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Those in Baltimore who doubt the staying-power of independent theaters, the clout of art house cinemas, and the ability of businessmen to run savvy arts organizations, take heed:

The American success of the Swedish film version of "The Girl With Dragon Tattoo" (out on DVD and Blu-ray today while still playing at the Charles) testifies to the foresight of a Chicago lawyer with a nose for cultural real estate and a love for the arts.

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William Schopf, owner of the building that houses the Windy City's historic Music Box Theatre --an elegant, 750-seat art and independent cinema -- faced a crisis in 2003, when the owners of the theater operation announced their retirement.

"The theater business still had all these excellent people in place," Schopf told the Sun last week. "When I thought about bringing in a new tenant, I thought there'd be more of an upside to keeping everyone there and running it myself." So in 2004 he became president of the new Southport Music Box Theatre Corporation.

But he didn't stop there. In 2006, he realized that the only way "to provide a stronger base for my employees was to expand horizontally or vertically."  Expanding horizontally for Schopf would mean finding equally classy theatres in promising locations -- no easy task.

So Schopf decided to expand vertically, enlisting Music Box programmer Brian Andreotti and longtime New York-based distribution specialist Ed Arentz. Their breakthrough film was "Tell No One," an expert, crowd-pleasing French thriller (based on a Harlan Coben novel). But they also won respect with more difficult pictures such as "Seraphine," a portrait of a visionary artist.

Music Box Films' biggest coup, by far, has been snagging U.S. theatrical distribution (and DVD/Blu-ray and Video-On-Demand rights) to the Swedish-language movies of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy." (An American version of the first Larsson book is in the works, to be directed by David Fincher.)

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" anchored the spring schedule at the Charles. The second film from Larsson's series, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," pictured above, with Noomi Rapace continuing in the role of bisexual Goth super-hacker Lisbeth Salander, opens at the Charles on July 16.

Schopf says that last summer, "We were certainly aware of the success of the book of 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,' and we saw how the film had opened in Scandinavia and much of Europe. But plenty of books flop on the screen, and a lot of foreign-language films do well in Europe, but don't cross the ocean. With 'Tell No One' we at least saw how it did in the UK before we acquired it; with 'the Dragon Tattoo' we had no English-speaking markets to judge by. But then we saw the film. We thought that Lisbeth Salander was a character who would be very appealing to a wide range of people and that Noomi Rapace, who played her, was wonderful. We decided we could make it work."

Not long after acquiring "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Music Box Films made a deal for the second and third films in the trilogy, too. "The way that worked was, as we got into thinking about the first one, it just made sense to us to go for all three: in for a dime, in for a dollar."

The first film opened in 40 theaters, and by week three was playing in over a hundred. The second one will open in 85 theaters on Joly 9, then add 40 (including the Charles) the next week -- making for the most ambitious roll-out of a foreign-language film in recent memory.

Although Music Box has been cutting-edge about developing its DVD/Blu-ray and VOD markets, it's old-fashioned in other ways. Schopf and his partners have based their business on bringing each Music Box picture a wide and attention-getting theatrical release.

For example, Music Box provided theaters booked to play "The Girl Who Played With Fire" with a documentary on novelist Larsson to screen in advance, as a free promotion. (It unspools at the Charles Monday, July 12, at 7 p.m.) And Schopf speaks with an Old School showman's gusto when he says, "I'm not a surfer, but with these three films I feel the way a surfer must feel when he's riding a wave."

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