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Magnolia topper undaunted by mart’s hiccups

Bowles' success marked by good taste, innovative ideas

In the late ’70s, a kid fresh out of State U. of New York, New Paltz, arrived in Manhattan with two goals in mind: start a punk band and find a way into the art film business. Thirty years later, Eamonn Bowles remains on target. At night, the 53-year-old rocks out at downtown N.Y. clubs as frontman for the Martinets (they’ve released two LPs). And during the day, as prexy of Magnolia Pictures, Bowles continues to cement his reputation as one of the most innovative distribution minds in the indie world.

Despite a current marketplace that pales in comparison with the ’90s indie boom that Bowles helped orchestrate, the irreverent veteran is doing better than ever. Over the past year, as most specialty distribs have either been hanging on by a thread or closing their doors for good, Bowles’s 8-year-old Gotham-based outfit is buoyant and helping to redefine the way for indies.

His secret: a pair of deep-pocketed, supportive owners (2929’s Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner) and an “adapt or die” approach that prizes flexibility and a keen eye on the bottom line over the shopworn paradigms of the past two decades.

“With the demise of Think, Picturehouse, WIP and Paramount Vantage last year, the market was really unstable, but from an acquisitions standpoint, things perked up quite a bit,” Bowles says. “We’ve been able to pick a lot of great movies.”

His slate over the past two years included crossover documentary hits (“Man on Wire,” “Food, Inc.”), genre faves (“Let the Right One In”) and hipster indies (“Humpday”).

But good taste in a buyer’s market is only one reason for Bowles’ record-breaking year. Last year, while most specialty execs were trying to revive a frigid B.O. climate and dwindling DVD sales, Magnolia sidestepped the deep waters by starting to release some of its pics on VOD before putting them in theaters. After a few tweaks (including pushing DVD releases to well after the close of the theatrical window), they began to hit paydirt with VOD revenue on both star-driven pics and microbudget indies.

“Basically, we just wanted to try different things and let the people tell us how they want to consume our films,” says Bowles, who plans to do one VOD pic a month alongside more traditionally released titles.

Jennifer Lynch’s thriller “Surveillance” and “Mutant Chronicles” have done particularly well on VOD via Magnolia’s genre imprint, Magnet.

“As the system has matured, the VOD program has turned out to be a really effective way to deliver content,” he adds. “It has become a great source of income — it’s often the most substantial revenue stream for a given film.”