By Tom Lynch
You’re probably sick of hearing it by now, but “The Hurt Locker” is the least-seen of all Best Picture Oscar winners in history. In an age when funding for modest pictures is scarce, and studios are less interested in taking risks with films lacking marquee names, an art-house action drama (of considerable caliber, of course) bested the highest-grossing movie of all time. This was no small upset: On a Wednesday a full month after its release, “Avatar” took in more money than “The Hurt Locker” did during its entire theatrical run.
With cash tight all over, movie studios have been limiting their independent-film divisions. In 2008, despite co-producing high-quality pictures like “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” most of Paramount Vantage was consolidated into its parent studio. (Paramount retained the brand name, however.) But when most film studios were sprinting as fast as they could away from art-house fare, Music Box Theatre owner Bill Schopf saw an opportunity.
The Music Box Theatre, on Southport Avenue in the Lakeview neighborhood, has maintained a solid reputation as both a high-class art-film exhibitor and midnight-movie cult-film destination. Built in 1929 and barely changed since, the theater’s overwhelming old-time movie-house atmosphere is as much a part of the experience as the actual film you’re there to see—whether it be a midnight screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” a weekend matinee of some Hitchcock, or the new Terry Gilliam film. And, of course, there’s the live organist.
In 2007, Schopf, a high-profile attorney and real estate developer, who took control of the Music Box in 2003, began considering an expansion, first horizontally. His team began searching for other theater possibilities in Chicago, but the realities of actually finding a good venue set in quickly, and distribution entered the conversation. The vertical leap of a movie theater venturing into film distribution is a substantial move, and a risky one at that, given the financial climate. At first, everyone tried to talk Schopf out of it.
Brian Andreotti, the guy who essentially runs the Music Box, from exhibiting to programming to publicity, had already been at the theater for more than a decade, and welcomed the new challenge. He didn’t know anything about the business of distribution, of course, so he suggested New York-based Ed Arentz, who had co-run Empire Pictures from 2000-2005.
“I did my best to dissuade Bill from this course of action,” Arentz laughs. “There’s a long, large cemetery of independent-distributor headstones out there.”
Schopf, a gambler, wouldn’t hear it, and he pressed forward. Music Box Films was formed. “I think we have a good partnership,” Arentz says. “Bill is, number one, instinctively a gambler and a very good business man. I think I have a pretty decent eye for film, and we’ve learned by trial and error what can work.”
“At first, I thought there was room in the market,” Schopf says. “Then as time passed into 2008, what it looked like to me was, with the economy, with the nature of the business, major studios were retreating, they were getting out of the specialty [film] business. We could either follow the herd, or see it as a big opportunity. That was my reaction to it, right or wrong.”
Andreotti agrees. “There was a void that we were capable of filling, if we did this right,” he says.
“Overall,” Arentz says, “the major studios…they aren’t quite interested in serving the interests of the sophisticated viewer.”
The “sophisticated viewer” has been the target for many upstart independents in the past, a business model that has turned renegade film geeks into millionaires. Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Miramax, for example, spearheaded an independent-film uprising during the 1980s and 1990s that showed incomparable devotion to auteurs and a vested interest in foreign cinema—the era produced such films as “sex, lies, and videotape,” “My Left Foot,” “The Grifters,” “Reservoir Dogs” and “Clerks.”
From the beginning, Music Box Films saw an opening with foreign-language film. “I like foreign-language films,” Schopf says. “They make a lot of good films overseas. The problem is, they aren’t in English, and we have the audience in the U.S.”
Andreotti says that going after micro-budgeted American independent films can be “tricky,” and it best suited the new company to focus on quality foreign films that have slipped through the cracks and haven’t received the attention they deserved. “In some ways, it’s, ironically, a safer bet to go after the foreign-language films,” he says.
“Really our long-term goal,” says Arentz, “and it’s a big assignment, is to expand the audience for foreign-language films.”
