Specialty theatrical market robust in wake of contraction

The death of independent distribution has been greatly exaggerated.

At least that’s the opinion of many working on the frontlines of the specialty film business.

Despite the shuttering or scaling back of several studio specialty labels, the growth of cinemas catering to niche auds indicates that the field is pretty healthy.

“Everyone wants to say indie distribution is totally screwed, but it has never be healthier,” contends Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard, whose division releases roughly 20 films per year. “More theaters are playing independent films made specifically for a specialty audience than ever before.”

For Bernard, the proof is in the breadth of companies succeeding in the sphere. Regal Entertainment Group, which boasts the largest and most geographically diverse theater circuit in the U.S., now features a dedicated boutique chain, with outposts in Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore.

Though theater giant Cinemark couldn’t offer a hard number, it says it has significantly increased the number of screens it dedicates to niche fare. Ditto AMC, which recently launched AMC Independent, reflecting the chain’s “renewed commitment to advancing independent film … (with) more distinct and unconventional films,” according to the company. Such AMCi fare currently onscreen includes the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” and coming-of-age dramedy “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.”

And Landmark Theatres, the largest chain dedicated to indie film, has more screens now than ever before.

Meanwhile, the independents are not only surviving, they are annexing new territory. New York’s iconic Angelika Film Center has expanded to Dallas and Houston. Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theatre is now one of the most profitable independent art cinemas in the country.

“To me, it’s an incredible myth that in the art biz there’s nowhere to play,” adds Bernard, who cites Washington, D.C., as the best arthouse film market in the country. “If you have a good movie, there are plenty of places to play.”

But what’s a cinema to play now that the studios have begun to retreat from the specialty business?

“I firmly believe that the phenomenon of the majors retrenching has been the best thing for (specialty theater owners),” says Ira Deutchman, managing partner of Emerging Pictures, an 80-theater network chain. “There’s no business in spending $20 million to make $10 million. And that has been the studio model for a while. Now, we have a bunch of feisty distributors, and we are already seeing the positive signs of a less crowded marketplace.”

Film critic Roger Ebert also sees some upside to Hollywood’s mini-exodus from the specialty game.

“The big studios don’t always do the best job with indies because they’re fighting with themselves for screens,” notes Ebert. “There are lots of good movies and audiences for them — here (in Chicago) at least. The problem is breaking out of the larger markets.”

Those who cater to some of the smaller markets are facing new challenges amid the new indie world order.

“We’ve lost some significant distributors who were doing arthouse,” says Balcony Films’ Connie White, who books for specialty theaters in smaller markets from Salt Lake City to Provincetown, Mass. “I could go down the list of who I could count on for films, and the list is dwindling. Now, there’s less of those higher visibility films with major marketing dollars behind them. The good news is there are other people stepping up to the plate. There are your Roadside Attractions, Music Boxes, Kinos and Strands starting to fill the void.”

“The bottom line is more people are going to arthouse movie theaters,” adds White. “There’s less sure-fire product to choose from. But Oscar season brings us a good stretch of four months of films.”

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