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New York cinephiles will endure a great deal of discomfort to see great independent films: the noise of the F train at the Angelika, cramped seating at the Film Forum, the schlep to Brooklyn to see a Wong Kar Wei series at BAM Rose Cinemas. Even the latest potential deterrent—the union picket lines outside the IFC Center—didn’t stop indie fans from patronizing New York City’s newest arthouse theater. Despite the ongoing protests about the IFC Center’s use of non-union projectionists, Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, which opened the theater in June, grossed $40,000 in its first week, far surpassing the management’s expectations.

The IFC’s success flies in the face of Hollywood’s 19-week summer slump. In fact, our informal survey of the city’s major independent theaters suggests they’ve all managed to dodge the box-office bullet. Obviously, the long-suffering film fans deserve some thanks. But the real reason that New York’s independent theaters continue to thrive—even with a fancy newcomer in their midst—is that each one has established a unique reputation for itself.

The Landmark Sunshine Cinema sets itself apart from other downtown theaters by offering independent fare in a googooplex setting. The L.A.-based Landmark, now owned by the Samuel Goldwyn company, operates 57 theaters in 14 states, and it employs the same stadium-style seating and state of the art sound you’d find in an AMC theater.

“What makes us unique is our top-notch facility—it’s the best theater to see a film in the Village,” says head film buyer Ted Mundorff. The leg room alone helps the Sunshine siphon off downtown audiences from the Film Forum and the Angelika’s shoebox theaters, and its popularity, in turn, has made it a top pick among distributors.

“Within the film community,” says Mundorff, “everybody knows how each film performs at different theaters. Distribution companies will look at that gross, and say ‘Hey, we really like how our last film did at the Sunshine, and so we think the Sunshine’s the right place for [our new film].” The success of Wong Kar Wei’s In the Mood for Love at the Sunshine in 2000, for instance, made the theater the natural choice to open 2046 last summer.

“We do take chances,” says Mundorff, citing the Sunshine’s recent run of Caterina in the Big City (2003). “It had a very small distributor, and we definitely took a risk because it didn’t have the marketing muscle that films from Fox Searchlight Pictures or Paramount Classics would have. But we thought the film was worthwhile.” Still, the reality is that New York is an expensive place to open a movie, one that requires pricey publicists and ads in the New York Times. If that’s not in the distribution budget, the theater itself must pick up the slack.

Smaller houses lure audiences with more grassroots publicity. Karen Cooper, the director and programmer of first-run films at the Film Forum, boasts a website that attracts 8,000 visitors a day and a newsletter that goes out to 25,000 subscribers. The theater has a strong marketing arm on staff and will go out of its way to expose new filmmakers.

The Sunshine and the IFC Center may have better seats, and the backing of much larger corporations, but the six screen Angelika has been around longer—which is a significant bonus for distributors.

“The Angelika is virtually a name brand in the Village, unlike the Landmark or the IFC, which are still establishing their reputations,” says George Mansour, the 71-year-old film buyer who advises vice president Ellen Cotter on which films the Angelika should book.

Distributors often have an idea of where they want their film to open, and the Angelika, says Mansour, “seems to attract an audience with an edgy profile.” For a “young, hipper, Jim Jarmusch-type film,” the Angelika would be the choice, as it was for Broken Flowers this year. If the movie is skewed older and subtitled, on the other hand, Lincoln Plaza would be a better venue. But these pre-conceived notions don’t always work in the Angelika’s favor.

“We wanted Murderball—everyone did. But when we didn’t get it, it was important to know that we could plug in The Beat That My Heart Skipped or 9 Songs. You have to find some unknown film to screen at the same time.” One option is to find a film that may not be “aesthetically great” but will appeal to a certain audience, like the Israeli film Walk on Water (2004). “It wasn’t a great movie,” says Mansour. “But it was well-done and it tapped into an ethnic audience.”

The Film Forum’s Cooper goes out of her way to expose her audience to unknown filmmakers. “I think we’re the single most important institution [in the city] for doing that,” says Cooper. Like all programmers, she and partner Mike Maggiore spend time on the festival circuit scouting out films, but, unlike at most theaters, the pair will also consider movies sent over the transom. When we spoke, a dozen DVDs sat at Cooper’s feet, all in need of viewing in the next few weeks.

“At this point,” says Cooper, “we have so much work that comes in, we’re not taking unsolicited films. We have to have materials sent in advance that make us want to see it.”

