Salt Lake City cineaste’s dreams have come true.
In about a year, the city has gone from one screen dedicate to art-house
films to 11. This art-house insurgence has shifted concerns from
whether all the talked-about new films will play to whether or not
the city can sustain its locally run theaters and a new corporate
weeks ago, Madstone Theaters opened its new Salt Lake City location
in the four-screen theater space in Trolley Square Mall that hadn’t
been used since 2001. In the past year and a half, the startup company
from New York City (founded in 1999) has opened theaters in nine
cities, ranging in size from Denver to Chandler, Ariz., and will
soon open another in Baltimore.
four screens arrive less than a year after the Salt Lake Film Society
took over the six-screen theater in the Broadway Centre. The Broadway significantly
multiplied the Film Society’s programming possibilities from those of its
single-screen Tower Theatre and Video, the city’s long-established
theater for art, independent and foreign film.
Madstone brand aims for adults with cash in hand instead
of the juveniles who occupy many seats at the multiplexes. Snack
bars offering a variety of high-end concessions, as well as a lounge area equipped with a TV and a stereo playing film soundtracks, supply a pleasant atmosphere
before and after the movie.
its programming as good films for adults
to avoid the restrictions implied by the term “art-house.”
This terminology mainly means that some of the chains show mainstream
films like “Seabiscuit” or, in less-frequent cases,
“American Wedding,” “My Boss’s Daughter”
and “Freddy Vs. Jason.”
company has several programs planned to appeal to its target audience,
which skews toward the older and wealthier, including the Dinner-and-a-Movie
program, in which the audience watches a film and then visits a
nearby restaurant to discuss it.
locations, including Salt Lake City’s, only show art
films, while others are split in various ways. The Cleveland, Ohio,
location is the only location currently showing nothing but Hollywood
Madstone explains the
programming variances as community-oriented, but Brooke
Harper, president of the Salt Lake Film Society, feels that her
locally run theaters contribute more to the community. “If
you go to their Web site, you’ll see that they have a lot
of the same movies playing in all their locations…We don't
just play great films,” Harper said, “but films that
the Salt Lake City community is interested in.”
Seelig and Tom Gruenberg started Madstone in 1999, but didn’t
open any theaters for three years.
company’s financial power allows the theater not only the
ability to throw such events as the inaugural Free Movie Weekend,
but also projects like Madstone Films. The production company offers
directors a salary and a $1.5 million budget to make a digital movie.
The first result of this venture, “Rhinoceros Eyes,”
will premier at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
Also, the company recently acquired the well-known distributor and
marketing company New Yorker Films.
supply of funds allows the theaters to remain open while waiting
for communities to catch on and begin frequenting the business.
Most locally owned theaters don’t have such a large reserve,
as evidenced by the Tower’s near-closures in 1999 and 2000.
however, the Film Society is collecting solid funds and reportedly
hasn’t lost any business to Madstone. “It’s really
easy to say: So far, no impact,” said Brooke Harper, president
of the Salt Lake Film Society.
a friendly middle-aged man with a background in financial work with
companies like Goldman Sachs, spoke with a smile and at a grand
opening party and commented “Oh, that’s a good one”
almost every time somebody mentioned a film.
identified Salt Lake City as in some ways “the birthplace
of independent cinema” during his speech. While it might be
a far-reaching statement, he excitedly declared that the city that co-hosts
the Sundance Film Festival will be open to independent film all
however, think that Madstone is crowding the market.
Lake City’s Art Audience
and independent film haven’t always been a lucrative
business in Salt Lake City, bringing into question what elements
made it such an appealing city in which to open a Madstone.
years ago, the city’s long-standing art-house theater, the
Tower Theatre, was on the verge of closure after attempts to make
additional income by renting the place out as a concert venue clashed
with zoning ordinances.
2000, Paul Liacopoulos bought the theater and Harper became the
manager. Last year, they formed the non-profit Film Society and
later took over the six-screen Broadway Centres Cinema after its
previous owners turned it into an art house, but failed to make
its inception, Madstone co-CEOs Gruenberg and Seelig made a list
of the 35 cities with the most underserved art-house markets. “At
the time the list was made, the Tower was the only art theater in
town,” Harper said.
said that before she operated the Broadway, when other theaters
would open only one art film against the Tower’s, you could
feel a decrease in audience with only two films opening. “I
also know that if it had been just the Tower against a four-screen
multiplex, it would have really been hurt,” she said.
opening the Broadway, however, the increased number of screens hasn’t
thinned out the audience as much as previous business might suggest.
