Packed into one of AMC Regency’s largest theaters, members of Jacksonville’s Indian community chatter in anticipation. English-speaking moviegoers would struggle to pronounce the title of the film about to appear on the screen, and they certainly wouldn’t be able to understand the film, which will run in Telugu, a South Indian language, without subtitles.
When the film starts, whistles blast through the usually quiet theater. This audience is bubbling with joy. When a favorite male celebrity from Indian films appears on screen, screams combine with the whistles. To the average American audience, this could be a ballpark, a stadium, a rock arena — anything but a movie theater. But the spirited reaction is a testament to the Indian community’s appreciation that films from their native land screen in the city they now call home.
Hollywood films are the big reels in Jacksonville. But three local theaters make it a priority to schedule films that originate outside of Hollywood and beyond the United States: AMC Regency 24, Regal Beach Boulevard Stadium 18 and Five Points’ Sun-Ray Cinema.
Making foreign films available locally starts with logistics. Film distribution operates differently at bigger companies than it does at the independent Sun-Ray Cinema. Sun-Ray owner Tim Massett said his theater finds the distributor to negotiate a date and a price. This contrasts with AMC's method, in which a distributor approaches the company, AMC spokesperson Ryan Noonan said. That distributor then requests dates and specific locations for its films. Christine White, a spokesperson for Regal Entertainment Group, said studios determine which films play at any given location.
Massett said Sun-Ray runs foreign films that either he wants to see on the big screen or for which he identifies a potential audience. For instance, Sun-Ray brought France’s “Holy Motors” to Jacksonville for a week in November. Massett said it performed so-so.
“We really wanted to provide a home in Jax for ‘Holy Motors,’ so it didn’t really matter to us whether or not people came, but it was great to see the 162 faces that did show up,” he said. “We were stunned.”
In a weak foreign film market, theaters rely on getting folks in seats, especially because attendance and sales impact distribution decisions. That’s where marketing and spreading the word come in.
“Without a strong print media covering the films, it is difficult to foster a film-going culture,” he said. Massett publishes Sun-Ray’s bi-monthly publication, Film List, to promote his offerings.
“Occasionally, you will have a film that will rise above and break through, such as ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ ” he said, “but foreign films in this market are not profitable at all. That’s not to say we won’t continue to program them. We hope to slowly build an audience for smaller pictures alongside our runs of blockbuster fare.”
Saravana Kabilan hosts Tamil films at theaters around Jacksonville, such as Sun-Ray, San Marco Theatre and Cinemark Tinseltown. A member of Jacksonville Tamil Mandram, a nonprofit for Tamil-speaking Jacksonvillians, Kabilan said the organization has been hosting pop-up screenings of Tamil-language — or Kollywood — films for 10 to 12 years. Tamil is yet another language spoken in South India. Kabilan’s been producing the screenings for JTM since 2009, a year in which he waited three weeks after a film’s release to secure the distribution rights.
Kabilan, who owns three CiCi’s Pizza franchises in Jacksonville, locates the distributor for popular Kollywood films he wants to show around town, he said. He pays for them out of his own pocket, and the distribution rights cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000. He makes that money back by selling tickets, usually $8 to $12. Sometimes he loses money, but very successful films make up for lost expenses. Kabilan pays the host theater, which he selects based on its availability, he said. He markets the screenings through an email database he has collected over the years and through posters in local Indian restaurants.
During the weekend of Jan. 25 and 26, Kabilan screened “Vishwaroopam” at Sun-Ray and at San Marco Theatre. A controversial film that's banned in India, the spy thriller set in New York City meets Hollywood standards, in terms of artistic quality, he said. To draw Kollywood fans in, Kabilan looks for films with major stars and directors attached to them. “The stars and directors pull the crowd,” he said. For the Indian community’s screenings, Massett said he does not do outside promotion, although most of the films are subtitled. The Telugu Association of the Jacksonville Area also holds pop-up screenings around town, but did not provide more information to Folio Weekly.
David Blue, who owns the San Marco Theatre, said members of the Indian community have been leasing his venue for such screenings for 13 years.
The Regal Cinema on Beach Boulevard is designated as a cinema art theater, which means Regal Entertainment Group programs foreign, art and independent films to complement its mainstream fare. Regal designates 64 of its 540 theaters nationwide as cinema art locations.
The theater chain identified Beach Boulevard as a good location for a cinema art theater because of its proximity to the University of North Florida, beach communities and the city, White said. She said the theater has been a cinema art location for several years.