Her criteria is simple: The work should be “passionate and intelligent and break boundaries,” and she likes to include films with a political agenda. The theater has a rich history of premiering documentaries, which run the gamut from big releases like The Brandon Teena Story (1998) to more obscure docudramas such as On the Outs (2004)—which opened at the theater this summer. The Film Forum’s dedication to these films even extends beyond their run. When On the Outs moved to the IFC Center, the Film Forum noted the new home on their website.

“We didn’t do it for the IFC,” Cooper points out. “We did it for the filmmakers.” She says she would do the same for other theaters, like the Quad Cinema or Cinema Village. “Often we will open a film, and then other people will continue to make money on it. That’s fine—we want the filmmakers to have ongoing success. But we’re the ones who made the initial commitment and took the risk.”

The Film Forum will also go to great lengths to showcase the best possible prints for the repertory side of the theater. Bruce Goldstein, the director of repertory programming, got into the business of distribution just to secure the classics he wanted to screen.

Both efforts—to expose new filmmakers and to restore cult classics—are part of the Film Forum’s ongoing mission to cultivate a dedicated audience, which is really all an independent movie theater can hope for. The Walter Reade Theater, which is part of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, for example, keeps its audiences coming back in part because it repeats its popular festivals every year, such as the New York Film Festival, the New York Jewish Film Festival, and Scanners—a series for video and digital artists.

“Obviously the films change, but those are series we’ve established and they’ve proved very successful,” says program director Richard Pena. “We have an audience who likes what they’ve seen, and they come back to see more.”

As nonprofits, the Walter Reade and the Film Forum aren’t governed solely by the theater’s gross, and both Pena and Cooper emphasize this freedom in their programming decisions.
“We don’t have any agenda other than showing the best possible films,” says Cooper. Her distinction is meant as a slight dig at commercial houses like the IFC Center. Many suspect the IFC’s interests lie only in promoting its parent company’s films, but vice president and general manager John Vanco sees the Center falling somewhere in between these two extremes.

“I think of us as a for-profit theater that acts like a nonprofit,” says Vanco. IFC-produced and distributed films will certainly occupy one of the Center’s three screens much of the time, but Vanco isn’t taking all his cues from above. He says his role is not unlike the one he held at Cowboy Pictures, the now defunct distribution company he co-founded.

“In some ways it’s similar to the acquisitions policy that Noeh Cowan [Cowboy Pictures co-founder] and I had, in that we only went after films that we were really excited about.” The Center’s premiere of Darwin’s Nightmare last August is one case in point. After seeing it at the Toronto International Film Festival, Vanco committed to showing it at the center before it even had a US distributor. Wendy Lidell at International Film Circuit has since picked it up, in part because the film’s agent told her it was going to open at the IFC Center. (Note to anyone seeking a distributor: “Knowing that a film is assured a New York opening can help secure one,” says Lidell.)

Now, Darwin’s Nightmare is turning into a filmmaker’s dream. Its Wednesday night US premiere grossed $1,465. On Thursday, it grossed nearly $2,000. The strong mid-week showing says to Lidell that it could bring in $20,000 a week—excellent numbers for a little-known documentary about the horrifying plight of Tanzanian fisherman. It’s now slated to open in 50 cities.

“We really see that as an example of our mission—to take a movie like that and get some attention for it,” says Vanco.

The IFC Center distinguishes itself in other ways. There’s the adjoining restaurant and bar, a takeoff of the Tribeca Film Center (formerly the Screening Room, which is now used for the Tribeca Film Festival and private screenings.) Editing suites, due to open this fall, will be used primarily to edit IFC films, movie trailers, and shorts that the Center screens before every feature—a perk no other New York theater boasts. Even the animated trailer for the Center is unique. Its litany of “No’s” includes everything from the familiar “No Cell Phones” to its refreshing “No Commercials” policy.

“The most that a theater like ours can aspire to,” says Vanco, “is to develop a relationship with an audience that will elevate the chance of little-known films to be seen.” Competing for his neighbor’s business, he insists, is not a priority.

“There are so many great theaters here doing different things, and there are so many good movies that are deserving of a good home,” he continues. “There will certainly be moments when there will be some kind of competition over a particular film, but I don’t feel competitive with them.”

Vanco’s neighbors don’t necessarily feel as warm and fuzzy. The Sunshine’s Ted Mundorff agrees that the key to an independent theater’s success is to develop its own niche. “But we’re still competing for the same dollar,” he says.

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