Independent-film fans seek refuge in Gulf Breeze

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Independent-film fans seek refuge in Gulf Breeze

by Paul Smith

video segment produced by Paul Smith

When most moviegoers decide to take in a film, they will usually check the show-times for the recent blockbusters, and then make the short jaunt down to the local megaplex for the latest installment of Hollywood escapism.

But imagine instead, checking the show-times of the most highly praised independent films, and then making an hour-long road trip down to a small four-screen theater in a Gulf Breeze shopping center to watch a movie many others will never get the opportunity to see.

That is exactly what more than 30 percent of the moviegoers do at the Gulf Breeze Cinema 4, as the theater draws a large fraction of its audiences from Fort Walton Beach, Destin, and even Fairhope, Ala, according to theater owner Jim Norton.

That’s because the Gulf Breeze Cinema 4 is an indie or art-house theater that specializes in foreign and independent films. And it’s not just the only one of its kind in the Pensacola area; it’s the only indie-theater between New Orleans and Tallahassee.

And as so, many of the films that play here cannot be seen anywhere else for hundreds of miles.

When the theater opened in 2004, audiences came to see controversial and acclaimed films like “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Sideways.”

These days, audiences have flocked to the theater to see Oscar-winning films like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Milk.”

“I think I opened it for two reasons,” said Norton. “I selected to specialize in independent films for business reasons because no one else was doing it in the area. And for personal reasons, I’ve always liked art and independent films.”

Norton, a Wisconsin native with a seasonal home in Pensacola Beach where he resides annually from December until May, has been in the theater business for many years.

“At one time I had as many as ten movie theaters in Florida,” he said. “I’ve sold most of those off to retire in this area.”

As Norton has learned over the years, the business of owning an art-house theater differs from that of the larger, commercial movie theaters.

For one thing, Norton actually hand-selects each film he shows at the theater; and the process for booking independent films can be very time consuming.

Norton stays abreast of the latest independent films by tracking their developments with websites such as indieWIRE.com and BoxOfficeMojo.com. When he finds a film he wants to show, he calls the distributor himself and negotiates a profit-distribution contract.

When a commercial theater opens a first-run film (a movie with a nation-wide distribution debuting on thousands of screens), it will typically pay between 70 and 90 percent of profits from ticket sales back to the studios which produced the picture.

This profit sharing of gross box office sales drops 10 percent each following week the film is open, generally settling on about 30 percent going to the studios after the fifth week or so.

“In the art film business we don’t pay that much,” Norton explained. “On an average art film, I may only pay 35 percent of my ticket sales to the film studio. That’s how I survive because we simply don’t draw the same volume of people you do at a commercial theater.”

One person who was drawn to Jim Norton’s theater was independent filmmaker Brett Haley.

“I love this theater,” said Haley. “It’s the only theater in Pensacola that actually plays movies that I would go see.”

In a strange coincidence, at the time of filing this report, Haley was shooting a scene from an independent film in the lobby of the theater, the first time the theater has ever been utilized for such a purpose.

“I wrote [the film] for Pensacola because I knew I could make it here. I knew I would be welcomed,” said Haley, 25, who grew up in Pensacola but currently lives in New York. He refers to his new feature-length independent film, “The New Year,” which he co-wrote with his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Kennedy.

“I called Tom Roush … and told him I was looking for a movie theater, and he said Jim [Norton] was the guy to talk to,” said Haley. “And I called Jim and he just completely welcomed us with open arms.”

Tom Roush is the Escambia County film commissioner whose primary job it is to work with the state of Florida to attract the movie industry into shooting productions on-location in the Pensacola area.

Roush also heads the Pensacola International Film Festival, which, in recent years, has used the Gulf Breeze Cinema 4 as its main theater for exhibiting films.

“One of the reasons I started the film festival in 2003,” Roush said, “was because the films that [Jim Norton] now shows weren’t playing here. The really marquee, award-winning indie-films that were playing in New York or L. A. … they just weren’t coming here. He opened up four screens to just indie films … So, I think it’s great. I go there all the time. I love it there. It’s not like a normal, commercial theater. It’s like a living room that plays great movies.”

Though currently on hiatus because of the country’s recent economic woes, the film festival has been a great success in past years and has drawn a much larger than usual audience to Norton’s theater.

The festival typically attracts a crowd of a few thousand people. This influx of movie-goers has allowed Norton to acquire some difficult-to-obtain independent films.

For example, in March of 2008, the Pensacola Film Festival Spring Screen Series held at the theater featured the film “The Savages,” writer/director Tamara Jenkins’ Oscar-nominated independent film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, which never played on more than 200 screens nationwide.

“Without the film festival … we would never have had that film in this area of the country,” said Norton.

And even when the film festival is not taking place, Norton is still able to get his hands on some lavishly praised and hard-to-find films.

At the time of this report, the theater was showing the Swedish vampire film “Let the Right One In,” one of the most critically-acclaimed movies of 2008.

This film was only being shown in 37 other theaters across the country. To put this in some perspective, the film “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” was being shown on more than 3,000 screens during the same period.

“The fact that he got a small Swedish film about a vampire girl here in the Pensacola area is unbelievable,” said filmmaker Haley.

The next closest theater showing this film was more than five hours away in Atlanta.

But whether making the long journey down Highway 98 from Destin or the short trip over the Three-Mile Bridge from Pensacola, Norton assures moviegoers that independent films will always have a welcome home at the Gulf Breeze Cinema 4.

“I’m always gonna show independent films here,” Norton said. “I’m making some money at it and I enjoy it. It’s the most fun business in the world.”

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