The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was founded in Uptown in 1907. Best known for producing several Charlie Chaplin films, the studio helped make Chicago a hotbed for film production during the era. As film production slowly began migrating west, Chicago, as a city, fell more and more out of the game—but a growing interest in the city from Hollywood in recent years has sparked a bit of a Chicago resurgence, highlighted, quite bluntly, by the local filming of such films as “The Dark Knight,” and even the upcoming “Nightmare on Elm Street.” Music Box Films’ launch has helped Chicago garner even more attention from the film world—though Arentz is based in New York, the home office is here, as are Schopf and Andreotti.
The first film the company acquired was “Tuya’s Marriage,” from China, a drama that received strong critical reviews and won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007. Since then, other films have included Italian political drama “Il Divo,” French James Bond spoof “OSS 117” and French romantic comedy “Shall We Kiss?” “Seraphine,” the 2008 French biopic about painter Seraphine de Senlis, won seven Cesar Awards, France’s equivalent to the Oscars. Though each of these films earned less than a million dollars in U.S. box office—according to the calculators at the-numbers.com—given their specialty nature and Schopf, Arentz and Andreotti’s level-headedness, you could consider them modest successes, especially when you take into account the tiny number of screens across the country on which these films played.
The film that put Music Box Films on the map, however, came in 2008, with French thriller “Tell No One.” Directed by Guillaume Canet, the film tells the story of a pediatrician who’s suspected of murdering his wife eight years earlier. It’s a psychological thrill ride, a fun, if a little distressing picture, with topnotch performances.
The film had already opened in Britain to critical acclaim, so riding a small but notable wave of buzz into the States helped Music Box Films launch the picture. To everyone’s surprise, the company included, the film started doing respectable business here, a rarity considering its size and the general doomsday attitude of those in the industry. The trades took notice and everyone was curious about this small Chicago-based company that all of a sudden had an independent hit on its hands.
“I never felt like companies focused on acquiring foreign-language films,” Arentz says. “But when we hit big with ‘Tell No One,’ that summer, all these incredulous articles [were written] that said, ‘How could this be so successful when supposedly the sky is falling?’”
“You want to keep your expectations realistic,” Andreotti says, “but you start to think, well, maybe this is gonna work. And Ed was very confident that it was going to work, so we were kind of following his lead. But then, it was Fourth of July weekend, and the New York Times review came out, and even before that, a week before, there were feature articles, which was a good sign, and then we started getting reports of the lines in New York. And then, for weeks after, the numbers were not dropping, which is usually the case, and in some places the numbers were actually going up. I’d never seen anything like it. It was amazing.”
“When it came out,” Arentz says, “a friend of mine was walking in SoHo and was near some young hipsters, and they were like, ‘Man, I just saw this movie ‘Tell No One,’ excited, and I thought, ‘OK, we’ve broken through to this audience that tends to be really predictable with their viewing and media-consumption habits. They are the big prize—for them to discover our film, our kind of film, was a great accomplishment.”
In the end, “Tell No One” grossed more than $6 million in the United States, the most successful foreign-language film of 2008.
When I imagine the process of acquiring distribution rights for a film, say, during a film festival like Cannes or Toronto, I picture elevated discussion and scrambling, behind-the-back deals and rivalries, moving, shaking, shouting. Like a sports agent angling his way into the representation of a star athlete, like in those scenes in “Jerry Maguire.”
Arentz says that he’s heard ugly tales of company reps who just lost out on a deal scowling, but insists he hasn’t fallen into any altercations.
Music Box Films’ work is based in reality—Schopf, Arentz and Andreotti know what the company is and is not capable of, given its size and means. The number of prints created for each film depends on their confidence about drawing an audience; they may even start small, opening the film in select major-market cities, see what attendance numbers are like, and reassess. Strategically, for example, they would print less copies of a film like “Tuya’s Marriage” than they would a broader thriller like “Tell No One.” Andreotti’s expertise, having run an art-house theater in a major city for so many years, comes in handy here. He knows each film’s audience, what marketing will work, and essentially, what won’t.
