by Marty Demarest

Every year around the holidays, studios start to release the films that they hope will capture both the attention of audiences looking for serious entertainment and high-publicity prestige. In the past, awards like the Oscars went almost exclusively to Hollywood productions, with recognition going to filmmakers who have helped the industry financially as often as it went to serious artistic achievements. But lately, a new crop of films have started to creep into the awards ceremonies and find their way into local multiplexes. Smaller, often independently produced films, with goals loftier than the accumulation of profit, have begun to play an increasingly significant role in the movie industry.

Once nearly the exclusive domain of small, out-of-the-way independent movie houses, art films have begun to generate business for Hollywood. And in Tinseltown, there's no better way to be taken seriously than to demonstrate a positive cash flow. The results have been an increased visibility of art films around the nation, with titles in foreign languages, featuring obscurely beautiful stars, popping up in malls and multiplexes, screening down the hall from Hollywood's latest mass-marketed commodities.

For audiences, it would seem that the results of this trend are good: greater accessibility to challenging films, higher-quality screenings, and increased visibility and financial reward for the work of artists who might otherwise have gone unheralded. But what is also happening, as Hollywood and the movie theater industries become increasingly involved in the art film world, is a slow deterioration of the foundations on which those films have thrived for years.

Bob Glatzer is a film critic and the producer of the Cinema at the Met film series, which screens art and foreign films at the Met Theater in Spokane on occasional Wednesday nights. Glatzer was planning on opening his series this fall with the film The Princess and the Warrior, a critically acclaimed German film from the director of the art house hit Run Lola Run. But just before the film was scheduled to play, Glatzer received word that he couldn't show the film he had been heavily promoting for weeks, because it was going to be showing at one of Regal Cinemas' multiplexes in Spokane.

"I was enraged," Glatzer says. "I had a long conversation with a lady at Sony Classics," the film's United States distributor, "and she said they had promised it last August to Regal. And this happened on the Monday before the Wednesday we were going to show it."

Glatzer quickly substituted another film from his lineup, which was scheduled to run several weeks later, and that week Spokane's film-going audience -- which often complains about Spokane's lack of art film screenings -- was treated to two critically acclaimed foreign films.

Over the course of the past few months, the situation has become even richer for an audience that wants to enjoy art and foreign films in Spokane. Regal Cinema's Newport theater is regularly screening several small, independent films, and the AMC 20 downtown occasionally devotes a screen to them as well. Glatzer's series at the Met is continuing into the new year, and according to a recorded message that plays for the phone listing of the Magic Lantern -- Spokane's previous dedicated art cinema -- the business may soon be reopening in a new location. The question that may have to be answered, however, is how the smaller art theaters and screening series will compete with the larger theater chains, now that they've started to dabble in the same business.

"What we are is a response to our customers," explains Rick King, a spokesman for AMC Theatres, "and two factors that drive movie attendance the most are income levels and education levels. And with the increasingly higher education levels in our audience, and an increase our audiences' income levels, there is an increased demand for what we sometimes refer to as 'art product.' "

King is quick to point out that they see their screenings of art films not as a replacement for the smaller art theaters, but as a supplement to them. "There is a growing percentage of people who want to see art films, and the megaplex theaters have a large seating capacity, with high standards of presentation, that audiences might not be able to find elsewhere."

When asked if the screenings a major theater chain might run for a smaller art film are as profitable as the screenings for a major Hollywood motion picture, King chuckles, and mentions that their figures aren't really comparable. But, he adds about the art film screenings, "they are profitable."

Still, in Spokane the major exhibitors have been slow to bring art films to town, leaving many the option of waiting for a screening at the Met, waiting for the video or driving to Seattle. It's almost as if having to open Harry Potter on five screens translates into films like Amelie -- a hit in big cities across the nation -- never quite making it to Spokane.

While a casual moviegoer may find the occasional foreign film or independent feature an interesting diversion, there is a strong core audience that wants to see art films shown regularly in a dedicated space.

When Hollywood first began producing sound films and distributing them nationwide, each major studio owned its own theaters, which screened only that studio's movies. This meant that any independently produced films, and foreign films in particular, had to be screened in an independently operated theater.

After an anti-trust suit forced the Hollywood studios to abandon their exclusive theater chains, most movie houses dedicated themselves to showing the popular and profitable films that Hollywood was producing -- reveling in the chance to draw on the work of multiple studios. The smaller, independent films continued to be shown almost exclusively in the theaters that had already learned how to make a profit by catering to an audience of foreign and independent film lovers.

For some art houses, maintaining that dedication has become a mission, even in the face of competition from the larger theaters. In Sandpoint, the Panida Theater is currently in its eighth season of screening independent and international films as part of its "Global Cinema Cafe" series, which is run by Karen Bowers.

"Since Sandpoint is seen as an arts community, I always thought that there might be a clientele here," Bowers observes. "But it took some time to really develop an audience. Here in Sandpoint, we have the Cinema 4, which shows strictly mainstream films, which is fine. Otherwise, you have to go to Spokane on a specific night. So I was hoping that there would be a need -- and also personally I want to turn people on to incredible, award-winning films that are above what you can see in the mainstream for the most part."

What Bowers crafted is a lineup that reads like a listing of film-festival award nominees -- movies like the critically lauded A Time for Drunken Horses and Amelie are scheduled to play in upcoming months. And Bowers' dedication to the films has resulted in a regular audience. "A lot of people just come out of faith that it's going to be a good film," she notes. "But the films are very pricey. A lot of times we don't break even, and that's hard. But we've been at it for so long that I don't want to stop."

However, it's that financial bottom line that may end up affecting existing art film series in the long run, as major studios continue to pick up smaller, independent films and market them in exclusive deals to larger cinema chains. But people like Glatzer see some advantages to sticking with the art-house and art-series format, particularly in a city like Spokane. "Regal does almost zero publicity for the smaller films that they get. About the only thing that they do is list them in the newspapers. My films are listed in advance in the Met's newsletter, and I try to get screener tapes," which are advance-release videos of the films, "out to the local press if possible before the showing. You can't see a press screening for movies here at the major theaters."

When I ask Glatzer what might have been different if he had been allowed to screen The Princess and the Warrior instead of the Newport, he pauses for a moment before answering. "For one thing, people wouldn't have felt that they needed to make the long trip up to the Newport to see a little art film. And then they get there and find 12 people around them. If they had come to the Met, there would have been 100 people, and they would have felt comfortable."

As far as the studios are concerned, Glatzer is also confident that, ultimately, art screenings will make a difference. "I can do the same amount of business in one night with a film that a major theater does in an entire week of showing it. And I think that's going to make it back to the distributors, eventually."

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