Regal uses grassroots marketing campaigns, media partnerships, in-theater displays and word-of-mouth to market its films to Northeast Florida audiences, White said.
Though none of the theaters could provide any specific demographic figures, she said the subject matter in foreign films is often focused toward niche audiences. Massett describes the demographic of foreign filmgoers simply as “people who go to the movies.” AMC Regency would not make an official statement on its demographic.
Approximately 200 members of Jacksonville’s Indian community flooded into AMC Regency at 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 10 for a premiere screening of “Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu,” a Telugu-language — or Tollywood — film. The film screened in one of the theater’s largest auditoriums, and Telugu-speaking audience members sat elbow to elbow, leaving a few neck-craning rows in the front vacant. Throughout the show, for which folks paid $20 a ticket, enthusiastic movie-goers whistled and screamed when major stars appeared on screen or when romantic tension between two characters heated up. While other foreign films are usually subtitled, AMC Regency played “Seethamma” without subtitles.
Hindi is India’s official language, but each individual state produces its own films in its own language, said Vara Suresh, secretary of the Indian Cultural Society of Jacksonville. The actors in Bollywood films speak Hindi, and Priya Ganesan, the president of the society, said Bollywood films are the most popular in India.
A member of the organization for about six years, Ganesan said the ICS noticed in 2010 that AMC Regency carried Indian films. That year, Krishna Kumar was president. Ganesan said Kumar wanted to hold private screenings of Hindi-language films at the theater.
In 2010, the ICS hosted three or four private screenings of Indian films for its members. The group approached the theater to negotiate the screenings. Since 2011, the organization has not made a conscious effort to host events around the AMC’s Indian films, she said.
Another organization, the Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce, does not actively send folks to AMC Regency, said President Manjunath Charmani. However, the organization hosted an Indo film series as part of the 2012 Jacksonville Film Festival.
To continue exposing Jacksonville to Indian films, Ganesan said ICS wants to screen older movies, such as the ones she and Suresh grew up with while in India — films for which they have the dialogue committed to memory.
“Movies are a very integral part of our culture,” Suresh said. Kabilan said films make up India’s biggest entertainment outlet. Before AMC Regency brought Indian films to town, Ganesan said she went to local Indian grocery stores to buy DVDs. But those versions were always poor quality, and she watched them on a small screen.
“When AMC does this, it’s like handing out kinship for us,” Suresh said. “Going back and seeing the movies, it brings back a lot of very nostalgic memories.”
Noonan said the feedback from AMC’s guests has been tremendous. Although ICS noticed the films in 2010, he said that, for many years, AMC has been broadening the diversity of the films it shows.
“Expanding the choices for our guests benefits them and us,” Noonan said. In addition to Indian films, Noonan said AMC Regency also offers films in Chinese, Vietnamese and Russian, among other languages. White could not provide a specific country rundown for Regal Beach Boulevard, but the theater is screening films from France, Austria and New Zealand in the first quarter of 2013.
In November, AMC Regency screened “A Secret Affair,” a film in Tagalog and English. Doreen Flippin, the fundraising committee chair for We Filipinos Inc., attended a matinee showing in one of the venue’s smaller theaters. She said about 25 people watched that screening of the non-subtitled film, which includes a sentence in Taglish — a combination of the two languages.
Flippin said there is a market in Jacksonville for films in Tagalog — standardized in the Philippines as Filipino, the official language of the country — because of the military presence in the area. She estimates around 9,000 to 10,000 Filipinos live in the region. Though We Filipinos does not officially promote the one or two Filipino films that reach Northeast Florida, it showed some classic Filipino favorites at the Filipino Pride Day celebration in October 2012. Flippin said members of Jacksonville’s Filipino community promote the films through word-of-mouth or by email.
She said seeing Filipino films on the big screen reminds her of her heritage and of how happy and blessed she is to be living in the U.S.
Only 15 people showed up for the 7:10 p.m. showing of “Rust and Bone” on Jan. 18. In one of Regal Beach Boulevard’s smaller venues, the filmgoers came in pairs and paid $10.25 per seat to watch this example of acclaimed French cinema starring Marion Cotillard.
Robert Nelson and Sue Aguilar attended that screening. Aguilar said the couple looks specifically for independent and foreign films on Fandango. They have friends who travel to New York City, and they often go themselves, so they always look for independent cinema.
“We search around for them, we find out what’s been popular in New York,” she said, “and then we hope — pray — it comes to Jacksonville.”
