Indie theaters swim into mainstream

Foreign arthouses screening 'Wall E,' 'Mamma'

MADRID — On a recent week, Britain’s Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford, a revered university town arthouse, was screening “Waltz with Bashir” — alongside “Mamma Mia!” and “Wall E.”

It’s a trend that’s growing over much of Europe, from Madrid’s Cene Princesa to Hamburg’s Abaton-Kino: Cinemas that were once strictly arthouse are discovering that if they want to hold onto audiences, mainstream and crossover must be included in the mix.

“There’s less categorization in the exhibition sector now,” says David Hancock of Screen Digest. “People are taking a more flexible approach than, ‘We’re an arthouse cinema’ or ‘We’re a multiplex cinema.’ ”

A number of factors are contributing to the mix of commercial with cultural fare at arthouses — fewer hot arthouse directors like Pedro Almodovar or Jim Jarmusch, changing audience tastes, a reduction in the number of single-screen venues that used to favor local fare as well as a glut of specialty pics.

Each year, more state-backed films are coming out of Europe; production rose 75% across the region to 1,470 in 2007 from 842 in 1997. But Euro audiences seem to want a wider range of films.

“The slots given by the theaters to arthouse films are decreasing,” says Yohann Comte, sales head at France’s Roissy Films.

There are a few rarefied exceptions: London’s ICA, most of Spain’s Renoirs and many theaters in Berlin remain dedicated to highbrow fare. And in France, helped by government backing, the number of arthouses is growing.

“Some decades ago, you had arthouse cinemas only in Paris and in smart university towns,” says Antoine Virenque, of the Intl. Federation of Film Distributors Assns. “Now all over France you’ll find art cinemas.”

And Gallic arthouses are thriving: Even without playing wide release “Welcome to the Sticks,” the seven-screen Les 400 Coups arthouse in Angers surpassed its 2007 B.O. by late November.

But few other European nations are seeing an arthouse renaissance. In fact, a squeeze on single screens, which rep roughly one quarter of Western Europe’s 33,000 screens, is making it even tougher for local fare to find a hardtop home.

Italy is a worst-case scenario. Over the past five years, 316 single-screen cinemas have closed, most in big cities — including Rome’s Cinema Labirinto, the Goldoni and Ariston arthouses in Florence, and the Cinema De Amicis in Milan — according to exhibitor’s org ANEC. And this year has seen ticket sales in Italo single-screens drop 35%, with admissions at plexes rising 14%.

In Spain, attendance at the Renoir-Princesa circuit has fallen 30% in five years, with theaters now playing the likes of “Twilight” and “Body of Lies.”

Reasons for the drop include piracy and the tendency of aging film fans tend to concentrate on “event” artfilms, says Enrique Gonzalez Kuhn, acquisitions head at Alta Films, which owns and operates the Renoir-Princesas.

Abaton-Kino’s Matthias Elwardt remembers that as recently as the ’90s, cinephiles would await new films from the likes of Peter Greenaway, Eric Rohmer, Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki.

“Now,” he rues, “beyond Pedro Almodovar and Fatih Akin, we don’t have directors whom audiences are really waiting for. We’ve had to go to crossover.”

Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.

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