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February 23, 1999

Movie Exhibition Monopoly in Mobile No More:

Diversity in Films Screened Promised

hollywood.jpg - 12311 Bytesby R. Bruce Brasell

I donít know if anyone has noticed, but over the past few years many films exhibited in other cities in the South, not to mention the country, never made it to Mobile. Opening up The New York Times or The Village Voice one could encounter numerous reviews of and advertisements for critically acclaimed films which we were not offered the opportunity to see (and hear - film is, after all, both a visual and an aural medium, although most of us do tend to think of it as primarily a visual one). If a film was foreign or an American independent one could almost be assured that it would not come to Mobile, even if the film was distributed by a mainstream American distribution company. I personally had to catch my two favorite American films of 1998 - The Opposite of Sex (Don Roos, 1998) and Gods and Monsters (Bill Condon, 1998) - while out-of-town visiting friends because they never came to Mobile. And these two "small" films actually included among their cast well known actors - the ever intriguing Christina Ricci and the gorgeously sensitive Brendan Fraser, respectively - as well as received long-running engagements in other cities.

This year, such independent films as Pecker (John Waters, 1998), Buffalo 66 (Vincent Gallo, 1998), Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998), Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998), Celebrity (Woody Allen, 1998), and Billyís Hollywood Screen Kiss (Tommy OíHaver, 1998) never made it to Mobile. Waters and Allen are old timers, almost considered a part of the Hollywood establishment because they have been around for so long, while Haynes and Solondz are filmmakers whose 1998 releases had been much anticipated for some time by those familiar with the American indie film scene. They definitely qualify for the term "maverick" filmmakers. Solondz previously made the highly acclaimed Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) while Haynes caused a stir with Poison (1991) and Safe (1995). Billyís Hollywood Screen Kiss was a mainstream film much hyped in gay and lesbian communities across the country. (And I could list just as many foreign films.) But if you lived in Mobile you were never offered the opportunity to experience any of these films.

Of the 152 first run feature films which opened in Mobile during 1998, less than half a dozen even vaguely qualify to wear the label foreign or independent. The four "foreign" films were all English language films from the UK and Ireland (The Boxer, The Full Monty, The Wings of the Dove, and Love and Death on Long Island), each lasting only one week in town. Blink and you missed it. The two "independent" films (Smoke Signals and Next Stop Wonderland) at least faired better; they lasted a whole two weeks in town. Donít let the label "independent" fool you. Although such films may be produced independently of the Hollywood apparatus, they are distributed by mainstream film distribution companies. Most independently made films never obtain a distribution deal so you can only catch them at a film festival or special screening. But even this small select group of independent films that finagled a nation wide distribution deal with a mainstream distributor never made it to Mobile.

This lack of diversity in the films screened during the past few years was a result of a monopoly of the theater exhibition industry in Mobile. One chain, Carmike, owned 100% of the theater screens in our city, well a 100% if you exclude the porn theater downtown. It was they who chose to offer us only mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. As a city with an estimated population of around 200,000 and a metropolitan area of over 475,000 people, you would think an area this size could support a broader range of film exhibition than what Carmike has chosen to offer, that such a metro could support films for adults as well as that 16 to 21 year old market. Or are we really that undereducated a city as a recent national survey of metropolitan areas claims and donít want anything more?

If youíve noticed, Iíve been using the past tense in describing the film viewing scene in Mobile; that is because lucky for us, a new theater chain has arrived in town, Hollywood Theaters, and it has promised that its booking policy will differ from Carmikeís.

Some cities regulate the entertainment industry within their jurisdiction. For example, last year New York City legally forced a theater exhibition chain to divest a portion of its theaters within the cityís limits because it was obtaining too large a percentage of the market, damaging the competition. Capitalism after all is not about maintaining competition -- it is about eliminating the competition and monopolizing the complete market.

In Birmingham, Alabama theater exhibition is almost evenly divided between two chains: Regal Cinemas with 52 screens in town and Carmike with 48 screens. Montgomery on the other head is completely monopolized by Carmike, similar to the way Mobile was until this month. Pensacola, Florida in contrast has three chains operating within its boundaries, Carmike (10 screens), Regal Cinemas (7 screens), and United Artists (11 screens). Locally owned and operated independent film theaters are pretty much a thing of the past except in large cities. All of the first run theaters in the cities mentioned above are owned by theater chains. Their booking policies drastically affect what films we as viewers get to see. Film is one of those precarious "arts" in that it is a popular commercial enterprise undertaken purely for profit by some but it is also a twentieth century art form involving mechanical reproduction. Not that these two aspects are mutually exclusive, but in cities such as Mobile the commercial side seems to always dwarf the artistic contingency, resulting in our being offered a very limited range of films, forcing adventurous viewers to travel to other cities or wait half a year for video releases.

Prior to this month Mobile had 26 first run movie screens. With the recent opening of ten of Hollywood Stadiumís 18 screens that total increased to 36 screens, soon to be 44 when Hollywood Stadiumís other eight screens open. And of course when Carmike opens its planned multiplex in west Mobile the number of theater screens in town will increase even further. When Carmike had a monopoly on the exhibition industry in town, it could have provided Mobile with a genuine community service by setting aside at least one of its 26 screens for these other types of films, advertised in advance through a quarterly or monthly schedule so people could plan if the films changed every week or so. Based on the first few weeks of Hollywood Theaterís presence in Mobile it appears, unlike Carmike, they will offer a diverse range of films, catering to the adult as well as youth markets

On opening day, three of Hollywood Stadiumís 10 theater screens exhibited what could be called, for lack of a better phrase, foreign or independent films: Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur, 1998, UK), Life Is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997, Italy), and Waking Ned Devine (Kirk Jones, III, 1998, Ireland). Again, two of which I had already seen out-of-town because I assumed they would never come to Mobile. But much to my surprise, thanks to Hollywood Theaters, they did arrive in town after all. According to Marty Felts, general manager of Hollywood Stadium, "We donít want to serve one type of customer. We want to serve everybody in the population, not just the 18 to 25 year olds. So bringing in a different product like that is much appreciated by the community." When I inquired whether screening these types of films would be a permanent policy, he assuredly informed me, "We will always have movies like that. Depending on what is released it may be one picture, maybe three, but we will always have one to four screens all the time reserved for films like that." As active consumers and film aficionados letís make sure Hollywood Theaters lives up to its promise. For what good is having another theater chain in town if all it does is offer us more of the same of what we already have? Hollywood Theaterís short record so far is excellent. Marty told me: "Weíre excited about the opportunity to serve people in a little different way here." Hopefully this excitement and commitment will prove lasting.

Hollywood Stadium also offers a new amenity to the theater experience in Mobile, one such cities as Birmingham and Montgomery already have, that of stadium style seating. The rows of theater seats are tiered as in a stadium so as to provide a better view of the theater screen. The Hollywood Stadium 18 theater is located at 1250 Satchell Paige Drive, right off Government Street at Interstate 65 near the Hank Aaron Stadium.

Representatives of Carmike in Mobile were not available for comments by press time, after several calls were made to them in preparing for this article. Subsequent to the writing of this article, on Friday Carmike opened two films which would qualify as foreign or independent: Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine mentioned in the article and Hilary and Jackie (Anand Tucker, 1998, UK). Last week they showed Little Voice (Mark Herman, 1998, UK), but as expected it stayed only one week.

The Harbinger, P.O. Box U-980, Mobile, AL 36688-0001