Cuban rhythm shakes up films

With partner Wagner, exec rethinks biz

First Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner were accused of trying to kill the theatrical film business. Now they’re working to make moviegoing better than ever. They want to pour millions into newfangled multiplexes for sophisticated datenight crowds, even inventing a concession concept dubbed the “Wall of Popcorn” and putting beanbag chairs in living room-like theaters.

Are Cuban and Wagner experimenters who will fix what’s wrong with the movie business, or the fly in Hollywood’s ointment? Or are they just two rich mavericks playing movie moguls?

To some exhibitors, the company will always be synonymous with its 2006 release of Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble” simultaneously on DVD and the bigscreen. But Cuban and Wagner say the day-and-date move was part of their larger plan to rethink a system that’s been in place for 100 years. They want to tap into new technologies and make movie-watching pleasurable and profitable for everyone.

They’re working on various fronts. They’ve created a biz, 2929 Entertainment, that includes movie theaters, a distribution arm, a cable network and production outfits.

Central to their enthusiasm for moviegoing are three experimental cinemas in their Landmark chain, including one at the Westside Pavilion in Los Angeles that’s poised to shake up the exhibition biz by playing a mix of mainstream and arty fare a la the ArcLight in Hollywood.

Sites in Baltimore and Denver are launching soon.

Cuban — who has a 103-inch flatscreen TV at home — and Wagner think there’s a movie-going experience for adult auds that they can’t get at home.

“Landmark’s goal is to be the ultimate night out for grownups,” says Cuban via email, finding time to talk movies even while his NBA team, the Dallas Mavericks, struggles in the playoffs. “Today’s customer has different expectations than the customer of 10 and 20 years ago, and we need to recognize that and respond to it.”

The term “arthouse” has traditionally conjured images of postage-stamp sized screens, thin walls and sprung seats. And traditionally arthouse screens — showing foreign films, documentaries and other niche titles — are totally separate from plexes that show mainstream fare.

Cuban wants to create a theater chain for adults. Mainstream exhibition chains have been adding perks to new sites for years. But most of the initial add-ons — from theme restaurants to arcades — were, literally, kid stuff, which plays well in suburban locales.

Wagner and Cuban want to create a world of moviegoing for adults.

“In our new Denver theater, we completely removed the concession stands,” says Cuban. “The original design had the traditional concession stand taking up prime real estate and dominating the look and feel of the theater. We decided that we would rather use that space for amenities, retail sales (movies, books, indie cinema related items), and ‘interstitial’ type entertainment that complements our ‘datenight for grownups’ concept in a lounge-like environment. Basically it became a place where you could go on a date, have a drink, food and be entertained before and after seeing a movie.”

That concept is somewhat similar to the design of newer sports stadiums where interactive exhibits line hallways and souvenir stands have become elaborate gift shops.

Landmark is also introducing a higher-priced ticket that will include concessions for customers, rather than ordering soda and popcorn separately, letting auds serve themselves. The chain will offer higher-end snacks, too.

“As far as popcorn, soda and theater staples, they aren’t going anywhere. We just incorporated them into the price of the ticket and made them fun self-service items,” Cuban says. “Hopefully our ‘Wall of Popcorn’ will work out the way we plan. We don’t want people waiting in line for popcorn and soda, we want people on dates to be on a date and have fun.”

Landmark is also going to try some new seating.

“We are going to experiment with all kinds of seating plans,” Cuban says. “From sofas at the new Landmark in the Westside Pavilion, where we will literally try to make it more like a living room experience than a theater.”

He also says some theaters will have “VIP lounge chairs” and “potentially even beanbags.”

The exec sees technology — from the theaters themselves to the lobbies — as being a key factor in drawing auds away from their homevideo centers.

Perks for indie film fans at the new cinemas will include LCD displays with showtimes and info and other high-tech twists.

Initially viewed by Hollywood as peripheral — albeit deep-pocketed — dabblers in the indie film world via their various holdings, Cuban and Wagner’s names found their way to big-time controversy last year.

Though the movie studios are doing a lot to enhance the home-viewing experience, such as shrinking DVD windows and providing on-demand films, some exhibs used the day-and-date release as a rallying cry.

Wagner and Cuban say the move was intended to help little films reach audiences — some folks never go to movies anyway, while moviegoers in rural areas often do not have the chance to see indie films.

While booming box office indicates that moviegoing is not an endangered habit, the 2929 move created considerable debate over how movies ultimately reach consumers as windows shrink and home entertainment systems improve.

And it made Cuban and Wagner instantly infamous, as well as taken more seriously.

Though the issue has died down, Cuban thinks that if box office dips again, the questions will be back.

“I think it hasn’t been front stage because business has been good this year,” says Cuban of the windows debate. “If we get another year like ’05, then look for it to be a big issue as studios need to generate more return.”

Cuban says he was surprised to be painted as the poster boy for wanting to kill theater chains. M. Night Shyamalan was one Hollywood heavy who lined up against 2929, making an impassioned speech at the 2005 ShowEast confab to keep windows intact.

“Was I surprised that the head of NATO called me the devil?” Cuban asks. “Yes. And that every major theater chain acted strangely in unison to boycott day-and date-movies? Yes.”

But Cuban still feels auds can be drawn to theaters even if the windows shrink.

“I love the bigscreen,” he says. “Kids, phones, email are what we get away from. No matter how big a home theater you have, it’s not a cure for cabin fever. I guess maybe that’s really the business we are in. We suspend the real world for our customers the minute they walk in the door.”

For their next move, Cuban and Wagner have been stocking their HDNet channel with talent including Dan Rather. Perhaps Don Imus will be their next hire?

“I don’t know Don,” says Cuban. “But if he wants to talk, my email is mark@hd.net.”

In other words, after shaking up the film biz, 2929 is ready to shake up the TV biz.

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