1999 marked the 25th
anniversary for Landmark Theatres. Starting with the Nuart, a single screen
theatre in Los Angeles, California, Landmark has developed into the premiere
exhibitor for specialized films in the United States. With 52 theatres
representing 162 screens, coast-to-coast, Landmark is the only national
theatre circuit devoted to exhibiting independent movies, foreign language
cinema and non-traditional studio films.
To commemorate the company’s 25th anniversary, Landmark set for itself two primary objectives. First, the company desired to include its loyal customers in any planned program and second, it wanted to promote the programming that distinguishes Landmark from its competition.
Some time ago, an assistant theatre manager in one of the circuits’ Houston theatres sent e-mails throughout the company to survey other employees as to their favorite foreign language titles. The solicitation was not an unusual one for the company, since so many of Landmark’s employees--at all levels--are diehard film enthusiasts with opinions about film and filmmakers that range from the reserved to the very strident. Landmark’s Marketing Department thought the idea was too good to restrict it to just the company’s employees. Why not share it with the filmgoing public? Thus, "Landmark’s Theatres’ Favorite Foreign Film Poll" was conceived. It was perceived as an ideal vehicle to fulfill our quarter century celebration goals. As we stated when we announced this project, "There is an enormous body of influential and entertaining work from the world of international cinema that merits greater recognition. Having played virtually more foreign films than any other exhibition company in the U.S., honoring international filmmaking is a wonderfully appropriate way to celebrate our own 25-year history." In addition the poll would also serve as a complement to the much-reported American Film Institute’s Top 100 list of the greatest American films of all time.
In order to turn this into a national survey, several major undertakings were necessary. Because Landmark is not represented in every U.S. city, the company needed to find a way to extend its outreach into those markets where it isn’t physically present. To accomplish this, we re-launched our long dormant website—www.LandmarkTheatres.com. A major investment in terms of money, time and labor was made toward redesign and programming to enable us to have the site available for people to participate by the poll’s launch date. Secondly, we engaged the support and participation of Borders Books and Music, one of the country’s largest retailers of books, music and video. With approximately 300 locations across the U.S., we were truly capable of having a national presence. Furthermore, a few non-Landmark Theatres participated, motivated by the potential for customer interest and united by the cause of raising the profile of international filmmaking. Included in this latter group was Dan Talbot’s vaunted Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York City.
Landmark created a ballot that consisted of 600 titles. (We actually came up with a list of over 1200 titles, but pragmatically we could only list 600 on the four-page ballot.). Filmgoers were asked to nominate their five favorite foreign films of all time. If one or all of their favorite titles weren’t listed on the ballot, they were invited to write-in their nominees. In order to be eligible, a film had to be made by a foreign filmmaker in a language other than English. We also asked for the participants’ names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses in order to better communicate with them in the future about foreign film availability in the U.S.
As part of the celebration and to encourage the greatest amount of participation possible, Landmark offered some very significant prizes to give away via a random drawing to eligible voters. The Grand Prize was a six night/seven day trip for two to Hong Kong provided by the Hong Kong Tourist Association. We also awarded four First Prizes--trips for two to the Maui Film Festival in Hawaii. Trips to the Seattle International Film Festival, gift certificates to Borders, annual passes to Landmark Theatres and a myriad number of local prizes (including foreign language classes, dinners at restaurants featuring international cuisine and internationally made products at local specialty stores) were all part of the celebratory prize giveaway.
In order to elicit interest among the public, we also understood that an aggressive marketing effort would be required. A vigorous advertising program was implemented with a primary focus on print media. Hefty buys were made in alternative weekly publications and mainstream daily newspapers. In some locations, radio was also utilized. For critical television support, we secured the participation of the Bravo Channel, the Film and Arts Network, which features a weekly World Cinema program. As a sponsor of the poll, Bravo created a very original sixty-second TV commercial which was broadcast nationally for six weeks. Landmark transferred the spot to 35mm film and ran it in all of its theatres for the duration of the survey period. A massive publicity effort was simultaneously put into effect. Locally, Landmark theatre managers who, unique to Landmark also serve as local marketing coordinators, worked with their local film journalists while Rogers and Cowan coordinated the national publicity effort.
On August 1, 1999 Landmark Theatres Favorite Foreign Film Poll was launched. The poll ended three months later on October 31, 1999. ConsumerQuest, an independent, market research firm in Los Angeles tabulated the results. Over 35,000 ballots were received at Landmark’s theatres, Borders’ stores, other participating locations and on-line. More than 650 films from 21 countries (France, Italy, Japan and Germany receiving the most nominations) featuring 16 different languages (mostly French, Italian, Japanese and Spanish) received votes.
On January 16, 2000 Landmark announced the survey results at the Palm Springs International Film Festival at a seminar sponsored by Daily Variety and Landmark Theatres featuring top rank international filmmakers including Pedro Almodovar, Hector Babenco, Milos Forman, Carlos Diegues and Tony Bui. The results were reported in local, national and international media. Not surprisingly, many journalists took issue with the results. As we stated when we announced how the voters responded, "Many enthusiasts of foreign language films will debate the results of the poll, which we wholeheartedly encourage. Ultimately, public dialogue about these films can only enhance the appreciation of, and interest in, this vast body of influential and entertaining work from the world of international cinema."
There are several, but by no means definitive, interpretations of the voting trend. The most obvious conclusion is that the films most widely seen in the States received the most votes. This shouldn’t be surprising given that there is a likelihood that many people voted with only a limited exposure to foreign language films. The argument that the films most recently released in the U.S. also had an advantage is refuted by such titles as "Wings of Desire" and "Ran" receiving more votes than later releases such as "Kolya" or "The King Of Masks". But timing may indeed have played a role in the selection of Vittorio De Sica’s "The Bicycle Thief" as a member of the top 10. The fact that "The Bicycle Thief" was recently reissued in this country speaks volumes about the value of re-releasing older masterpieces. This principally allows new audiences to be exposed to such artistry, as well as satisfying the interest of filmgoers already familiar with the work but desiring to see it again on the big screen, rather than on video or DVD. That classic films like "The Bicycle Thief" and Kurosawa’s "The Seven Samurai" received such a large number of votes across a variety of demographic segments suggests that older foreign films can resonate with today’s filmgoers. A host of other conclusions could easily be made by looking at how people voted, from the obvious dominance of European Cinema to the more esoteric observation that films about food, such as "Like Water For Chocolate," "Babette’s Feast" and "Eat Drink Man Woman" were highly ranked.
One must remember that the poll was seeking to learn what were filmgoers’ favorite foreign films, not necessarily what they thought were the best. The distinction is an important one, though it’s fair to say there would be considerable overlap between the two criteria. It’s also important to remember that unlike the American Film Institute’s 100 Best American Films poll, Landmark Theatres Favorite Foreign Film Poll was not restricted to film critics, journalists, scholars and industry professionals. This was a popular poll open to all that wished to participate.
If a wider discussion about the relative merits of individual foreign language films resulted from the outcome of the poll, raising the interest of new and old films alike, among both veteran foreign filmgoers and those new to the experience, the profile of international films will have been enhanced. That was a primary objective of this exercise and one that Landmark Theatres achieved in a most unique and successful way.