For years the Music Box has been the premier venue for art films in Chicago. With its passionate, sophisticated audience and its prime location at the north end of the Southport strip, the beautifully restored 1929 movie palace is coveted by national distributors, and programmer Brian Andreotti wields considerable influence over the local exhibition of independent and foreign films. But the commercial landscape for art films could be radically different by the end of 2000. Landmark Theatre Corp., a Los Angeles-based company that operates art houses in 18 markets, plans to turn the top two floors of the Century mall, near Clark and Diversey, into a state-of-the-art, seven-theater multiplex by April of next year. And next fall the Film Center, which has given the Music Box some of its stiffest competition, will move from its home in the School of the Art Institute, at Columbus and Jackson, to a two-screen facility with a cafe and concession stand at State and Randolph, across the street from the Chicago Theatre.
"We've been very spoiled," admits Andreotti, a former programmer for the Chicago International Film Festival who's booked the Music Box for the past four years. "I think we're all concerned. I believe there's room for us and Landmark, but this business is about getting the titles. I know we're going to get fewer of the higher profile films, like those from Good Machine." Todd Solondz's Happiness, which was produced and distributed by Good Machine, came to Chicago with strong word-of-mouth and played at the Music Box for four weeks, but many smaller films lack the name recognition or advertising budgets to draw that large an audience. According to Andreotti, the arrival of Landmark "could mean we're going to have to spend a lot more money to promote these films."
Chicago's cinephiles already have an array of choices: in addition to the Film Center, Facets Multimedia Center, the Fine Arts, and Pipers Alley, the city boasts more than a dozen annual festivals and ambitious series like LaSalle Bank's classic films, Chicago Filmmakers' experimental Kino-Eye Cinema, and the University of Chicago's wide-ranging DOC Films. But the audience is limited, and in the last decade the Music Box has consolidated its position as an exclusive presenter of art-house titles. Sandy Chaney, Andreotti's predecessor, was instrumental in transforming the Music Box from a repertory theater that screened mostly classics into a first-run venue, a business predicated on booking the most highly anticipated art films. Next year Landmark will be fighting tooth and nail for those same titles, and the Century, which occupies the shell of an old movie palace in one of Lakeview's busiest shopping districts, will be an attractive location for distributors, who want their little-known properties screened at theaters that will maximize their exposure and revenue.
Landmark is no carpetbagger: during the 80s it operated the Varsity in Evanston and the Parkway near Clark and Diversey, one block south of the Century. Like the Music Box at that time, the Parkway and the Varsity were both repertory houses, screening a different double feature almost every day and distributing long-term calendars that listed upcoming films. Cable and video destroyed the repertory market, but Landmark still distributes calendar schedules in seven of its largest markets, including Austin, Seattle, San Francisco, and LA. Cary Jones, vice president of marketing for Landmark, says the company hasn't decided whether the Century multiplex will distribute a calendar, but he thinks Chicago will welcome the new venue. "There's a long-standing history of support," he says. "It was always a desire of ours to return there. Our intent is to try and play the best, most interesting and provocative films. We don't feel there are any limitations--in some cases we've even played films that didn't have distributors."
Barry Schain, president of the Chicago-based theater consultant Wabash Associates, thinks Landmark's arrival will increase the competition for bookings and patrons. He says it will rupture the Music Box's audience and drive up film costs, the percentage of the box office given back to the distributor. "There aren't enough movies to support all of these screens," says Schain. "People go to see movies, they don't go to theaters. Art and specialized films are basically word-of-mouth. You're increasing the number of locations and screens, but you're not increasing the size of the audience that goes to see these films." Marc Pascucci, vice president of advertising and publicity for Loews Entertainment, acknowledged last year that Landmark's arrival in Chicago would affect the booking of its art houses, the Fine Arts and Pipers Alley. But Marcus Hu, copresident of the Santa Monica distributor Strand Releasing, thinks Landmark will only diversify the Chicago market. "Landmark is good for everyone," says Hu. "Right now it's hard for Brian to program everything. The Music Box can't accommodate every film. They'll still be able to get a lot of films. Landmark came into San Francisco and it didn't diminish [independent art house] the Castro in any way."
Landmark has its own problems. Its parent corporation, Silver Cinemas International, is financially strapped after aggressive expansion of its own multiplexes, investment in a chain of second-run discount theaters, and the December 1997 acquisition of Landmark; in February, Variety reported that Silver Cinemas is $100 million in debt. Landmark is a highly profitable division, but it's been traumatized by the departure of president Bert Manzari. Such developments could explain why the Century facility, announced in May 1997, is still a year from opening. But at the Music Box, Andreotti remains on edge about the increased competition for bookings. "I'm probably going to have to offer more," he concedes. "We're probably going to have to play films longer. We're going to have to offer something different. We don't have stadium-style seating and digital sound. But at the same time, they're not a 1929 movie palace."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.