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Why Those Films Don't Get Here

I'm supposed to be a movie critic, and yet I keep hearing about these great new movies I've never seen. Don't think I'm not on the job; my trouble is that I live in Chicago.

We get all the Hollywood movies, of course, even the rotten ones. But we simply never see most of the new foreign films because they aren't booked here. The few that do struggle to town are proven box-office hits like "Blow-Up," or they're skin flicks like "I, a Woman," or they get here three or four years after they played everywhere else, like "Muriel." It's a pretty safe bet, in fact, that in the variety and quality of foreign films exhibited here, Chicago is one of the most backward big cities in the world. Most of us haven't even heard of LAST year's most widely discussed foreign films.

If you think that's an exaggeration, let me list no less than six of the ten movies on Newsweek's list of 1967's best films: "Falstaff," "The Battle of Algiers," "The Big City," "Closely Watched Trains," "Father" and ''La Guerre Est Finie."

All six opened in New York (and elsewhere in the U.S.) during 1967. All six got highly favorable reviews from the important national publications, All six are making money at the box office. Not a single one has played in the Second City.

The big Hollywood studios have greatly increased their production of new films in the last year, and their pressure to find first-run outlets is so fierce that no major Loop house regularly shows foreign films. Also, three theaters that used to show occasional foreign films - the Esquire, Loop and Carnegie - are now essentially first-run outlets for Hollywood.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing the matter with showing Hollywood movies. But the question of outlets for new foreign films remains. The local theaters in the field are the Cinema, Playboy, World Playhouse, Town Underground and the Aardvark. The first two are tied up with long runs.

The World, which pioneered foreign films here for years, has recently wavered between genuinely good ones ("The Hunt") and nudies ("The Naked World of Harrison Marks"), As a result, its policy is a little hard to follow. The Aardvark is a small operation in what can only be described as an Old Town loft. It caters to film buffs and hasn't yet attracted much of the general public, perhaps because of its obscurity. It plays classics, experimental films and an occasional first-run like the good, but little known, "Not on Your Life." It is financially unable to bid for the big foreign films like "La Guerre Est Finie."

The Town Underground is a strange case, It is one of the most comfortable theaters in Chicago, recently remodeled, offers free indoor parking, shows first runs and does poor business. It made more money when it presented nudies and strippers; the current policy is noble but unprofitable. Given the shortage of first-run outlets for foreign films here, the Town presumably should be doing better.

One of its problems - shared by other independent exhibitors here - is the high cash guarantee distributors are asking for the best foreign films. To get a film like the six on the Newsweek list, an exhibitor has to guarantee between $15,000 and $30,000 in advance or "front" money - and most simply cannot.

The distributors of films like "Closely Watched Trains" or "La Guerre Est Finie" are apparently intoxicated by the great business they're doing in New York. They can't understand why they should let their box office hits go to Chicago at a discount, and so they hold out for prestige outlets.

Since the Cinema and Playboy are engaged in long runs and the Carnegie, Loop and Esquire are seemingly committed to films from major studios, they usually find no outlet at all, the film never plays here, and the Chicago gross is not $20,000 but zero. If this seems pigheaded, it is.

An example. Two of the films I've been eager to see are Orson Welles' "Falstaff'' and Alain Resnais' "La Guerre Est Finie." Both opened in New York well over a year ago.

Their distributor is asking $20,000 in front money for "Falstaff" and, as noted, $25,000 for the Resnais film. These prices are insanely high. There are doubtless a large number of people in Chicago who want to see "La Guerre Est Finie." But 12,500 of them would have to pay $2 a piece before the exhibitor could pay the rental - and then the overhead, salaries and (hopefully) profit would still be ahead. No independent exhibitor in Chicago feels ready to take the gamble.

The big Loop exhibitors with lots of capital could meet the price but aren't interested. Films like "Falstaff" almost certainly lack the appeal to fill a downtown house like the Roosevelt or Woods. And the major Hollywood studios, currently battling each other for Loop booking dates, would recoil in horror if "Falstaff" were to squeeze their latest opus out of a first run.

Sometimes the better foreign films sneak into the suburbs and play semisecretly, in case a Chicago "first run" is later obtained. Although the distributor wants $25,000 for "La Guerre est Finie," it did agree recently to rent the film at a moderate price to a small suburban theater.

But then I, in my innocence, announced the booking in The Sun-Times a week ago. The movie was quickly withdrawn, and the exhibitor was required to switch the booking to his other theater, across the state line in Indiana. This was apparently far enough away from Chicago to keep the distributor's $25,000 ambitions intact.

The result of all this complicated maneuvering is that we may never get to see "La Guerre est Finie" or dozens of other movies we've heard about. As I see it, there are four ways to improve the situation:

1. The national distributors of foreign films should take a realistic look at the Chicago market and stop pricing their films out of reach of our exhibitors. A modest income from Chicago is surely better than none.

2. Local booking patterns might be revised. For the local releases of "Persona" and "King of Hearts," an informal chain of neighborhood houses was put together to cover the neighborhoods where foreign films do well. The theaters in question included such as the Village, Hyde Park, 400, Devon, B&K Coronet, and the Highland Park. This is a good idea.

3. Established exhibitors with the necessary capital might consider getting into the first run foreign film field. Balaban and Katz, for example, might occasionally convert one of its well-located neighborhood houses into a first run house. Hugh Hefner, who is reportedly mulling the possibility of building a second Playboy theater, should. The Walter Reade Organization, a major Eastern exhibitor which owns the Esquire here, is reportedly considering the purchase or construction of another theater here. There's room.

4. And the downtown houses might occasionally depart from their semiautomatic booking of Hollywood films for a foreign film with box office qualities. "Closely Watched Trains" or "Le Guerre Est Finie," for example, could hardly do worse than some of the Hollywood bombs which took up space in the Loop this year (like "Operation Kid Brother," "Don't Make Waves," "Caprice" and "Rough Night in Jericho.")

These suggestions will doubtless not be greeted by the local movie industry with cries of joy. Or perhaps I'm wrong. The people I've met in the Chicago movie business seem to have, a real affection for good movies, although long-entrenched booking practices sometimes limit their field of choice. Perhaps some fresh thought might improve the current dismal situation, in which Chicago is usually a year behind the coasts and most other big cities in seeing foreign art films - those few, that is, that we do get to see.

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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