In this series of interviews, BoxOffice and Art House Convergence recognize some of the most influential members of the non-profit art-house community.
One of Gary Meyer’s first jobs in film programming was in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco where, as a college student, he booked a daily grind-house double feature. Meyer’s career took off from his early days in San Francisco, and he eventually co-founded one of the premier art-house cinema chains in North America, Landmark Theatres. Meyer left Landmark in 1996 and has since dedicated his career to film programming and curation as a consultant to art-house cinemas across the country, and in a stint as the co-director of the Telluride Film Festival. He recently launched a web magazine called Eat Drink Films, which will expand to a food-and-drink-related film festival this October.
BoxOffice spoke with Meyer about the lessons he’s learned in a lifetime of booking films.
What were some of the challenges in launching Landmark Theatres?
The original three partners were Steve Gilula, Kim Jorgensen, and myself. Kim had taken the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, and we wanted to take over the UC Theater at Berkeley. We joined our efforts, and at the second Telluride Film Festival, we formed our partnership. We didn’t expect to have a circuit, but the UC Theater opened, and friends from Sacramento called me and gave us the idea to open a location there. It snowballed from there: San Diego, Pasadena, and more. Kim went home to Milwaukee for the holidays one year and came back and said, “We have to take over the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee.” He just wouldn’t let up, so we went to Milwaukee and the theater was just stunning. The owners of the building were contractors and electricians, and they had completely restored the theater stunningly, but they didn’t know anything about the movie business, and their bookings and grosses were terrible. So we talked ourselves into taking this crazy leap across the country with the Oriental, and it was a success, but we also knew we had to have other theaters in the Midwest so we could appoint a district manager who could look over what we were doing there. We found theaters in Madison, Minneapolis, and then Chicago, and we just kept on growing. Initially they were repertory houses, but as home video came along, we needed to get more adventurous in our programming.
How did you address that threat from home entertainment?
One of the things we thought was very important was to develop marketing strategies that would allow our local managers to do the promotion in a manner that would get them attention in their particular markets. We said to our managers, you are the spokesperson to our brand; you are the face, and what we’re going to do is create a marketing program where every new, first-run art film opening in our theaters will include marketing guidelines with ideas that you could do to get attention. You’re required to have a press screening and get the film reviewed in the daily papers-if you get a photograph with that review, that’s worth $50 for you, the manager. If you get it on the front cover of the entertainment section, that’s worth $100. If you get a feature piece, whether it’s a wire service or phone or in-person interview, we’ll do anything we can to get those set up; that’s worth money to you. Tie in with a business, get a window display, tie in with the local PBS or NPR station, the college station, and so on-we created a price structure for what all these things were worth for every manager as bonuses. It was incredibly successful, because we had built-in incentives, and we only hired people who loved movies.
What can independent movie theaters do to gain an edge in the current exhibition market?
The market is constantly changing; you have chains like Cinemark and Regal doing their own programs, and doing a good job within the context of what they do. The independent art-house operator really needs to find that balance between getting some of the higher profile films-something like Birdman or The Imitation Game-that do some crossover business, but when they play, they’re going to play alongside a number of other theaters, and the other smaller films. The reason to play the higher-profile films is to bring in audiences that may be new to your theater, and to generate revenue that would underwrite the riskier, smaller films. Keep it very personal; I urge theaters to have someone introducing films whenever possible. Someone who is good in front of audiences. They can’t be up there afraid and reading off a script; they need to be personal and passionate-something short that thanks the audience for coming and tells them about something interesting coming up. And at the end of the show, having someone at the doors thanking them for coming. I know it can’t be done every time, but on the weekends, for example, you can bring in someone who doesn’t have any on-the-floor responsibilities with tickets or concessions, but rather they are an ambassador to the theater and a problem solver. Someone that introduces the film and says good night, that the audience knows as someone they can approach and ask a question. Personalizing the experience is very important.
Do some unique programming: a festival, classic movies on Tuesday nights, local documentary and student filmmakers. Do outreach to the educational community. Have screenings for all ages and bring in school groups, and if you have to give away the theater to bring them in-that’s OK, they’ll probably buy concessions and you’re doing it in a non-operating hour anyway. And you’re hopefully building new audiences. One of the dangers we observe in the art market is that we’re a large part of our own audience. We became interested in this in our 20s, and we are still going to those movies in our 60s, but where are the younger audiences? They’re not there in large enough numbers. We need to figure out ways to bring that young audience back.