The line between the arthouse and the megaplex is blurring as more commercial chains look to get in on the specialty booking game.
It’s no wonder: As studios have invested more heavily in what was once called indie fare, the specialty market has become big business.
The latest entrant is AMC, the nation’s second largest chain, which earlier this month unveiled its AMC Select program, which will dedicate at least one screen to specialty product in 72 of its 323 North American theaters in big markets.
But some question whether there’s enough business for all to prosper. And the specialty business is now so heavily concentrated in the fourth quarter, it’s not clear if the chains can sustain such programs year-round.
AMC’s venture follows the success of similar programs among other circuits.
Since 1999, Regal Cinemas, the nation’s biggest chain, has expanded its Cinema Arts screens to about 70 of its 546 U.S. theaters, with locations in, among others, Atlanta, Portland, Ore.; Austin, Texas; and Knoxville, Tenn., playing only specialty titles.
Upcoming titles AMC says will play on those screens include Fox Searchlight’s Sundance darling “Little Miss Sunshine,” Picturehouse’s Robert Altman-helmed “A Prairie Home Companion” and Paramount Classics’ Al Gore doc “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Century Theatres, too, has a CineArts program which includes eight arthouses (mostly in California) and dedicated specialty screens in eleven of its multiplexes.
“We’re trying to make people aware that we have this shelf space,” AMC film group chair Dick Walsh says.
But more shelf space doesn’t necessarily translate into bigger grosses for specialty distribs.
AMC’s arrival is making waves in the cozy world of specialty bookings, in part because the exhib plans to compete with other theaters to book films early in their runs rather than wait for pics to prove themselves in limited release.
In New York, for example, distribs report that AMC has already become more aggressive in trying to get distribs to book pics at its Empire 25 in Times Square on opening weekend, rather than at downtown locations like the Angelika or Landmark’s Sunshine.
Smaller chains geared to specialty fare have complained about increased competition from the chains, most visibly in California, where independent theaters complained to the state Justice Department about Century’s booking practices.
Just as the chains are getting into the specialty biz, many so-called specialty films are beginning to be released like studio fare.
Foregoing a platform release, last year Lionsgate bowed “Crash” at 1,864 theaters, Paramount Classics opened “Hustle & Flow” at 1,013 locations and Sony Classics took “Kung Fu Hustle” to 2,503 after just two weeks of playing on seven screens.
In some ways, the trend to wider releases for specialty fare, as well as the break-out success of pics like “Brokeback Mountain” and “March of the Penguins” means that the national chains are already in the specialty biz.
But distribs say that some films will always merit the careful grooming of a slow roll-out. And this is the area of the business that the national chains are now trying to capture.
About 18 theaters of the 73 on the initial list of AMC Select locations are already programmed with art fare (primarily theaters it inherited in the merger with Loews); others, though, are big megaplexes in markets that aren’t considered strong specialty bookings by distribs.
In Los Angeles, considered the second strongest specialty market after Gotham, AMC won’t have an AMC Select location, opting instead for suburban theaters like the AMC 30 at the Block at Orange, Calif., the Ontario Mills 30 and the Covina 30. (Its brand-new Century City 14 didn’t make the cut.)
“The reason the Block is on there,” Walsh says, “is that while specialty hasn’t been a part of the programming to date, that particular theater has done well with the product.”
Some distribs, though, say such decisions show AMC doesn’t yet understand the nuances of the specialty market.
“Just because you’re doing business in Woodland Hills or Sherman Oaks doesn’t mean you’re going to do $20,000 (per screen) in Covina,” says an exec at one of the studio specialty labels. “That’s the disconnect with commercial exhibitors who don’t get what this is about.”
Walsh counters, though, that AMC is out to grow the market in “underserved” markets. Demographics, he adds, are on his side. “In more cases, specialty auds are over the age of 40, and that’s the fastest-growing part of the moviegoing population.”
Whether AMC succeeds where others have tread, however, will largely come down to marketing.
Unlike studio titles, which come with the support of multimillion-dollar TV campaigns, arthouses have had to rely much more on word of mouth.
Specialty moviegoers tend to gravitate to the same theaters. The burden on AMC is to rebrand its big houses as congenial to those auds — something Walsh hopes to accomplish through in-theater marketing support and via a new Web site, AMCSelect.com.
At AMC, the exec in charge of the program, Debby Penny, is seen as a newcomer to the indie world. Marketing support was the big topic for many distribs attending a luncheon AMC held during the Tribeca Film Fest to discuss their new effort. One exec said he was reassured by the emphasis she put on marketing at the presentation, which showed to him that AMC understands the challenges of specialty film.
“That was the best news of all,” he said.