“There’s the sense at the Broadway that having all these
great films in one place excites people more,” Harper said.
she’s doubtful that there’s a big enough audience to
maintain all the screens: “The reason so many cinema chains
went out of business in the recent years is that [theater operators]
assumed that the number of screens was directly related to the number
of ticket sales, and it’s not.”
you listen to Chip Seelig talk about how they chose what venues,
it’s a lot of numbers based on per capita movie tickets combined
with number of screens, and they look at that to decide whether
or not to open more screens,” Harper said.
Broadway Centre recently completed its own cafe area in its
lobby, where patrons can discuss the latest foreign, art
and independent films. Salt Lake Film Society president Brooke
Harper was already planning this addition before Madstone
moved in with its own sit-down lobby.
factors in Madstone’s ranking include time spent abroad, a
questionable factor since many Utahns were on religious missions
during which they weren’t allowed to watch films. But many
missionaries are interested in foreign films, Harper said: “Returned
missionaries do have an appreciation for foreign cultures…which
can lead to an appreciation for foreign film.”
some cities Madstone has entered had no previous art-houses, others
have had to compete with Madstone in various ways. One of the most
similar markets to Salt Lake City is Ann Arbor, Mich., home of the
non-profit Michigan Theater, a restored movie palace whose management
operates three other screens. A seven-screen Madstone, now with
three screens currently showing art films, opened last September.
Emily Phenix, marketing director of Michigan Theater, doesn’t
feel like much business has been taken away, she questions the strategy
of opening art-house theaters in communities that already have them.
have a nationwide chain going into a community with an established
art-house theater because they see that there is already a developed
customer base. But does that serve the community? Madstone could
go into a community that doesn't already have an art-house theater
and become the town hero by bringing in specialty product that the
community would never otherwise get to see on the big screen,”
While business remains good,
in the art-house business, the audience will often follow a film
to whatever theater is playing it.
Importance of What's Now Showing
for product is a much bigger issue in the art-house circuit than
in the mainstream market, where the same film can open on 10 or
more screens in the same area. Due to the limited audience and the
number of available prints, many films play exclusive engagements
on one screen.
many towns where Madstones have opened, the company’s booking
advantage was having more screens to program, but in Salt Lake City,
that advantage goes to the Film Society. Madstone’s greatest
advantage, then, is probably the appeal to distributors to open
films simultaneously in multiple cities.
a film has a great deal of hype behind it, in which case a mainstream
theater might try to play it anyway, a film’s success depends
greatly on its perceived quality. Oftentimes,
a film's success in Salt Lake City depends entirely on the esteem in which the
critics of the two downtown daily newspapers hold it—unlike
many mainstream films that are often called “critic proof.”
programmers can predict based on trends what films the critics will
like, nothing’s certain until the reviews run on Friday, when
the films open.
film companies prefer that their films play alone on a screen, putting
single-screen theaters—which often program for two films to
share a screen—at a disadvantage. If a film tanks at a single
screen, the entire weeklong engagement goes to waste.
hard for theaters to receive advance confirmations from distributors,
whose operators often wait to see how big an attraction a film becomes
in major markets before committing to any theaters.
said that the theater’s audience consists of film-savvy individuals—many
students and university faculty and staff members who keep an eye
on upcoming films.
Madstone is only located 3.2 miles away from us. It doesn't really
make sense to play the same movies they are,” Phenix said.
“We always look to providing a service to the community...
to bring them something that they can't see at the multiplexes.”
also said that the unique local experience pulls in audiences. “At
certain times we've had to remind our distributors how good our
position is,” Phenix said. “We're non-profit and located
in a beautiful building…We also have a really loyal membership
base, so we have a pretty strong position in the community.”
said that she is doing as much as possible to make sure the Film
Society’s programming maintains its strength: “You need
to be thinking as far in advance as possible about what movies you
want to play, expressing your interest to the film company and getting
unclear what will happen down the road, but at this point, Harper
says she’s confident that her organization will be in good
shape, and Seelig says that he feels that his company will find
a strong audience that won’t take any business away from the