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Foreign Distribution: Chicago’s Music Box Theatre

September 2, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Part of “Best of Chicago DIY Film Magazine,” originally posted January 7, 2011.

Brian Welesko

The four block trek from Southport to the Music Box Theatre moves through affluent development, restaurants and condos retrofitted into old growth. In Wrigleyville, one is likely to see faded Pabst or Hamm’s signs hemmed in between sushi and tapas restaurants. The 800 seat movie palace sits on the western edge of the neighborhood, an historically working class area that has evolved into a vibrant residential and nightlife community sprawling out from the Cubs’ ballpark. On a winter day, with snow obscuring logos and the Music Box’s red neon letters, one feels a sense of timelessness.

The Music Box Theatre, completed in 1929, is a wholly different experience from the multiplex. Now a requiem for a defunct film era, making the journey to the Music Box is a rite of passage for cinephiles and film students. My first movie in Chicago was a reprint of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows six years ago, shown on the theater’s massive, dusky screen. The presentation came from Rialto Pictures, a distributor that seeks out acclaimed and unavailable films and releases them in art houses around the country. Rialto has been wildly successful, and of the sixty films it has released over the last ten years, over half have been distributed on DVD through the Criterion Collection.

Companies like Rialto, Janus Films, and Criterion have helped establish a wider market for foreign, independent, or forgotten films. More than that, they have helped raise expectations of filmgoers and filmmakers. Cinephiles have had more films available to them today than at no other time; we are programming our own world cinema festivals in our dens. DVD distributing companies like Criterion, Kino, or Chicago’s Facets Cinemateque provide an undoubtedly richer scene, but the need for the “art house” as venue and esoteric mystique is still necessary for money to be made in eccentric, niche-market film. The art house curates good movies, often from outlets like Rialto, and becomes a perceived arbiter of taste and film education.

Music Box Theatre

In some ways, it is curious then that in 2007 the Southport Music Box Coalition branched off with a distribution arm for foreign film of its own. The Music Box Theatre has worn the art house brand with less comfort than non-profit exhibitors like Facets or the Gene Siskel Film Center. Cult films and Hollywood classics play equal to the latest independent release. One can see Todd Browning’s Freaks one day and return at night for Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. The theater seems less interested in esotericism and the occasionally alienating art film. Though they do engage in this, their interest is in compelling cinema that is more accessible, and often more fun.

For theater owner Bill Schopf and long-time operator and programmer Brian Andreotti, this accessibility colors the movies that are picked up at film festivals for Music Box Films’ distribution. Ed Arentz, formerly of Empire Pictures, was brought on board to aid in the acquisition and release process. Empire Pictures specialized in bringing acclaimed foreign films to U.S. screens like The Twilight Samurai and Balzac and the Little Chinese Mistress. Where these films tended to reach smaller, discerning audiences, Music Box Films is aiming for broader appeal in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, the foreign thriller Tell No One, and O.S.S. 117 a spy comedy revival.

Schopf, who bought the Music Box Theatre in 2007, wanted to expand their brand to reach new audiences. Opening other venues perpetuates the eclectic taste that the theater cultivates, but bringing that taste to more screens through a distribution company has a greater impact. Like Landmark Cinemas, and often playing movies through them, the Music Box has a complicated role in a climate where foreign films are “serious” fare and should be handled with austerity.

The Music Box has never positioned itself as an institution for important and masterwork cinema in the way that Rialto, Kino, or even the Criterion Collection has. In the late 1970s, the Music Box Theatre languished as a porno and Spanish-language movie house, reviving itself over the years into its current format. It owes little to tradition, like the gastropub or boutique in an old brick walkup. And as with the neighborhood that surrounds it, the Music Box is able to welcome all comers with something worth seeing, either in this year or one long passed. This may be the new company’s greatest asset in a difficult market for foreign language cinema. Through Andreotti and Arentz, the Music Box seeks out what it feels are good movies, and good is relative.

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