{mosimage}At the entrance, a wall of Venetian plaster greets you, framing a concierge desk of basalt stone and bamboo-embedded Lucite. Across the lobby, a chenille and zebra-wood wine bar beckons. Understandably, you might mistake the newest tenant of the Westside Pavilion mall for a modern luxury hotel. But in reality, it’s a movie theater, albeit one like Los Angeles — especially the Westside — hasn’t seen before.

Christened the Landmark and intended as the flagship location of the Landmark Theatres chain, the 12-screen, 11,500-square-foot complex (which opened to the public on June 1) isn’t L.A.’s first “upscale” cinema; Pacific Theatres’ ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood has been offering moviegoers amenities like reserved seating and gourmet concessions since it opened its doors in 2002. What sets the Landmark apart is its promise to offer moviegoers a wide selection of foreign-language and other “specialized” films in lieu of the mainstream studio movies that fill the bill in most multiplex cinemas (like the Landmark’s nearby neighbor, the AMC Century 15 in Century City).

That’s in keeping with the corporate mission of Landmark — which has operated a theater at the Westside Pavilion since the mall’s opening in 1985 — to be “the nation’s largest theatre chain dedicated primarily to exhibiting and marketing independent film.” It also comes as a relief to the various neighborhood organizations that have long voiced opposition to the construction of any theater at the mall that might serve as a magnet to rowdy teenagers.

“I think we’ll get people who haven’t been to the movies for a while, who are looking for something more,” says Landmark Theatres chief operating officer Ted Mundorff, whose responsibilities include booking films at the Landmark and other theaters in the company’s 61-theater circuit. Some of those people, Mundorff adds, have been making the trek from the Westside over to the ArcLight in recent years, while others “have only made it as far as the Grove and they’ve run out of gas.”

For those unwilling to brave the eastward commute, art-film options west of Robertson have long been scarce, with Laemmle’s four-screen Monica theater, Landmark’s former Westside Pavilion fourplex (not-so-fondly remembered for its moth infestation and frequently broken seats) and a couple of single-screen venues (like the Royal and the Nuart) pretty much the only games in town. Now, the Landmark puts more art screens under one roof than the Westside has ever had in total, and, more important, they’re all state of the art, from the spacious leather chairs (stuffed with cushy NASA-engineered foam) to the crystal-clear 4K digital projection featured in select auditoriums. The concession stand is something of a foodie mecca, offering La Brea Bakery pretzels, Pizza Rustica pizza and Yogurberry frozen yogurt in addition to the expected popcorn and hot dogs (kosher Hebrew National ones, natch). And unlike virtually all of its competitors, the Landmark provides ample free parking to boot.

{mosimage}So, if you build such a theater, will the audience come? Judging from the numbers, the verdict is still out. According to the Nielsen Co.’s weekly exclusive report, which tracks grosses for limited-release films in New York and Los Angeles, in its opening weekend the Landmark had the best local gross for the Japanese anime film Paprika and was second only to the ArcLight (which boasts higher average ticket prices) for the Irish musical drama Once. Exclusive local runs of the Italian-language Golden Door and the documentary ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway also benefited from above-average attendance. But when it came to the Russian vampire sequel Day Watch, audiences preferred the ArcLight to the Landmark by a margin of nearly 3-to-1, while the Sarah Polley–directed Away From Her reported more robust business at Laemmle-owned theaters in Santa Monica and Pasadena.

Still, even a top gross for a foreign or independent film these days is a fraction of what a studio movie will earn in a given weekend at a popular suburban theater. (While Once was taking in $16,000 at the Landmark over the June 1-3 frame, Knocked Up was racking up $121,000 across town at the Grove.) Those economics have effectively forced chains like Landmark, Laemmle and Robert Redford’s nascent Sundance Cinemas (which recently opened its first two locations in San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin) to augment traditional art-house programming with select mass-market offerings. It’s a strategy Mundorff himself deployed to great success in his earlier incarnation as vice president of film for Pacific Theatres, helping to establish the company’s ArcLight and Grove theaters as prime destinations for mainstream and specialty moviegoers alike. Now he plans to do the same for the Landmark, where the MGM-distributed Kevin Costner vehicle Mr. Brooks opened on two screens.

“I’ve found over the years that moviegoers want to see good films,” says Mundorff. “Sometimes those films are produced by the studios, and sometimes they’re produced by some guy with a credit card. We want to present both of those. With 12 screens, it’s a film booker’s dream, because we can play all of the independent product that’s available out there and we can play some studio product that appeals to the same people.”

That sounds reasonable enough, but Mundorff raised more than a few eyebrows when, in a May 20 Los Angeles Times article, he told reporter John Horn that if the Landmark had opened a few weeks earlier, it would have been showing Spider-Man 3. “Does that qualify as a ‘good’ film?” asks Gary Meyer, who co-founded Landmark Theatres 33 years ago with business partner Steve Gilula and is now co-director of the Telluride Film Festival. “If you open as an art house, you can rationalize that certain studio films are for adult audiences, and you can ease into showing them,” Meyer continues. “But when it comes to a Spider-Man or a Pirates of the Caribbean, you really have to ask yourself, ‘Is this right for us to play, and if so, why?’ ”

Meyer, who says he has been forced to show predominantly studio films in order to keep the doors open at the two-screen theater he owns in San Francisco, acknowledges that specialized film exhibition in America is suffering from an audience that has not grown apace with the number of titles being distributed. “I look at the local grosses on Monday morning, and I see that this film did $400 over the weekend, this one did $600, and that one did $1,200,” he says. “If you add them all up, it turns out that actually quite a few people went to see independent films in San Francisco over the weekend, but not enough for anyone to pay their advertising costs. I think the market is way oversaturated, and you can blame it to some degree on people being able to make movies inexpensively on digital formats. Most of them are bad and a few of them are good, but even the good ones have a very hard time getting attention.”

The veteran independent film exhibitor Dick Morris, who has been booking specialized films throughout the southeastern U.S. for three decades and operates a successful three-screen art house in Sarasota, Florida, sounds a more pessimistic note. “You can’t play 12 screens of art. It’s out of the question,” says Morris, who predicts that as many as half of the Landmark’s auditoriums will soon be occupied by commercial fare. Where Meyer sees the audience for art movies being spread too thin, Morris sees it dwindling and not being replenished. “Most of the audience for these films is now at Forest Lawn or some other cemetery,” he says. “For the under-50 crowd, it’s just not the thing to do.”

For his part, Mundorff feels that the Landmark is the very theater that could bring a new generation of moviegoers to art films. “People go to a megaplex theater without necessarily having a particular film in mind,” he says. “As we play a wide array of product in the theater, I think it will introduce the theater and introduce the concept and make people want to explore films. If they really like going to the theater, they may take a chance on a movie they wouldn’t ordinarily go to see. There becomes a trust factor; I think people will trust what we play.”

Meyer, meanwhile, considers theaters like the Landmark to be one tremor in a seismic shift about to affect the entire distribution and exhibition industry. “It’s my feeling that within the next 10 years, the screen count in the U.S. will go from the current 37,000 to under 10,000 screens,” he predicts. “Films will come out theatrically, on DVD and through on-demand cable simultaneously. There will be the occasional event film that may only be available in theaters, but for everyone else, the economics are going to dictate that things move in this direction. There will be centralized megaplexes; you won’t have one in your neighborhood anymore. It will be like back in the old days — you’ll be driving to the ‘event’ theater. Most of the small neighborhood art houses will go away, and you’ll have art complexes like the Landmark that will survive because they’ll be the only ones showing those films.”

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