Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hots for the Smarts

Here's something I wrote 18 years ago in my State College (motto: Penn State? State Pen? You Decide) days and I'm charmed and surprised to find it still on the web. I liked it then and think it still stands up as writing. Plus putting this here means that 1) if it goes away I still have it, 2) I finally will push the David Byrne player off the page and you won't get bombarded with sound (even if good sound) when you come visit INOTBB. You're welcome.

UPDATE: OK, that didn't work. Sorry.

A novel idea: Bringing intelligent films to a college town

Jeff Lewine, president and chief executive officer of Cinema World, the chain that operates all eight commercial screens in town, isn't a bad man. Jeff Lewine is a businessman.

It's as unsimple as that. At last week's press conference/public meeting that announced a truce with Orion Pictures and this coming Friday's opening of both "Dances with Wolves" and "Silence of the Lambs" (the wolves and lambs are an almost too-fitting a metaphor for the business world), Lewine himself admitted, "First of all, I'm here not to have to eat Hamburger Helper . . . I'm responsible to my shareholders or they'll change me."

It's best to turn to film itself to explain Lewine's bind. Perched atop a desk, Lewine looked like Robert De Niro in two of his most famous roles. Physically -- and even he joked about his appearance, claiming that the grueling nature of film distribution had reduced him from 6-foot-2-inch, blond hunkdom -- he resembled De Niro as the fatted-up Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull," a puffed man with his hair and tie askew.

Yet his motions, his gestures, echoed De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, the standup comic/kidnappper who decides it's better to be "king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime" in "King of Comedy." Lewine's 'aw, shucks!' shrugging, his closing plea "for another chance," seemed to come directly from the Pupkin playbook, in which Hollywood schmoozing with a cardboard cut-out of Liza Minnelli is no more fake than the "real thing."

So it's with some skepticism that I listened to his promises for new theaters, better theaters, better films. That skepticism grew when he "explained" last December's announced-yet-never-performed renovations to the existing State College theaters by talking about the difficulties of finding sites for new theaters. Finally, he said something about all construction having to be done at once -- new building, remodeling, the works. His conclusion to the question: "We have fallen desperately short."

Wise ass me wanted to say,"No kidding," but I didn't. At least I asked questions: The reporting press seemed more than willing to lap up whatever Lewine had to say as gospel, as if a press conference were a talking press release, as if everyone told, heck, as if everyone knew the truth.

It's pretty clear Lewine didn't: He challenged the audience to name films that never came to town after they were advertised in trailers or on posters (we chirped in with "Mo' Better Blues," "Eight Men Out" and others); he insisted a $100 million take for a movie wasn't a magical figure (although only five to 10 films a year reach that rich plateau); and he claimed "Dances with the Wolves," as he twice called it, didn't open with strong box office (it had passed the $100 million mark before it swept the Oscars).

But the Pupkin in him makes it possible to excuse these failings, for he is true to his reality, and that reality is Cinema World has to make money. Currently his chain is the 13th largest film circuit in the country; by next August, Lewine said the company would be in the single digits.

To keep such a monster of projectors and popcorn rolling, the company has to program smart, which often means programming dumb. When people at the meeting lamented the lack of art or foreign films in his theaters, Lewine replied, "There's a minority of the universe of customers who will go to a specialty film." Later, he explained the problem as follows: If 10,000 people want to see a James Bond film, and 300 want to see the art film, he has to give the screen to the Bond film. It's simple math, for Lewine: Eight screens means no room for specialty films.

The issue gets complicated when you try to define what a specialty film is. When I read a list of 1990 films (and remember, we are four months, that's one-quarter, into 1991) that never made it downtown (and thanks is due to the Graduate Student Association and International Film Series for all their fine programming) -- films like "Reversal of Fortune," "Longtime Companion," "Men Don't Leave," "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," "After Dark, My Sweet," "Alice," "Avalon" -- he admitted many of these titles weren't specialty films.

They might be special to State College, though, if we ever got to see them.

And maybe we will, or at least the films of 1991 of similar caliber. For Lewine aped films again, however unwittingly, when he promised, once the new Benner Pike theaters opened, to reserve one screen for one year for specialty films.

He even had somebody in the crowd write the promise down so he could sign it, just like Charles Foster Kane publishing his signed Declaration of Principles. It was a bold stroke of theater, but drama deserves its critics, as the disillusioned Jed Leland learns in "Citizen Kane." Only time and a year's worth of good movies will tell if Lewine will keep his promise, or if he will bank on the transitory nature of college towns to let him off the hook.

As for State College, we can prove him wrong. At one point he said there wasn't an audience for intelligent films, claiming, "When you get to college, you're not more intellectually curious." What worried me was he might be right, that only a handful of us who can't separate our real lives from our reel lives care, and everyone else is happy to have their brains kicked in by Steven Seagal, have their hearts melted to mush by Julia Roberts, the Bambi for the '90s (as critic Dave Kehr would say).

Is that true? Would seeing "The Handmaid's Tale" or "The Sheltering Sky" or "Tune in Tomorrow . . ." be too much for Happy Valley minds to handle?

Well, I could go on, but the Collegian doesn't pay, and I have business to do.

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Blogger Smitty said...

So, reading this was sort of like, for me, George, the Prequel. It's all there: the excellent writing, the sarcasm, the love for foreign films...

6:20 AM  
Anonymous Freealonzo said...

I'd love to read a follow-up. What ever happened to Jeff and his movie chain? Did the indie film movement pass State College by?

Also, to pick a nit, but four months is 1/3 of a year, not 1/4.

1:23 PM  
Blogger George said...

Actually in 1991 four months as a quarter of the year--time went slower then.

It seems that a company called Carmike bought out all of Cinema World 3 years later. And from the Google it looks like Lewine know is part of something called KLM Theater Partners in Pittsburgh.

I don't remember the film selection getting much better, but that's a long long time ago.

3:40 PM  

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