Movie house wars

Independent movie theater accuses megachain of putting it out of business

Independent movie theater accuses megachain of forcing it to shut down

Viva Cinema Houston wide angle closing December 2013
Viva Cinema closed after seven short months in business, claimed it was the victim of unfair business practices by AMC. Viva Cinema/Facebook

In the wake of its sudden closure in November, an independent movie theater in Sharpstown is blaming megachain AMC Theatres for alleged unfair business practices.

Viva Cinema opened in May as an innovative new outlet for the city's Spanish-speaking film buffs. Located in a long-vacant space at the PlazAmericas mall, the start-up theater sought to showcase a mix of first-run Hollywood features with Spanish subtitles as well as Latin American films completely in Spanish  — all for just $7 a ticket.

But Viva claims AMC — which operates a 30-screen multiplex two miles north of PlazAmericas — spent months blocking the small theater from showing first-run films by using a tactic dating back to the early days of cinema.

According to a recent statement from Viva, AMC "firmly requested" major Hollywood studios to give it a special allowance known as "clearance" — a common industry practice in which certain theaters are granted exclusive rights to show newly-released films within a given area.

Thanks to AMC's maneuvering, Viva was left offering films months long after their opening weekends. The theater closed its doors on Nov. 10 showing movies like Elysium and The Butler, both of which were released in August.

"No other choice"

When single-screen theaters were the mainstay of the film industry, clearance policies guaranteed customers and studios that a profitable blockbuster like Gone With the Wind wouldn't be playing on every block.

But in today's world of multiplex cinemas, small theaters like Viva find themselves at a constant disadvantage against the big national chains, which have thousands of screens across the nation to secure the best deals with studios and distributors.

Adding insult to injury, Viva says the nearby AMC Studio 30 started offering films with Spanish subtitles three weeks before it opened. Without first-run films or the corner on the Spanish-language market, Viva says it had "no other choice" but to close.

In a statement provided by the company, AMC tells CultureMap that it was the studios (not AMC itself) that decided where new feature films would be permitted to play.

"Viva Cinema clearly, and we assume knowingly, entered into a competitive film zone by opening a first-run location in close proximity to AMC Studio 30, which has a long-established reputation of playing Spanish-language films, as well as first-run films with Spanish subtitles or dubbing," the statement reads.

Viva Cinema owners were unable to be reached for comment.