by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ith an unprecedented number of independent films earning nominations for both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, the art-house circuit has gained a mainstream legitimacy it hasn't had since perhaps the '70s. As of Friday, AMC will have seven indie flicks playing on six screens (including, it must be said, films from the indie-ish subsidiaries of major studios, Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, etc.). That represents 30 percent of downtown Spokane's screens.
Granted, many of those films, in this case, are directly tied to the indie buzz the Academy Awards have created -- nominees for Best Picture and the four acting categories often enjoy a second run at the cineplex around Oscar time. So seven films on six screens is an extreme case, but there's more to it than just the awards. We've got Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale at the moment, along with Tommy Lee Jones' absurdist Western, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Squid garnered an Original Screenplay nomination, true, but films almost never land in a market based on a single screenplay nomination. That just doesn't happen. Three Burials was utterly (and unfairly) shut out of the nominations altogether. Indeed, since opening, AMC has slowly trickled indie flicks into their lineup weekly and have done so successfully. Lately, that trickle's become something of a small flood, and Spokane is enjoying an upswell in consumer interest in independent film, that's right in line with the national trend, say sources at AMC.
So that's encouraging, right? More indie flicks for film buffs? Well yes and no. AMC gets the big dogs, those films that, while indie, are successful enough to have impressed the corporate buyers with their financial solubility. Which means they rarely get any of the really avant-garde stuff and they don't usually get foreign films. Sad, but that's where the true art-house theaters generally come in. That's where they come in other cities anyhow. Unfortunate that Spokane doesn't have any.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & iscounting the Spokane International Film Festival, the Met -- Spokane's only real outlet for first- and second-run (those in theatrical release, not yet on DVD) independent films -- hasn't shown one in months. The big obstacle is apparently that the Met needs to make money, and it's hard to do that with AMC showing the most commercially viable flicks. "If I hear that AMC's getting a film, I don't even bother," General Manager Michael Smith of the Met told me in early November.
The indie films AMC plays aren't just the most commercially viable though, they're the ones generating the most national buzz, which means they've already got word of mouth working in their favor and therefore require less of an ad budget. All around, it's an incredibly smart business move and good for the film scene around here. But it's stifling for art-house cinemas. In cities like Seattle, these films (Brokeback; Capote; Good Night, and Good Luck; A History of Violence) are what float independent theaters like the Landmark chain and allow them to play artsier (read: less profitable) fare. Chains like Loews and even the Seattle-area AMCs often don't infringe on that turf, with a few exceptions.
So, though it seems a bit odd, any indie theater wanting to break into Spokane needs to do so with an eye on AMC and with the intention of exploring new ways of showing art films. Those behind the Magic Lantern -- which is reopening in the Saranac Hotel this fall, according to Dave Sanders, the building liaison -- say they want to do just that. Noting the difficulties of past attempts, the current problems the Met has had and even the ongoing fiscal troubles of giant chains like Regal Cinemas, the latest incarnation of the troubled Spokane icon has realigned itself as a nonprofit called the Magic Lantern Film Society. They've done so in order to cut overhead, avoid paying certain fees associated with for-profit theaters and to shift the focus from money-making to community building.
That last thing, the shift in focus, has garnered some impressive patronage from the Saranac's owner, developer Jim Sheehan. Sheehan has agreed to purchase any equipment the Magic Lantern doesn't currently have, including the technology to show digital films and an updated sound system, on the simple condition that whatever he buys stays with the building, regardless of what happens to the Magic Lantern.
Kathryn Graham, who ran the old Lantern from 1989-97 and is spearheading its revival, says they'll be offering membership rewards, discounts for bringing your own popcorn holders and soda cups, securing grant money and getting underwriting from other nonprofits to keep the projectors on and flickering.
"I'm modeling it on the Grand," says Graham referring to a Tacoma art-house theater that failed as a for-profit venture, but has succeeded since going nonprofit. "We've kind of learned what worked for them and what hasn't. Hopefully we'll be doing only what worked."
That lack of profit motivation should also help the theater tackle AMC's dominance of those really profitable indie flicks. "[AMC] wouldn't want to be holding films because, to them, that would be losing money. To us, if we're breaking even, that's good enough," says Graham.
That simple difference in focus means they can keep films longer, build the buzz that's been lacking at places like the Met -- whose business model shares the same profit motivations as AMC, and thus generally only shows a film for a weekend -- and sustain longer runs than AMC is willing commit to. Such a plan could easily be dismissed as a Creative Class flight of fancy if not for the success of places like the Grand and a particular landmark in Sandpoint you may have heard of.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & G & lt;/span & oing nonprofit and community-owned has done wonders for Sandpoint's Panida Theater, which was on the verge of demolition before being bought up by the community in 1985. Though it's closer in size and configuration to the Met than to the proposed Magic Lantern, it has nonetheless been able to float a very solid, very artsy film series called the Global Cinema Caf & eacute;.
This week, the Panida's director, Karen Bowers, is showing Paradise Now, a film about suicide bombers that has earned a nomination for the Foreign Language Oscar. It's a risk showing that kind of film -- political leanings being what they are in North Idaho -- but it's not as big a risk for the Panida as it would be for AMC. That's because, without the profit motivation, all Bowers really cares about is exposing people to good movies. Once that sinks in to a community, says Bowers -- the idea that you're doing this for them -- you get people coming every week, regardless of what's playing. Pretty soon, you have to worry less about the word of mouth any one film is generating because your theater, as an establishment, is getting such positive buzz.
It's way too soon to herald the success of the Magic Lantern -- the Grand had two really hard years struggling as a nonprofit before gaining success -- but if learning from past successes is a guarantor of future ones, and if this wave of indie success holds, it's got a chance.