The movie business famously creates curious bedfellows: Consider Olivia Wilde and Charles S. Cohen. Wilde is the gifted actress whose buoyant first-time directing venture, Booksmart, is trying to break the indie film business out of a dismal slump. Cohen is the billionaire investor and art film connoisseur who, as the new owner of the Landmark Theatres chain — the 252-screen hub of the indie world — has a stake in helping Booksmart and its ilk find an audience.
To be sure, Booksmart is not Cohen’s type of movie; he owns 1,000 classic film titles and libraries. Cohen is not Wilde’s type of billionaire; she likes Brooklyn film nerds, not cerebral real estate tycoons. But given the anomalies of the movie business, they need each other.
Cohen had a right to ask, is Booksmart, either the film or its marketing campaign, smart enough? Written, directed and funded by smart young women, Booksmart seemed positioned to trigger attention-grabbing buzz — an upmarket gender-bending Superbad. Hence Megan Ellison’s indie company, Annapurna, opted for a wide opening (2,500 theaters) instead of protecting it with a platform release or a slot in the fall awards season. The upshot: an $8.69 million Memorial Day holiday weekend gross that was deemed disappointing by most analysts (the box office leader was Disney’s retooled Aladdin at $117 million).
Of course, Cohen and Wilde inevitably see Booksmart through a different lens. Given the 25% sag in the indie business, the hope was that Wilde’s film would provide a glint of light through the dark cloud of streamer and franchise films. In acquiring the Landmark chain, with key outposts in 20 markets, Cohen underscored his conviction that the theater-going experience represents the future of indies, and the movie business in general.
Under its savvy president Ted Mundorff, Landmark had a strong 2018 with releases like Green Book and A Quiet Place, but that streak didn’t sustain through recent disappointments like Long Shot and UglyDolls. Historically, the indie chain could depend upon an annual boost from a new Woody Allen release but, today, Woody’s fare is forbidden territory (Amazon declines to release his latest).
Landmark also offers periodic mainstream releases — it has high hopes for Rocketman, the Elton John biopic — but its mainstay is the indie world. And while between 20-25 indie films open in New York and Los Angeles each week, a depressingly small percentage offer either the cast or subject matter to spark interest from a wide audience. The streamer giants like Amazon and Netflix pick up some of the outliers; both toyed with acquiring Landmark but opted not to plant a flag in exhibition (Netflix has just acquired the Egyptian Theater to run its occasional award entries).
By contrast, Cohen also owns and restores other historic indie theaters like The Quad in New York and the Larchmont in Westchester County. A very focused and sophisticated cineaste, Cohen also is rebuilding the illustrious La Pagoda in Paris. He owns several libraries, such as Merchant Ivory, has an ambitious producing slate including Operation Mincemeat directed by John Madden, and is about to re-ignite Avenue Magazine in New York — it will be design-focused with an initial legacy issue. His interests range from hotels (the new Meridien in Ft Lauderdale, FL) to design centers (the Pacific Design Center in L.A. and the
Decoration and Design Building in New York) to such fashion brands as Richard James and Harry’s of London.
In the short term, films like Booksmart may or may not work, but Cohen is guided by long-term objectives, and his resolve has been formidable. It may even help bring forth a faithful audience of movie smart people.