“Our model,” Arentz says, “at least what we’ve done so far, is not to try to let critics determine our acquisition strategy. Just because it wins awards at Cannes, that doesn’t mean we feel the need to belly up and start throwing down money against bigger distributors. There are enough films that are overlooked, or not properly evaluated.”
Despite the apprehensive climate in the independent film market, Music Box Films does face competition, notably from the larger studios that haven’t yet abandoned their specialty divisions. Like Sony with Sony Pictures Classics.
“If Sony wants a film, they are gonna get it,” Schopf says. “They have very deep pockets that reach to Tokyo.”
But that doesn’t stop them from trying. “We do go after bigger films,” Schopf continues. “Like ‘A Prophet.’ It’s a very good film, and we went and tried to buy it, but Sony was in there, putting money bags on the table. That way, you overpay, number one, and if we would’ve bought it we would’ve overpaid.”
I ask Schopf how frustrating it gets, competing with other companies that have such abundant resources. “Eh,” he says. “That’s life.”
“One of the things that Bill brings to the partnership is that he knows when to fold a hand,” Arentz says. “[With ‘A Prophet,’ at Cannes] I was like, ‘Let’s go back and give them some more money!’ You want to up the offer—you see a movie, you have an experience you think is valuable, you want to share it with others, that and the glory and handling of a prestige film, that kind of stuff, you get caught up with that, in a festival setting. Red carpets, international press. You definitely need to keep giving yourself reality checks.”
This week, Music Box Films’ newest project, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” hits theaters, a bloody thriller based on the hit novel about a punk-rock computer-hacker chick investigating a murder. The three men are “cautiously optimistic,” but it seems the company might have another hit with the film. (They’ve created up to a hundred prints for the film already, and it’s primed for a larger-than-usual opening, in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Minneapolis.)
One might assume a Music Box Films release would naturally open at the Music Box Theatre, but “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” like “Tell No One,” is coming via Landmark. Andreotti says that decisions like these are made in the best interest of the film; again, he knows his audience, what would and would not find success at his theater. But there’s no hard feelings if a picture doesn’t show on Southport—”I like to keep a separation of church and state,” Andreotti says.
They are looking, quite obviously, to reach a younger audience.
“Traditionally our demographic is older…but here we’ve given them a pierced, punk, tattoed, bisexual, anti-social computer hacker,” Schopf says, excitedly. “A wonderful female star.”
“Oddly, younger audiences are much more conservative,” Arentz says. “They’re led by aggressive marketing, but the longer we can stay on screen, the more opportunity we’ll have for word of mouth to trickle down.”
With a small staff that assists in marketing, press and accounting, Music Box Films has even more ambitious films slated for release this year, including a two-part French gangster epic “Mesrine: Killer Instinct” and “Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1,” both starring Vincent Cassel. (There’s also an “OSS 117″ sequel on the way, “Lost in Rio.”) It seems the company is slowly growing more and more aspiring, even in these times of economic uncertainty. They’re expanding, as well—late last year they launched Music Box Home Entertainment, the company’s home-video wing, which gives them distribution opportunities with DVDs and video-on-demand formats. They move forward because of, essentially, their belief in the power of film and the one-of-a-kind experience of seeing a picture in a theater.
“There are more screens dedicated to film than ever before. That fact alone, and plus, you know, people are still opening theaters,” Arentz says. “The Baby Boom was the first sort of film generation, and they are presumably gonna have time to spend seeing some of these films. Down the road, it’s encouraging. The theatrical experience remained competitive with home-entertainment alternatives for the last fifty years. Home entertainment keeps upping the ante, and cinemas have done things to improve the experience, to enhance the experience. The core phenomenon is quite appealing. Roger Ebert extols the virtues of seeing a film in a darkened room with a crowd of strangers. It’s one of the few collective experiences we have.”
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