The Upper West Side Needs More Art Film Screens

When the Lincoln Plaza Theater closed in January of 2018, it was like a body blow to the Upper West Side, an area that historically housed a huge community of arts lovers who were educated, sophisticated and open to a wide variety of cinema experiences.

It wasn’t as if there weren’t alternatives. Film at Lincoln Center is one of the best curated art houses in the country. AMC has two large multiplexes that, in addition to playing the latest Hollywood movies, also squeeze in the occasional Focus, Searchlight, A24 or Neon film. But, with the passing of the Lincoln Plaza Theater, a stalwart community institution was gone.

In the time since that closure, there have been some good and some bad developments. On the bad side, The Landmark on 57th Street also closed. While it was never going to fulfill the UWS neighborhood’s needs due to its incredibly inconvenient location, Landmark did attempt to play some of the smaller art films that couldn’t find a home elsewhere. I’ve heard that someone is taking over that theater, but I’m guessing it will end up mainly playing commercial Hollywood films. Continue reading “The Upper West Side Needs More Art Film Screens”

Premature Obituaries Part 1: Is The Movie Theater Business Dead?

With each passing week of meager reported box office, conventional wisdom in the press is that the tea leaves are pointing to the eventual death of theatrical moviegoing. While the numbers speak for themselves, the leap from near-term results to eventual demise is a simplistic analysis based on two factors that, while true, are not necessarily predictive. Yes, it is true that the closure of theaters during the pandemic helped to solidify home viewing as the default way of consuming new films. It is also true that many audiences (particularly older audiences) are not currently feeling ready to go back to movie theaters; nor for that matter, given their new home viewing habits, do they feel the need to.

But do these facts point to the end of the theatrical business? After all, the movie business has survived many existential threats in the course of its 100-plus-year history. The assumption here is that the business cannot adapt, as it has in the past, to the new realities in ways that could change the playing field. And the pundits seem not to be paying attention to other trends that are creating a potentially positive environment for a rebound. Continue reading “Premature Obituaries Part 1: Is The Movie Theater Business Dead?”

Bill Thompson: Indie Film Stalworth and Dear Friend

Bill Thompson, who passed away earlier this week, was a true mensch.  I first met Bill in 1977, when we both worked at Cinema 5, and we remained friends over all these years. Through his long career, as Bill went back and forth between being a film buyer for various theaters, and a film salesperson for various distribution companies, he never lost his capacity to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. This, in spite of how vicious and competitive the indie film business can be. It’s hard to get across how special that quality was, and how much his presence in our world will be missed. 

Bill was one of the stars of my film “Searching for Mr. Rugoff,” and here is an outtake where he tells us a little about his own origin story in the film business. 

A Celebration of Joan Micklin Silver

Last June, at the Walter Reade Theater in New York, family, friends and colleagues of Joan Micklin Silver got together to pay tribute to the inspirational and ceiling-smashing legacy of one of independent film’s true heroes.  Somewhat belatedly, here is the memorial in its entirely for those of you who couldn’t be there.

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Criterion Celebrates Fabled Distributor Cinema 5

When my film, Searching for Mr. Rugoff was released in the theaters, the most common feedback I got was how astounding it was that one company released so many of the definitive films from what, in retrospect, looks like a golden age of art films. I had so many requests for a list of the films that I included one in the press kit and provided it to anyone who asked.

It is with that in mind that I am so very pleased that the Criterion Channel is showing twenty Cinema 5 titles in conjunction with the exclusive premiere of my film. The series starts on September 12.

This collection of films might as well be a syllabus for anyone interested in non-Hollywood cinema from the ’60s and ’70s, a particularly ripe period of pushing the limits of what could be shown in commercial movie theaters. Many of the films were controversial in their day, and probably would be today. It took an off-kilter sensibility like Rugoff’s to see commercial potential in them, and many of them failed at the box office. But looking back after all these years, the collection seems downright inspired. Continue reading “Criterion Celebrates Fabled Distributor Cinema 5”

The Warners Movie Dump: An Ominous Sign for the Streaming Biz?

