of reading on the Internet about all of the interesting films showing in other places. Inspired by the do-it-yourself approach he learned from years of playing in indie and punk bands, for a festival venue he chose the Rudyard Kipling, a place best known as an intimate performing arts and music space. He loves the Rud.

“It’s like being able to do something at home without being home,” he says. “You can see movies, meet people and get blotto.”

Digital cinema is another possible diving force behind a future in Louisville with more indie films shown on big screens. Within the next five years or so, most theaters will have digital projectors, which will probably end the era of old-fashioned celluloid prints. Movies will then be distributed through portable, recyclable hard drives or downloaded from satellites.

This excites most everyone in the independent world, from distributors to theaters.
“I hope that there will be theaters projecting 35mm prints for a long time to come,” says Nadja Tennstedt from the independent Milestone Films, which since 1990 has rescued, restored and showcased films from all of movie history, and, in turn, created new audiences for them. “That said, there is the reality of the enormous cost of 35mm. Striking and shipping film prints is expensive, so it is helpful to have the option to release movies in other media. There are quite a number of exhibitors who would rather show on video or digitally because these are cheaper alternatives to screening 35mm.”

This can be a huge step forward for small cities like Louisville. Distributors can afford to open in more theaters, which means Louisville will make the cut. Even better, there’s nothing to prevent our city from getting an independent film at the same time New York or Los Angeles gets it. For people who have struggled to promote films here, this is an important change.

For theaters, this presents a way to restructure the current indie-film economic model that works well enough in a city of 8 million, but poorly in one of a few hundred thousand.

Conover is optimistic that digital “prints” will have a positive impact on small cities and lead to what he calls an “open market,” where theaters have more control over what they want to show. He imagines a situation where a theater can show an indie film once or twice a day, instead of four or five times.

Imagine organizations that guarantee ticket sales in return for repertory series or one-off showings of rare and respected movies that get people as excited as a live performance by their favorite band. In other words, imagine Louisville making its own film culture instead of picking through whatever the larger cities discard.
Digital cinema, however, is not a fait accompli, Conover says. “We still need to know how much it’s going to cost and who will foot the bill.”

Although prices will surely decrease, some estimates put the cost of retrofitting a screen for digital technology as high as $100,000. Studios and theaters haven’t agreed who will assume that cost, and that has slowed the implementation of the technology.

Fans of film — as opposed to DVD, which some see as a different art form altogether — certainly hope something works out, and that a variety of interesting movies continues being shown to groups of strangers.
Any genuine film buff has his or her initiation story, the event that conjured a love for film. For me, it was 1989. I was 15 and going with friends to the art house theater near my boyhood home in Connecticut. We saw the Japanese animated classic “Akira.” We were so excited. We had seen anime on home video, but we really wanted to know how it looked in a theater.

While it was most certainly breathtaking, there was even more to the experience. Seeing this film on a big screen, in a theater filled with strangers of different ages and backgrounds, I realized there is something worthwhile in movies. On the small screen, anime was fun. On the big screen, it seemed — for the first time — important.

Mays is no different. At age 20, he went to an art house theater in Dayton, Ohio, called The Neon Movie, to see Pedro Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

“It was a revelatory experience for me,” he says. “For the first time I realized that movies could be viewed as more than just popular entertainment, that they could be an art form.”

He realized everyone making movies outside of Hollywood seemed to know this. There are plenty in Louisville who do as well, and they have hope for the future.

Contact the writer at [email protected]