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Indies try for personal touch

Filmmakers make trek to Kansas City for face time with AMC film bookers

Last month, Picturehouse’s Bob Berney arranged for Paul Reiser and Peter Falk to host special screenings of “The Thing About My Folks” not in Los Angeles or Gotham, but at AMC theaters in America’s heartland, Kansas City.

That’s right — Kansas City, where all roads now lead for distribs wanting any face time with AMC buyers.

AMC’s decision this spring to shutter its Los Angeles shop and relocate all bookers to headquarters in Kansas City worried the distrib biz, capping the long and slow demise of regional offices and the personal ties they guaranteed. The indies were particularly alarmed.

With more releases flooding the market, and some tentpoles opening on 3,500-plus screens, specialty titles require more finesse than ever to land the right screens in target markets, and to hold those screens long enough to generate word of mouth. Buyers can help this cause along.

“It used to be an easy, good-old-boy network,” says Berney, who has made a practice of using the big exhibs to platform indie pics. “Now, it’s definitely changing into a numbers game. Some anonymous booker punches a button, and the movie’s gone and a new one’s programmed in its place.”

Rumors abound that the Gotham office of Loews Cineplex is likely to close once the AMC-Loews merger goes through, creating a 5,936-screen chain. Loews has no shop in L.A.

Regal Entertainment Group, the country’s largest chain with 6,264 screens, continues to operate its Woodland Hills office, but outside of the 15 or so buyers in the L.A. office, everyone else works out of headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn. (Last week, Regal announced it was upping Woodland Hills-based indie buyer Denise Gurin to senior VP for alternative film, purportedly in a move to boost its specialty profile.)

Film distributors and buyers used to work in close enough proximity that there was always plenty of time for three-martini lunches, golf tournaments and family outings.

Now, it’s going to take a lot more effort — and long-distance travel — to build rapport with buyers. Otherwise, that easy camaraderie could give way to a long-distance, detached relationship. Entire countries probably could be run by phone and BlackBerry, but it’s human nature to want to take care of your own, even if the distrib-exhib bond is adversarial at its heart.

“This business is about personal relationships; it’s an unavoidable reality,” says Focus Features distrib chief Jack Foley.

Warner Independent exec VP of distribution Steven Friedlander points out that some indie pics might never catch fire if exhibs focus too much on opening weekend grosses, and don’t allow time for a film to build. In this scenario, Warner Independent’s summer breakout hit “March of the Penguins” probably wouldn’t have made the cut.

“There’s so much pressure. Bookers opt for the easy way out and take out the low-gross film, even though it may have been up from the previous weekend. It’s like being in a MASH unit. There’s no time for perfect surgery, you’re just trying to make sure your screens are filled,” Friedlander says.

Berney, like other distribs, has devoted substantial time to courting buyers throughout his career, saying their attention made all the difference with movies including “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Y tu mama tambien.”

In early August, he dispatched his Chicago sales team — brothers John and Dan Lange — to Kansas City.

The Langes were the first to visit since film buyers from the L.A. office had relocated to Kansas, a group that included AMC film buying prexy Sonny Gourley.

“It’s a big deal that they have visitors down there,” says John Lange.

The main topic of the lunch was “The Thing About My Folks,” which Reiser penned and Raymond De Felitta directed.

“It was our challenge to go to Kansas City and say, ‘You have to give this movie a chance,’ even though it will skew older and auds won’t turn out in droves the first weekend,” Lange says. “If we didn’t go there, they’d have no idea what the movie is about. We went to Knoxville, too.”

The theater chains, unsurprisingly, say such centralization won’t affect the business.

“Does it have a dramatic impact? No, it doesn’t. If movies are good, they are going to grow,” says National Assn. of Theater Owners prexy John Fithian.

Berney disagrees. “What about the film that needs to be tailored to certain markets? Millions of dollars could be lost,” he says.

“I think it hurts everybody,” says another specialty distrib. “I don’t think it hurts the studios as much. Studios throw everything into the initial launch. But we can’t do that in platforming our releases.”

Working on their own back then, the Lange brothers helped Berney distrib “Y tu mama tambien,” a challenging task considering the sexually explicit film was unrated. Working in tandem, they let the buyers they knew handpick the theaters in which it played.

“You don’t travel to each individual theater and get a feel for what the community is like, whereas the film buyers know their marketplace. Having the personal relationship, we can discuss that with them,” Lange says.

Even in those instances where an exhib isn’t partial to specialty films, knowing the buyers can sometimes make a subtle difference, or at least they can get the exhib’s point of view across, Foley says.

For example, Foley adds, the bigger exhibs recently began clamoring to book Focus’ “Broken Flowers” at a large number of theaters. Buyers familiar with Focus explained that the specialty division wanted a more controlled rollout.

“What is missing by these people being in Kansas City, Knoxville or Dallas (headquarters of Cinemark USA) is that you don’t get to see them as much,” Foley says. “As much as we fight, we all grew up in this business together. The separation is a bummer because a lot of us are really good friends.”

AMC spokeswoman Melanie Bell says the chain’s decision to send the L.A. film buyers to Kansas makes the operation more efficient.

“Really, it’s giving the film team an opportunity to become an integral part of AMC operations. In a day and age when we have phone, email and the Internet, having everyone under one roof means the buyers can be more involved in programming decisions,” Bell says.

And there’s always ShowEast and ShoWest to catch up and reminisce — and to talk about the hot new restaurants in Knoxville.

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