Landscape remains crowded, with new companies reaching into indie exhibition

Owning and operating a theater dedicated to independent film is an attractive idea, but several companies set up to do that have found it’s not so easy.

A few years ago several exhib chains were in or near bankruptcy and looking to sell venues. A slew of sites was up for grabs — and indie entrepreneurs circled. But in the past two years, loops consolidated and bounced back thanks to studio fare.

A reversal of fortunes forced most of the indie exhib ventures to modify plans. Still, the landscape remains crowded, with new companies reaching into indie exhibition, including Madstone, Magnolia, Emerging Pictures and the Independent Film Channel.

Despite the bumps in the road for these new players, there is room for expansion, says Greg Laemmle, VP at the 65-year-old family-owned art-house loop Laemmle Theaters. “In terms of new (specialty exhibs), their success will depend on the quality of the new venues they open and the strength of the markets they go into. Certain markets are under-screened — or do not have quality screens — and are ready to explode.”

Here’s where some of the new exhibitors stand:

Madstone

Madstone initially planned to get into production, distribution and exhibition but has scaled back. The focus is now chiefly exhibition and the company opened seven theaters in 18 months, fewer than originally intended.

Only one film, “Rhinoceros Eyes,” has emerged from its director-driven production arm. Pic hasn’t found distribution.

Unlike most arthouse theaters, which are located in inner cities, Madstone’s target is the suburbs. Its goal is to attract upscale auds who drink lattes, not teens looking to play videogames.

Madstone has retrofitted megaplexes in Atlanta, San Diego, Phoenix, Ann Arbor, Mich., Albuquerque, N.M., Cleveland, and Raleigh/ Durham, N.C. By year’s end, it plans to open cinemas in Salt Lake City and Denver.

Magnolia

Bill Banowsky, who runs Magnolia with indie vet Eammon Bowles, also was interested in venues that he could convert to upscale boutiques — not strictly arthouse, not megaplex. “We want to create urbanism in areas that are not really thought of as urban,” says Banowsky.

Magnolia has thus far bought two theaters from the major chains — one in Boulder, Colo., the other in Dallas.

But Magnolia has slowed exhibition plans because of the lagging economy, specifically the state of the real estate market. While eschewing new development, the company is negotiating for existing theaters in several additional markets.

Magnolia’s distrib arm already has scored its first success, docu “Capturing the Friedmans.”

Emerging

Emerging Pictures aims to eliminate real estate costs altogether and cut down on P&A by installing digital projection systems in existing venues.

“The problem today,” says Emerging co-topper Ira Deutchman, “is that traditional niche-oriented films that are not seen as potential crossover films are no longer being given a shot.”

But Deutchman is encouraged by increased focus on indie exhibition. “There’s something wrong with the economic structure of the independent film business when ‘Chicago’ is still considered an independent film,” he says. “There are pieces of the solution in every one of these efforts. “

Deutchman’s answer has been to quietly reoutfit performance spaces around the country with digital projection and programming indie films into those venues. Emerging’s first two installations will open in the next few months — in New Brunswick, Maine, and Scranton, Penn.

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