When the Angelika Film Center opened in the brand new Bayou Place on Christmas Day 1997, it was a big boost for downtown Houston.
The nation's premier art house chose the Bayou City for its first location outside of New York and promised the latest in cutting-edge and independent films on eight screens, along with a lobby cafe. Houston film lovers were ecstatic.
But before long, Angelika screens were as likely to show mainstream blockbusters as that rare foreign film. Much of its target audience for broader-based fare hadn't been to downtown Houston in years and were thoroughly confused about the parking policy in the underground garage, which required them to get their ticket stamped or pay a garage attendant and get reimbursed at the box office. Business just wasn't that great.
So four years later, Ellen Cotter, whose family founded Angelika, came to Houston and promised a fresh start, with free valet parking and a return to "interesting films with an independent edge."
It's been downhill ever since.
Though film buffs hate to admit it, the Angelika has been on its last legs for a while now.
The free valet parking proved to be a failed experiment, the lobby restaurant closed a few years ago, and the theater had fallen into bad disrepair. When I went to see the Joan Rivers documentary a month ago, I was appalled at the dirty seats and paint peeling from the floors. And that was before the air conditioning failed in a couple of the theaters.
Meanwhile, in Dallas, Angelika is thriving, with two multiplexes in the trendy lower Greenville area and affluent Plano. I have a hard time believing Dallas is that much more open to independent cinema than Houston. So there must be another reason: Location.
When I interviewed Cotter in 2001, she was not happy about the downtown Houston location with its confusing parking situation. She much preferred the Dallas Angelika, located in a mixed-use complex, Mockingbird Station, with a stop on the popular light rail line.
It's hard to know who to believe over the Houston Angelika's abrupt closing — the Angelika posted a sign blaming the landlord for terminating its lease and the landlord issued a statement saying that Angelika "changed its mind" about "saying they would commit" (sounds like a really bad breakup to me) — but I'm not convinced that enough moviegoers are willing to trek downtown to make an art house there a roaring success.
Sure, Houstonians head downtown to the Theater District in large number for performances of the Houston Ballet, Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, Broadway touring productions and the Alley Theater. But a cineplex is different. It depends on hundreds of patrons every night to turn a profit.
While the number of downtown residents has grown in recent years, it's still not enough to support a cineplex on its own. Houstonians are used to going to movies with adjoining acres of free parking and when we have to pay for parking — like at the Edwards Grand Palace Stadium 24 — we don't like it.
The only way for a downtown art house to survive is to offer the affluent moviegoing audience something they can't find elsewhere. A unique movie and a unique moviegoing experience.
Alamo Drafthouse or Studio Movie Grill are logical replacement choices because they have married a food-and-beverage experience with the movies and have achieved spectacular results in the Houston suburbs. The Angelika has a full kitchen, but the theaters would have to reconfigured for a premium moviegoing experience. It's gonna cost some bucks to do that because it will almost be like starting from scratch.
Alamo spokeswoman Lacy Smythe Edmundson won't confirm rumors that the Austin-based theater chain is looking at the Angelika space. "At this time we are looking to explore inside-the-Loop and are exploring different possibilities," she said.
Sundance Cinemas, a small chain affiliated with Robert Redford's film project, and Sunrise Cinemas, a 58-screen Florida chain that specializes in independent films and hosts The Miami Jewish Film Festival, France Cinema Floride, The Israel Film Festival and The Fort Lauderdale Gay and Lesbian Film Festival are also rumored to be looking at the Angelika space. Other possibilities: Landmark, which owns the River Oaks Theatre, and the California-based ArcLight cinema chain.
In a vaguely worded statement Gary Rhodes, general manager of Bayou Place Limited Partnership, said, "We will be upgrading Angelika with an operator of the highest quality and we will be making the announcement shortly."
I certainly hope so. But I'm not holding my breath.
So right now, the River Oaks Theatre is the only for-profit theater showing independent movies exclusively (on three screens). And rumors of its demise crop up constantly.
How embarrassing for a city that likes to tout itself "world class."