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Bigger not necessarily better

In the days before television, most movie theaters had one screen. Now the typical multiplex has eight, and the newer ones are building 16, 20, even 30 screens. Does that mean too many movies? Has the rise of the multiplex given us too much choice?

Oddly enough, no. In the new math of movie exhibition, more screens mean fewer movies. A 30-plex isn't showing 30 different movies. It's using the additional screens to stagger start times, so that a new showing of a really popular movie, such as "Titanic," will begin every 30 minutes. As big productions are block-booked into thousands of screens at the same time and backed with huge promotional budgets, the actual choice for mainstream moviegoers is shrinking.

The Toronto Star recently plunged into its back issues and found that in 1980, the city had 81 movies on 156 screens, while today it has 62 movies on 416 screens.

That doesn't mean Hollywood is making fewer movies - it's making more. It means that fewer movies get held over for longer runs and that the exhibition of art films has been curtailed. The runs of the Hollywood titles are shorter because studios are in a lather to sell their titles to television and video. As for foreign films, veteran film distributor Dan Talbott recalls that in 1960, more than 30 Italian films opened in America. In recent years, the total was closer to two or three.

For those who like a wider choice in their movie selections, the bottom line is this: Most multiplexes are cookie-cutter operations booked by computer from Los Angeles and showing the same handful of films in current national release. For choice, you have to look to the independent art theaters or those few screens set aside by the big chains for alternative product.

In Chicago, for example, you'll see less-familiar titles advertised at the Music Box, Facets Cinematheque, Pipers Alley, the Fine Arts, the Film Center of the Art Institute and sometimes at 600 N. Michigan and the Three Penny. When a new foreign, documentary or revival film opens, it'll likely be in one of those theaters or the suburban theaters with similar policies, such as the Evanston, Lake, Wilmette, Hinsdale and some multiplex screens.

American "indie" films do a little better. Because they're in English, they can break out of the art circuit and play more widely. That is the history of such films as "Reservoir Dogs," "Happiness," "Trainspotting" and "Afterglow." If a film touches a nerve, as "The Full Monty" did, or gets Oscar nominations like "The Apostle," it opens even wider. That's a mixed blessing; distributors observe that much of the success of American independent films has come at the expense of foreign films.

There also are geographical patterns in distribution. Woody Allen once told me none of his films, except "Annie Hall," had played south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and while that might have been hyperbole at the time and is no longer true, films with a Northern urban sensibility often never make it to smaller cities or to some states.

Yet festivals such as Sundance thrive on showcasing new films that fall outside the mainstream. Is someone making money on them? Yes, in many cases they're very profitable. The big independent distributors such as Miramax, Sony Classics, New Line, Goldwyn, Trimark and October scout the festival circuit for possible breakthrough hits. They bid eagerly for films such as "The Full Monty," "The Apostle," "Big Night," "Mrs. Brown," "Life is Beautiful," "Like Water For Chocolate," "The Postman (Il Postino)," "Cinema Paradiso" or the upcoming "Waking Ned Devine." And because such titles can be acquired for far less than the production cost of a film such as "Meet Joe Black" ($80 million), they turn nice profits.

Some exhibitors say there is money to be made in multiplexes that specialize in art, foreign, indie and documentary films. They look at the boom in the big bookstore chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. Ten years ago, few cities had any bookstores as big as the hundreds of new B&Ns and Borders - which, by adding magazines, newspapers, videos, music and cafes, have become popular community hangouts.

The Landmark Theater chain, which used to run only revival houses, has branched out in the last two years into a program of opening art multiplexes. It has announced a multiscreen operation in the Century Shopping Center at Clark and Diversey (which, ironically, occupies the shell of the old Century movie palace). Robert Redford's Sundance theater chain is also opening specialized multiplexes, and sites in Highland Park and Oak Park have been discussed.

These new theaters will not show Hollywood blockbusters for a good reason: They are located within areas where big theater chains such as Sony already have the rights to the Armageddons and Titanics. But they will sell coffee, bran muffins, gourmet sandwiches, and - who knows? - books, magazines, music and videos. It's surely only a matter of time until Barnes & Noble opens a bookstore with an attached multiplex.

Meanwhile, the average moviegoer has wide title choices, but it takes some searching.

First, the curious and adventurous moviegoer has to find out about the good new offbeat films. They aren't promoted in national advertising campaigns. You have to read the movie critics. And the Web is abuzz with talk of new films such as "Happiness" or "Gods and Monsters."

Second, if the would-be moviegoer doesn't live near a theater showing such films, there are three cable channels specializing in them: Bravo, the Independent Film Channel and Sundance. Such cable outlets as AMC and TMC show uncut classics.

Third, although chains such as Blockbuster specialize in the latest commercial hits and sometimes refuse to rent the popular "letterbox" format preferred by serious film lovers, there are specialist video stores in many communities, or you can rent films over the Web from outlets such as Chicago's Facets or

Meanwhile, Hollywood seems to be rethinking its own production binge. In recent years, some studios actually have approached the pre-TV production rate of a new movie every week. If these films don't open strong right out of the box, they're yanked in a week or two for fresh product. Now some executives are saying that policy is a waste of money; that a film such as "Dark City," for example, might have built into a box office hit if it had been given a chance ("Blade Runner" and "2001" were slow starters at the box office, but grew into legends).

So although multiplexes today seem to have look-alike marquees, the best-case scenario for the future would include fewer different new mainstream titles, longer runs, more screens for art, indie and specialized screens and a wider choice for the moviegoer.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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