Happy ending

Theater chain regains financial footing.

THE LONG LINES of SIFF will soon be behind us, but what will take their place? At two SIFF venues, the Harvard Exit and Egyptian, regular programming will resume without fanfare. Behind the scenes, however, the just resolved bankruptcy of the Landmark-Seven Gables chain might well have resulted in shuttered doors and darkened marquees at those theaters, along with the Metro, Broadway Market, Seven Gables, Crest, Neptune, Varsity, and Guild 45.

It's a starless story that few moviegoers have bothered to follow, one that began back in May of last year—just about the time Gladiator was swaggering into theaters. Like many exhibition companies of late, Dallas-based Silver Screens International (SCI) entered Chapter 11 protection from its creditors and debts, the victim of an industrywide slump blamed mostly on overbuilding and excess screen capacity. It didn't help that SCI management was largely unfamiliar with the Truffaut and Tarantino flicks that had made Landmark—as it's known nationally—the country's largest art-house chain, with 52 theaters and 166 screens when it was sold to SCI in 1998 for about $65 million.

Enter Oaktree Capital, an L.A.-based investment concern that just bought SCI out of Delaware bankruptcy court for only $40 million—reflecting a stomach-churning $25 million drop in SCI's value over three short years.

Meanwhile, during the interim bankruptcy period, an ominous change-of-land-use sign appeared outside the Metro Cinemas this winter. Its landlord could use Chapter 11 provisions to possibly evict the theater in favor of a more profitable tenant.

So what, you ask? Is the Metro now safe? Yes. Will popcorn and ticket prices be any higher? Probably not. And what about those threadbare seats, sticky floors, and frayed carpets? Those terrible sight lines at the Egyptian? This is where Landmark's new management—also its old, old management—would like to have a word with you.

THE WORST OUTCOME to bankruptcy would've been moving into Chapter 7 liquidation. "It could've been sold piecemeal," explains Bert Manzari, Landmark's new executive vice president (and a former film programmer/booker here in Seattle).

"Fortunately, it went the right way," declares president/CEO Paul Richardson who, like Manzari, is returning to Landmark after the SCI interregnum. "Landmark is still the dominant art cinema in the United States," he continues, sounding confident that Oaktree's money will enable them to scrape the gum from beneath seats and address other issues of long-deferred theater maintenance. "There's a laundry list of those things we're going to attack."

Does Landmark change its identity or focus in Seattle? Nooo! Both executives are quick to emphasize continuity. No theaters are slated to close. Don't expect to see digital projectors or fancy in-theater cafes. Films still come first. "There's an incredible tradition of adventuresome film programming in this market," says Manzari, citing the work of veteran booker Ruth Hayler.

That niche programming gives each venue its unique character, Manzari explains: "We feel that audience loyalty to our theaters is absolutely essential to what we do. We have to maintain our integrity of booking in order to do that."

Still, times are changing, Manzari acknowledges. "We have seen the aging of our audience. In a lot of ways, we've been programming for ourselves for a lot of years. I think Run Lola Run was a terrific example of a film that was geared to a younger generation and yet was acceptable to an art-film audience. For a long time there was this kind of Quentin Tarantino phenomenon, where that was the only kind of specialized film that was appealing to a younger, more hip audience. But I think that's changed now."

Yet, he concludes, "We cannot make tastes, and we cannot convince people to see films they don't wanna see."

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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