So Landmark Theatres, owners of the the three Ritz moviehouses in Society Hill, has put its 63 properties up on the auction block. (See second item). What does this mean for art films nationally and locally?
Media entrepreneur Mark Cuban, owner of the nation's premier chain for independent, art and foreign film, says he's just "testing the waters" to see if he can get his price for the Landmark properties.
It's a volatile time for movie exhibition. Viewing habits are changing. Netflix subscribers can see several movies a month for the price of one movie ticket in a theater (and also save on parking fees.) Cuban, who also owns Magnolia Pictures, likewise has tested the waters by making Magnolia films available on video-on-demand the same day and date that they arrive in his theaters. His competitors would say that this practice devalues the exclusivity of the big-screen experience.
Since it acquired the three Philadelphia Ritz properties in 2007, Landmark's ownership of the Ritz Theaters, originally built and programmed by the late Ramon Posel, has been mostly a blessing for local cineastes and movie geeks. On the upside, it retained the local managers and conviviality. On the downside, it programmed significantly fewer foreign-language films and used the Ritz at the Bourse as a venue for churning through titles that generally played only a week. Posel had the luxury of holding over a movie for a second and third and letting word of mouth do the job. (He also programmed far more foreign-language titles than Landmark has.)
In a Landmark sale, the worst-case scenario for local moviegoers is that the buyers of the Ritz turn those houses into showcases for mainstream Hollywood fare. Where would we see the next Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Where would we see the next King's Speech? The best-case scenario is that owners sensitive to this market and to exposing viewers to the widest possible selection of art and alt fare would buy the chain.
What most concerns me is that at this time when the world is most globalized, the foreign offerings at our movie theaters are shrinking, and a Landmark sale might accelerate this trend.
From 2004 to 2009, the proportion of foreign films shown in the Philadelphia area dropped from 20 per cent to 12 per cent of the total offerings, mirroring the long-term national trend.