Art screens proliferating: Simon’s Landmark multiplex to threaten tiny Key Cinemas

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When Simon Property Group Inc. and Landmark Theatres open their art multiplex in December, it’ll boast seven movie screens, stadium seating and a full bar, all under the Fashion Mall’s roof.

The local art film crowd is palpably excited that the edgy indies, daring documentaries and foreign films usually found in New York or Los Angeles will be just a stone’s throw from their favorite stores and restaurants.

Those films already are shown at Key Cinemas on the south side. But its owner Ron Keedy wonders, for how much longer? And will the marginal increase in the city’s artscreen count be a triumph of culture or of the corporation?

“I would love to say loyalty means something,” he said. “But the practicality of it is, if they can get the same thing up there, then that’s where they’ll go.”

“It’s a matter of convenience,” he added wistfully.

Keedy’s love affair with art movies goes back a long way. Now 60, he once helped run the defunct Emerson and Irving theaters. For years, he fantasized about showing art films to his Indianapolis neighbors.

Keedy finally established Key Cinemas in a shuttered, 30-year-old, two-screen venue at 4044 S. Keystone Ave. because its lease was the only one he could afford. He became projectionist, ticket-taker, concessionaire and janitor.

Now he worries that the days of living his dream are numbered. In a world driven by profit, love of film isn’t enough. Simon, which owns the city’s other art house, has already announced the threescreen AMC Castleton Arts on the north side will close to make way for the Landmark multiplex. If it also draws Keedy’s audience, Key Cinemas will close. And the city’s net gain in art-house screens will be just two.

From the start, Key Cinemas’ competition was stiff. It’s hard enough getting folks to eschew heavily advertised Hollywood blockbusters for small, characterdriven films. And Castleton Arts also cultivated independent fare.

But Castleton Arts’ bread-and-butter was always the features whose budgets, while maybe not in the hundreds of millions, were well into the tens. Audiences seeking the latest Miramax release felt right at home there.

Key Cinemas’ saving grace was its cultivation of a different niche. Each weekend, it would draw 300 to 500 people, just enough for Keedy to keep the lights on. Its selection of foreign language, documentary, classic revival and gay-themed films was clearly different from any other Indianapolis theater’s.

This week, for example, Key Cinemas is showing the Spanish film “Bad Education” by Pedro Almodovar and the Chinese film “Postmen in the Mountains.” At IBJ press time, Castleton Arts was showing “Finding Neverland,” “Hotel Rwanda” and “Sideways.”

Ironically, Key Cinemas booked “Sideways” when it was first released, and held it for five weeks. But art movies tend to open small and find success by word of mouth. Key Cinemas can’t afford to keep films for more than a few weeks. By the time “Sideways” became a best picture nominee and national hit, Key Cinemas’ two screens were contracted to newer films. So Keedy missed out on most of “Sideways'” profits.

Meanwhile, “Sideways” is now playing at seven local theaters besides Castleton Arts. Once an art film becomes popular, many mainstream theater owners are happy to mix it into their lineups.

Ernie Powell, president of Republic Theatres, is a typical example. He’s just put the finishing touches on the Georgetown Stadium theater in a former Cub Foods at the corner of Georgetown and Lafayette roads. He plans to set aside one of its 14 screens for independent or foreign fare. He listed “Sideways” as a typical example.

“We’re basically a mainstream, firstrun theater,” he said.

Keedy doesn’t worry much about the Georgetown Stadium. But the Landmarks multiplex is another story. His hope is it will gravitate toward Castleton Arts’ taste, leaving his niche intact.

His fear is it won’t. And Key Cinemas’ audience will evaporate.

Nearly 80 percent of Key Cinemas’ customers live on the north side of Indianapolis, said programmer Larry Thomas, who schedules Key Cinemas’ films through his Cincinnati-based business Larry Thomas Booking. Although Key Cinemas is easily accessed via Interstate 65, the audience has always been small. In the face of the Landmark multiplex, it could disappear entirely.

“I don’t know what it is about Indianapolis, but [to reach Key Cinemas] people have to cross a line north to south,” Thomas said. “They seem to think if they cross it, they’ll turn into a pillar of salt or something.”

Margie Glover, membership chairwoman for the Indiana Filmmakers Network, knows Key Cinemas well. She especially appreciates the free screenings of locally produced films Keedy stages monthly. Glover said she’s frequently made the 60-minute drive to Key Cinemas from her house in Westfield. When there’s a must-see art movie playing there, she doesn’t begrudge the effort.

But even Glover is excited about the multiplex.

“I respect and appreciate what [Keedy] has offered there,” she said. “But on the other hand, it’ll be nice to have new, nice, modern facilities centrally located where the population is.”

The Landmark theater will be at the north end of the Parisian wing of the Fashion Mall. Simon initiated the deal, said Ray Price, vice president of marketing for Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatres. With 50 theaters in 22 markets, Landmark is the nation’s largest art-house chain.

“It originated from what they felt would be a good thing for Indianapolis,” Price said. “They own the triplex, and I think their feeling was the market is underserved and could sustain more.”

Simon didn’t return IBJ’s calls requesting information about plans for the Castleton Arts property.

Keedy’s attempt to open a second Key Cinemas in Columbus failed. And he has nowhere near the millions necessary to build a new theater or even retrofit an existing building in a trendier part of town, like Massachusetts Avenue.

He can barely afford a pittance for marketing. In Key Cinemas’ lobby, neat stacks of photocopied fliers tout upcoming movies. And Keedy updates his modest billboard Web site himself every week.

Among its many marketing efforts, Landmark publishes a quarterly film magazine called FLM to promote new releases. Distributed for free, the color publication runs 80 pages with a circulation of 250,000.

Next to Keedy’s photocopies, it’s like comparing a slingshot to a cruise missile.

Landmark’s seven screens will vary in size, Price said, allowing it to show all kinds of art movies, both large and small. It will also be able to hold them for longer runs, moving films from larger screen debuts to smaller screens in later weeks.

Keedy pledges not to go down without a fight. But he knows economics are working against him.

“This is a labor of love. It’s not going to make me a millionaire, that’s for sure. I’m making a living and doing what I love to do,” he said. “When something like this happens, if the small mom-and-pop operation gets crushed, that’s just the way of the world.”

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