Art-House Explosion
Is Salt Lake City Big Enough for the Both of Them?
Words By Jeremy Mathews
Images by Sarah Morton

he 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 chain.

Three 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.

These 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.

The 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.


Madstone identifies 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.”

The 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.

Many 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 films.

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.”

Chip Seelig and Tom Gruenberg started Madstone in 1999, but didn’t open any theaters for three years.

The 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.

This 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.

Currently, 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.

Seelig, 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.

Seelig 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 year.

Others, however, think that Madstone is crowding the market.

Salt Lake City’s Art Audience

Art 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.

Four 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.

In 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 rent.

During 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.

Harper 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.

Since 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.

Still, 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.”

“If 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.

The 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.  

Other 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.”

While 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.

While 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.

“You 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,” Phenix said.

While business remains good, in the art-house business, the audience will often follow a film to whatever theater is playing it.

The Importance of What's Now Showing

Competition 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.

In 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.

Unless 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.”

While 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.

Often, 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.

It’s 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.

Phenix 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.

“The 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.”

Phenix 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.”

Harper 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 it locked.”

It’s 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 established locals.

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Four months after the Madstone Theater opened, the Salt Lake Film Society continues to be successful and has proved herself the better booking person. While Madstone did release Focus Films' Oscar nominees "Lost in Translation" and "21 Grams," the Film Society has proven itself the booking champion with independent hits like "American Splendor" and "The Station Agent." In terms of attendance, many cinephiles still base where they go on what's playing, meaning that both theaters have had their hits.

The Salt Lake Film Society's six-screen Broadway Centre location (above) has been programming art films since it opened less than a year ago. Now, it faces competition from the national chain Madstone Theaters, whose Trolley Square Mall location (above left) offers a gourmet concession stand selection in addition to the art-house film lineup.



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