Summer’s smiling on niche houses

It was a very good summer to be an arthouse exhibitor.

Bert Manzari, senior VP of Landmark Theaters, the largest U.S. chain of screens showing specialized fare, reports a whopping 32.3% boost in attendance at its 131 theaters in July compared to the same month last year.

While Landmark expanded from 10 to 15 screens in San Francisco in July, with a resulting 118% jump in attendance from the same period last summer, the indie filmgoing trend extended beyond the hipper cinema centers of the West and the coasts.

The reason? Sarasota, Fla.-based independent booker Dick Morris, who books close to 40 arthouse and chain screens from Tulsa to Miami (“Show me a redneck and I’ll show him a subtitle”), points to a plethora of product pulling in the public. “There have never been more quality films in a summer period,” says Morris.

For the five-week period from July through the first week of August – traditionally the doggiest of summer’s dog days for arthouses – Morris reports that Kansas City’s single-screen Fine Arts Theater reaped $32,500 showing “The Postman” (II Postino) and “Belle de Jour.” That represented a nearly 200% increase over the same frame in ’94 and a 100% increase from ’93.

The Rialto in Raleigh, N.C., showing “Smoke” and “Belle de Jour” as well as docu “Crumb,” took in $25,400 on one screen during the same five weeks, tripling the take from the same period in ’94. A newly added second screen showing “The Postman” for those five weeks reaped a healthy average of $2,800 per week.

Sarasota’s smokin’

Sarasota’s three-screen Burns Court Cinema, showing “Smoke,” “The Postman” and “Bulletproof,” outdid last summer by 65%, Morris says.

George Mansour, a Boston-based consultant to Landmark Theaters, sees the Sept. 15 opening in Cambridge, Mass., of the spiffy new Kendall Square nine-plex as an indication that the arthouse is an increasingly popular venue across the nation.

“The general audience has become more sophisticated,” says Mansour, who books arthouse and university screens throughout New England. “They’re seeing specialized films in multiplexes now, not just in the local arthouse.”

In Wilton, N.H., a non-collegiate blue-collar former mill town, the Town Hall Cinema is the local arthouse and the only place for miles around to catch films like “Little Odessa,” “The Postman” and “Kids.”

At the 312-seat two-screener “Kids” took in $2,900 during its debut week, which made Town Hall’s manager, projectionist, popcorn maker and sometime police dispatcher Dennis Makarevich proud. “I think our audience is maturing,” says Makarevich, who charges regular admission of $5 and must compete with a new multiplex showing mainstream studio pics down the road. “They’re getting to the age where they look for a good film.”

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