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Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2006 02:36 pm

Competition’s limits

Don’t blame Kerasotes for the state of independent film in the capital city

I was surprised to read a recent commentary in these pages that suggested that the Kerasotes theater chain avoids films with gay content — surprised because it isn’t true. Many have been brought to Springfield by Kerasotes over the years, such as Philadelphia, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Mulholland Dr., and Bound. If Kerasotes dared to screen Cruising at the Esquire in 1980, then mild films such as Brokeback Mountain and Capote, which are now playing here, could hardly frighten the management. Granted, Cruising was not supported by the gay community, but its frank depiction of a specific subculture is enough to send any homophobe running for the nearest exit. I will never forget the obscene outburst from a guy sitting behind me on opening night. The subject of gay cinema is merely representative of the bigger issue of independent and foreign films, and Kerasotes is the prime target of criticism because it owns all of our local indoor theaters. These complaints suggest a lack of understanding of the motion-picture and theater business and the enormous changes the industry has undergone over the last several decades. Like it or not, Springfield is not a major market, and less commercial films do not draw well enough here. Obviously as a film critic I would love to have more choices, but I’m also practical enough to realize that no business is obligated to offer a product that is likely to lose money. Those who argue that Kerasotes has an obligation because it’s a local monopoly feed on the assumption that a competitive market would result in the showing of a wider range of films here. The history of Springfield’s theaters suggests otherwise. I can’t go back to the very beginning, but I can start with 1969, the year my family moved here. At that time there were six indoor theaters — the Senate, the Esquire, the Lincoln, the Roxy, the Fox, and the Frisina Cinema. Only the Senate and the Esquire were owned by Kerasotes at the time. A few years later Kerasotes added two screens to the Esquire and opened the Capital City Cinema. Later in the decade Kerasotes divided the Senate into two screens and added a fourth to the Esquire. White Oaks Cinema also opened near the end of the decade, but it was not initially owned by Kerasotes. Competition clearly existed in the 1970s, but guess who offered most of the smaller-studio and foreign films? That’s right, it was Kerasotes. Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, François Truffaut’s Day for Night, and Federico Fellini’s Amarcord all played at the Esquire, as did Martin Scorsese’s small-studio film Mean Streets. Kerasotes offered greater variety when they had competition, and their monopoly status hasn’t altered their efforts. What has changed since the ’70s is the market itself. Audiences were more likely to buy tickets to small films back then, but two major developments changed moviegoers’ habits. The release of Jaws in 1975 ushered in the era of the blockbuster, which continues to drive the movie industry. Before Jaws, most films were released slowly. Major cities would get them first, and later they would filter out to the rest of the country. Even the huge hits The Exorcist and The Sting were released that way. Universal bucked tradition by giving Jaws a massive nationwide release, and its unprecedented success forever changed the course of Hollywood. The blockbuster mentality has poisoned the minds of both the industry and the public. If audiences supported small films, more would receive wide releases. Demand rather than supply ultimately determines the product. The other major development is popularity of DVDs, which appear to have put a much bigger dent in box office than the inferior VHS format did. DVD better duplicates the theater experience. Now the public’s thinking is “ ‘Big’ means theater; ‘small’ means DVD.”
So is it really Kerasotes’ fault that many small films don’t reach Springfield? Of course not. It’s our fault. Greater public support for these films would increase the number brought here. What Springfield really needs is an art and retro theater, one that can show films on a more limited basis. It simply doesn’t pay to hold most of these films for a full week. What might work instead are weekend screenings of independent, foreign, and classic films at a venue such as the Hoogland Center for the Arts. For the time being we’ll just have to make do with sporadic film series.
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