When they go to New York, films are third on their list, behind theater and art galleries, Nelson said.
The two called “The Intouchables” the best of 2012 and saw the film when it came to Regal Beach Boulevard. Nelson said that theater has the best selection in town — though they’ve never gone to Sun-Ray. “We should get out there more, but this is so close to the beaches, that’s why we come here,” Aguilar said. “And we’re the only ones who do!”
Nelson said subtitled films probably don’t do well because American audiences don’t like to read films. He prefers the kind you might have to read.
“The film stream coming out of Europe or Canada or anywhere else seems to be more interesting than the American fare, so we try to see as much of it as we can.” “Rust and Bone” stayed at the Beach Boulevard Regal for only a week.
AMC might be the go-to theater for Indian films, but Massett said Sun-Ray runs those titles on occasion. “We are working on getting our single-screen blockbuster recipe correct, which allows us to afford to bring in more interesting one-offs or week-long runs of smaller titles,” he said. San Marco Theatre owner Blue said he’s probably more mainstream and Massett more adventurous. “Subtitled films are tough in Jacksonville; they are,” Blue said.
UNF has a history of showing foreign films with Movies on the House, a free series in which English and film professor Jason Mauro showcases foreign films at the university’s Robinson Theater.
The series started when E.K. Fretwell, UNF interim president in 1999, wanted to develop a community literate in independent and foreign films, Mauro said. He worked with the cooperative Regal Entertainment Group to set up and house the series at Regal Beach Boulevard for 12 years. After the series proved successful, Mauro wanted to bring it to UNF’s campus because it was originally only advertised to on-campus individuals. MOTH moved to UNF in August 2011.
Now, the series is open to the community at large, but Mauro hasn’t spent a lot of money on advertising just yet. When he introduces the films, he notices a mixed crowd. “I see students, I see faculty, I see some staff folks, people from the shipping department, from the grounds group. It’s great. It’s very rare to have occasions where people gather in the same room from all these related branches of the university.” The more the series can get the audience to cross the boundaries of their titles, the better, Mauro said.
To host the series, Mauro rents films from various distributors and shows them on a 35mm projector. He said MOTH’s Jan. 17 film, “Adanggaman” from Africa, attracted 200 moviegoers.
Mauro used to schedule each semester’s films under a theme, like “quirky independent things — mostly in the French language, even though they might be in countries other than France.” But that proved cumbersome because of the unavailability of 35mm prints, and his themes would sometimes dissolve. He still tries to find films to fill a niche that students wouldn’t find elsewhere, however.
UNF English and film professor Nicholas de Villiers started a Chinese film series when he first arrived at the school in 2008. He then created a Japanese film series, which evolved into an Asian film series. These series partnered with Chinese, Japanese and Asian groups on campus. The series is currently on hiatus, he said.
When de Villiers ran his series, the biggest turnout came with Maya Miyazaki’s animated films, such as “My Neighbor Totoro,” which are dubbed and which Disney distributes. Because the series was open to the public, a large number of Japanese families — loosely affiliated with the university — showed up to see the Miyazaki films, he said.
De Villiers came from Minneapolis, where Oak Street Cinema specializes foreign films. He said it was sad that there wasn’t an equivalent in Jacksonville but said Mauro has been really good about showing foreign films. Because Jacksonville University’s film program is still small, JU does not have a foreign film series, said Carolina Conte, a film professor at JU.
Outside of the well-attended Indian films at AMC, there might not be a formula to predict attendance. Sun-Ray brought France’s “The Intouchables” to Jacksonville about eight weeks after it ran at Regal Beach Boulevard, and the commercial French film did rather well, Massett said. Regal would not comment on how much revenue a film receives.
Massett said Jacksonville isn’t a strong-enough market to play all the foreign titles distributors disperse throughout the country. For now, the theater can only occasionally afford the few foreign titles that land on its screen, but having more than one screen could change that. De Villiers, who taught a course last spring that examined cinema venues in the area, said Sun-Ray is the most exciting option for foreign cinema — especially if it gets that second screen. “One day,” Massett said.
Price and name-recognition are two constants that appeal to broader film audiences and might deter them from foreign films.
“I think cinema itself has become too much of a commercial commodity, and people go out to see the blockbusters, only because they know they’re there,” Mauro said. “I think these things that don’t get a big showing are equally or more interesting and weird and valuable and will leave you kind of stunned, more so than the formulaic stuff that stays around here for months.”