Last year, when Moonlight hit theaters, the Denver Film Society contacted the movie's distributor, A24 Films, hoping for a chance to screen it. No dice. The company already had an exclusive arrangement in the Denver market with Landmark Theatres, and for weeks, the indie-theater chain held on to the film, preventing the Sie FilmCenter, home theater of the DFS, from showing it.
This is one of countless examples of indie hits that the nonprofit art-house cinema has been blocked from showing because of exclusive arrangements between Landmark and distributors, says Denver Film Society executive director Andrew Rodgers. That's why his nonprofit is joining forces with three other independent film exhibitors – Cinema Detroit, WestEnd Cinema and Avalon Theatre – to sue Landmark, the nation's biggest indie-theater chain.
The claim: Landmark is violating federal antitrust law and blocking art-house movie theaters from exhibiting films. Landmark declined to comment on the suit.
The lawsuit comes after years of failed negotiations with distributors and discussion between art houses at the Art House Convergence; it was sparked in part when WestEnd Cinema, in Washington, D.C., closed after being pushed out of the market, unable to show key indie movies because Landmark had forged exclusive deals.
"After more than four years of unrelenting anti-competitive squeezing by Landmark, I was forced to close WestEnd Cinema on March 29, 2015 – which was followed less than one month later by an announcement that Landmark was leasing the space and ‘reopening’ it as the Landmark West End Cinema,” says Josh Levin, a co-founder of WestEnd Cinema, in a statement. “So they killed me and my business, then moved into my house.”
The suit is inspired, ironically, by Landmark Theatre's lawsuit against Regal Entertainment Group, accusing that chain of the same sort of anti-competitive practices Landmark is now being accused of. That suit was settled by Regal in 2016.
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“Landmark went to court to fight against clearances for the films it wanted to show,” said Bill Oberdorfer, executive director of the Avalon Theatre, in a statement. “We are doing the exact same thing and simply asking for the same opportunities with respect to specialty films.”
As for the Denver Film Society and the Sie FilmCenter, Rodgers and company are entering this lawsuit just ahead of the fortieth edition of the Denver Film Festival.
"It's a really busy time for us, but that said, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. This is a really talented group over here," Rodgers told Westword. The Denver Film Society has solicited lawyers who will only accept payment if the case wins damages and doesn't plan to put money from donors, grants or the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District tax toward the case.
Rodgers adds: "Filing a lawsuit and taking on the 800-pound gorilla in your industry is a scary thing, and not something you should do lightly. I should say, for the record, I'm not scared."