The announcement last week that the newly combined Warner Bros. Discovery was planning to dump seven of its films, including one big budget female-driven DC Comics superhero film, has brought on a lot of angst and debate among those tracking the film business. The decision was both surprising in some ways, while being entirely predictable in others.

While there are plenty of examples of feature films that have been unceremoniously dumped by their studios because of lack of faith in commercial potential, or because of a regime change, historically these decisions were based on not wanting to throw good money after bad by spending the necessary marketing money for those films to reach an audience.

In the current media environment, one might have assumed that while such films might be denied a life in theaters, they certainly would provide adequate filler for a streaming service, if for no other reason than to give the appearance of having a wide selection of offerings. Just one quick look at the menus for any of these services would indicate that quantity rather than quality rules that business model. So why would Warners just dump these films, rather than relegating them to their HBO Max platform? Continue reading “The Warners Movie Dump: An Ominous Sign for the Streaming Biz?”

Seven Ways The New York Times Could Help Save Theatrical Moviegoing and Its Own Bottom Line

There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t read The New York Times. I fully admit to being one of those old-fashioned people who reads the news on paper; I flip through every page, skimming the articles, diving into whatever grabs my attention, and feeling like I’ve absorbed enough information to be up to date on our crazy world.

There also isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t get pissed off at The Times for one reason or another. The insistence on presenting “both sides” of every issue, to the point of false equivalencies, is a particular source of anger. (Let’s not forget that it was The Times that broke the story of “Hillary’s emails” and continued to hammer it all the way to November.)

However, all told, The Times does a better job than most daily newspapers of at least trying to get things right. And in an environment in which newspapers around the world are under severe threat of extinction, I find it heartening That they have found a way to keep the paper alive while deftly navigating new business models to support it.

That said, what brings me to write comes less from my personal and political perspectives as a reader than my professional perspective as someone who lives in the world of movie marketing; more specifically someone who has spent their life trying to get audiences to see less commercial fare in movie theaters. The Times has always played an important role in that effort, but unfortunately in recent years, changes have been made that have created great obstacles to that effort. Continue reading “Seven Ways The New York Times Could Help Save Theatrical Moviegoing and Its Own Bottom Line”

Seth Willenson, Innovator and Good Guy

Seth Willenson, who died this week at the age of 74, was a good guy. I know that sounds like faint praise, but in a business that thrives on over-stuffed egos, it actually means a lot. He was also someone who loved movies, understood the structural ins and outs of a complicated and constantly changing landscape, and found success seeing opportunities where others didn’t. He was also a great judge of talent and mentored many a young aspiring film executive.

I first met Seth when I had just started in the business. I was a non-theatrical salesperson at Cinema 5, a small independent distribution company. Seth was the head of sales at Films Incorporated, which was the largest non-theatrical distributor at the time, and handled films from MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, among others. For the uninitiated, “non-theatrical” meant renting 16mm prints of films to college film societies, public libraries and other such venues. It was a fairly large business at that time due to films having no other outlets after their theatrical runs. There was no such thing yet as home video, and television networks didn’t have that much movie programming. Continue reading “Seth Willenson, Innovator and Good Guy”

“Searching for Mr. Rugoff” Outtake #7: Lina Wertmuller Tells It Like It Is

Interviewing Lina Wertmuller in her apartment in Rome was one of the highlights of my life. But it was hardly an easy interview. First off, I don’t speak any Italian and she speaks very little English. We had an interpreter, but that only interrupted the flow of the conversation. And when I brought up subjects that I thought would be interesting or provocative, she would just blow me off. This clip is a perfect example of her contrarian spirit.

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“Searching for Mr. Rugoff” Outtake #6: John Goldstone, Producer of “Monty Python & the Holy Grail”

“Monty Python & the Holy Grail” was the biggest hit that Don Rugoff ever distributed. In this outtake from “Searching for Mr. Rugoff,” Producer John Goldstone talks about the origins of the film and the large role that rock and roll played in getting it financed.

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