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City to theaters: If you build it...

Economic obstacles have made it difficult to draw independent chains, according to officials

Posted: March 4, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 4, 2012 1:55 a.m.
 


“The Artist” became the first silent film since 1929 to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, when it took that top honor and four others at last Sunday’s Oscars — and yet the movie did not make it out to Santa Clarita Edwards Cinema theaters for residents to view until Friday.

This is the gripe of many local residents, who have driven to Antelope Valley or to the Los Angeles area to watch independent films that never get a run at the two Edwards Cinema theater complexes in the area operated by the Regal Entertainment Group.

Independent films are typically defined as movies in which less than half of its funding came from any of the top six film production companies. Such films garnered 60 Academy Awards nominations this year, and residents are driving elsewhere to see them.

Jason Crawford, the city’s manager of Economic Development and Marketing, said he has been working on bringing an independent theater to the area for six years.

“We would love to see an independent theater open in the Old Town Newhall area,” he said.

And the demand is there. The city regularly surveys residents on what businesses and services they leave the valley for and what they would like to see come to the valley.

“In that category, we see independent movie theater time and time again,” Crawford said. “It’s been near the top of the list for years.” Other top suggestions include Nordstrom’s and Cheesecake Factory.

Carolyn Wolf, a Santa Clarita resident for 18 years, said the Edwards Cinemas show mostly family- and kid-friendly movies, so she drives to Pasadena, Studio City or Sherman Oaks three times a month to see films not showing in Santa Clarita.

“I look in the paper all the time to see what’s showing on Friday (in Santa Clarita) and I just say ‘Oh, OK, nothing this week,’” she said. “I would stay here and see the movies (if an independent theater opened in Old Town Newhall), I would love it.”

Potential theaters

An independent theater would meet the demand for independent films. But also from purely a consumer perspective, Crawford said, Santa Clarita has a worse screen-to-resident ratio than similarly populated cities. Garden Grove in Orange County, for example, is equally populated, but has four theaters serving the same area that the two theaters in Santa Clarita serve.

Crawford said he has reached out to independent theater chains in Southern California, such as Arclight, Sundance and Laemmle, the latter of which opened up a location on The BLVD in Lancaster in August 2011.

But it isn’t the easiest time to bring in a theater.

In January, the California Supreme Court upheld the state’s decision to abolish the more than 400 redevelopment agencies statewide — and it was through these agencies that many theater chains had gotten funding to help open new locations.

 “Right now, the dissolution of redevelopment puts a lot of questions as far as how we’re able to do that in the future,” Crawford said, adding that bringing in an independent theater is “something I think will happen at some point. I think the timing of it now is unknown.”

Crawford suggests that residents contact the independent theater franchises themselves, so that the companies can see the demand from Santa Clarita.

Another possibility for an independent theater is to make one part of a larger Old Town Newhall investment by a developer, said Scott Erlich, a partner in InSite Development, which owns the Laemmle in Lancaster. (Laemmle is in charge of the theater’s film choices).

“It could take one developer to buy a lot of properties and take the chance on it like we did,” Erlich said.

 InSite owns 128,000 square feet of commercial property on The BLVD, and was approached by Lancaster leaders to include an independent theater as part of the investment.

Independent theaters aren’t large enough to make the kind of profits bigger chains make — machinery costs alone for Lancaster’s Laemmle were $600,000 — and so a larger investor is an option to make it happen.

Erlich said the theater was partially funded through the New Markets Tax Credit program, which creates tax incentives for investing in lower-income communities.

Changing selection

In the meantime, some residents have suggested that the Edwards Cinemas in Canyon Country and Valencia reserve a screen for more independent films.

“You do not need four screens showing the same film,” said Beverly Celentano, a Canyon Country resident who says she goes to Pasadena or West Hollywood to see movies two or three times a month because they aren’t showing in Santa Clarita.

Another large theater chain has responded to its customers’ requests for varied selections. AMC Theatres — with locations in the Los Angeles area — established its “AMC independent” program in 20 percent of its theaters, showing independent films year-round and offering AMC-exclusive film releases.

Celentano reached out to Regal Entertainment Group, the parent company of Edwards Cinemas, about bringing more independent films to the two theaters currently in the valley. The corporate customer relations office responded with an e-mail, explaining that the film selection is based on release decisions by the film companies themselves.

“The film companies often limit the release of these films to specific regions or larger metropolitan areas, and this is beyond our
control,” the Feb. 29 e-mail said. “Another factor is the number of prints produced by the filmmaker.”

It makes sense for the Edwards theaters to continue showing mainstream movies that sell out from a business and consumer angle,
Crawford said. It’s better to have a new venue that caters to the independent film niche.

“I would much rather see us get an independent movie theater in addition to what we have,” he said. “From a business prospective, why would (Edwards) want to change?”

Residents may contact the Regal Entertainment Group to comment by calling (877) 835-5734 or going online at www.regmovies.com/comment.aspx.

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