Roxie Releasing Has That Arthouse Moxie
By Tom Powers
The Roxie Cinema sits in the heart of San Francisco's hip/grungy Mission District, footsteps away from trendy pubs, the city's best burrito (the real San Francisco treat, according to Calvin Trillin) and one of its busiest drug corners. Like the neighborhood, the Roxie has survived by being spunky, taking risks with its programming and, in a rare venture for a small exhibition house, moving into distribution. Since 1984 Roxie Releasing (www.roxiereleasing.com) has circulated more than two dozen films, including a slate of documentaries that have been praised (Rivers and Tides, Genghis Blues, Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh), sued (Kurt and Courtney), overlooked (Megacities) or simply ignored (Biggie and Tupac). "It's basically what's kept the theater open," says owner-manager Bill Banning. Distribution is "a way to help the theater make money and a way to get films we otherwise might not have."
Currently Roxie Releasing is riding the wave of Rivers and Tides, Thomas Riedelsheimer's paean to the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy; the film has taken in more than $2 million at the box office. The Roxie staff discovered the elegant documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and according to booker Rick Norris, "We all fell in love with it together and immediately started scheming to get it." Rivers and Tides took in $20,000 during its first week at the Roxie Cinema in June 2002, then jumped to $30,000 in the second week. "After that it was pretty much a no-brainer that this film had great commercial potential," Banning says. The film is eligible for an Academy Award this year, and Banning feels it is Roxie Releasing's strongest contender since the Oscar-nominated Genghis Blues in 1999.
Banning went to work for the Roxie in January 1984 and he immediately helped the company move into distribution (He had cut his teeth as a freelance distributor of Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie in the mid-'70s).. "We didn't have a hit until Vincent," Banning says, referring to the 1989 release of Paul Cox's stylized evocation of Van Gogh's work. By Banning's reckoning, Vincent remains Roxie Releasing's biggest hit, followed by two dramatic features, John Dahl's Red Rock West (1994) and Matthew Bright's quirky Freeway (1996) starring a young Reese Witherspoon.
The company's biggest flop was last year's release of Biggie and Tupac, an investigation into the fatal relationship between rapper Tupac Shakur and recording impresario Biggie Smalls. "That's probably the film we lost the most money on," says Banning. "We had high expectations. We'd done Kurt and Courtney for Nick Broomfield. He came to us with this film. It just didn't perform at the box office." Critical response to the film was largely negative, and the absence of Shakur's music—Broomfield couldn't secure the music rights—further diminished the potential audience. "We played at some of the Loew's Magic Johnson Theaters (in New York and Los Angeles)," says Banning. "Those were the worst engagements. But it wasn't really an arthouse film either." The film took in only $55,000 at the box office.
According to Banning, Roxie Releasing lacks the resources to launch a film nationwide, so the company goes for "what used to be called a platform approach." First, Banning says, "Pick the markets where you think you'll do well. The Bay Area is where we know our audience best, and it's actually the best audience in the country for the films we do. More often than not, our engagement at the Roxie or the Castro [San Francisco's landmark movie palace] will be the best in the country." Norris adds that it's particularly important to be able to show exhibitors in other parts of the country that a film has done well in its initial market. With Michael Glawogger's little-seen 1998 documentary Megacities, "We couldn't point to one particular gross anywhere, not even our own."
Next, says Banning, "We figure out our strategy, then go to New York and Los Angeles." According to Norris, Suzanne Ofteringer's Nico Icon played for a long time in New York-"Film Forum just had a field day with the movie"—but had trouble finding a West Coast audience. "There always seems to be a West Coast movie and an East Coast movie, but rarely [one that appeals to] both and the middle," Norris says.
"Chicago's important because Ebert and Roeper are there," says Banning. "Boston is a market kind of like San Francisco, as are Seattle and Portland."
Hopefully by this point, according to Banning, "Word gets around and people start calling us up." Meanwhile Norris is tracking down additional venues. "One of the fun things about distribution at our level is finding all the cool theaters around the country," Norris says.
Expenses for prints and posters usually are split 50-50 between Roxie Releasing and the filmmaker, with the monies coming off the top from initial box office returns. The company does not release films on video and DVD, although in some instances it contracts with the filmmaker to sell those rights, drawing on the wide contacts Banning has accumulated as an exhibitor. "A lot of our friends, like Kino and New Yorker, have video distribution branches," Banning notes. Currently Roxie Releasing is negotiating the sale of the video and DVD rights to Rivers and Tides.
In looking for films to distribute, Banning scouts the major festivals, from Rotterdam to Sundance. "You talk with people," he says. "You listen to the audience. But also you ask, is it going to fit into your niche? We're not out to outbid somebody." More than anything, Banning says, "You are looking for quality, for a film you really love. Because if not, it's going to be a tough time spending the next 16 to 18 months distributing it."
Roko and Adrian Belic chose Roxie Releasing to distribute their first documentary, Genghis Blues, because they had determined that potential audiences for their film, with its Asian setting and obscure subject matter, "needed a lot of handholding and explanation. Where is Tuva? What is throat-singing?"
According to Adrian Belic, "A small distribution company like Roxie allowed us to brainstorm anything we wanted, bounce it off them, with all their years of experience, and then go do it." The Belics also were impressed that the company's offer included "an advance against box office that brought Roxie up to par with everyone else." Rather than risk getting lost in the schedule of a larger distributor, they made a deal that felt like "taking on a partner," and the film took in about $400,000 at the box office. The Roxie agreement also allowed the Belics to control their film's television release (on the Sundance Channel) and video distribution (through New Video in New York).
The only criticism one is likely to hear about the Roxie from the tight-knit Bay Area film community is that the company can be a bit dilatory in its disbursement of revenues. "The bottom of the totem pole that filmmakers are on," says Adrian Belic, "still plays out, with all of Roxie's good will." Banning admits, "We've had difficulty over the years from time to time because of what we do here in San Francisco, which is run a theater that basically would not be in existence without Roxie Releasing." In fact, he points out, the Roxie Cinema almost closed its doors a year and a half ago, surviving only through an outpouring of public support. "Almost 800 people made contributions," Banning says. "We were saved by the public."
Now, with the success of Rivers and Tides, the company's financial picture has brightened considerably, and this fall the Roxie Cinema is expanding, adding a 50-seat venue two doors down the street. As a calendar house, the single-screen Roxie has not had the option of holding over a popular film. Now it will. "The whole business is hit-driven," says Banning, "whether it's MGM or the Roxie."
Tom Powers is a writer and editor based in Pasadena.