New film club hopes to boost sall movies; Film: Shooting Gallery will screen and discuss "art" films in the suburbs.


At a time when advertising costs and a crowded marketplace make it increasingly more difficult for small films to find and establish an audience, the New York-based movie company the Shooting Gallery has addressed the problem by returning to cinema's roots.

Today marks the launch of the Shooting Gallery Film Club, a bi-weekly film series in which the studio will preview one of its films for club members. After the screening, a host and guest speaker will lead a discussion about the film, which will open in theaters the following Friday.

The aim is to generate invaluable word-of-mouth on a film, and to introduce heretofore untapped audiences for Shooting Gallery films, which tend to be low-budget, low-profile movies produced by the company or acquired at film festivals.

When Shooting Gallery Film Club members see "Judy Berlin" this evening, it will be at the Loews Valley Centre -- not, as might be expected, the Rotunda or the Charles.

"That was on purpose," Shooting Gallery chairman and CEO Larry Meistrich said during a phone interview. "I want to try to prove that it's not just urban sophisticates who like art films."

Meistrich hit on the idea of a studio-sponsored film club last year as he traveled the festival circuit, trying to sell Shooting Gallery films and buying others, and contemplated the difficulties of selling independent films. "With the costs of distributing movies my fear is it will cause a blanding of movies," he explained. "But instead of crying about it I tried to figure out a solution."

Meistrich approached Loews Cineplex as a partner thinking they would reject him out of hand, but that at least he'd use the experience to refine his pitch. Instead, he found that the company, which owns 242 multiplexes throughout the country, was eager to provide their theaters for the club.

"They said, 'We love movies, that's why we do this for a living,' " Meistrich recalled. The Shooting Gallery will show six of its coming films in 15 cities over the next 12 weeks. Membership dues are $90 for six films.

After the Monday-night discussion, the film will open in the same theater for an exclusive run. If the movie does well, Meistrich said, it will stay or even open in more theaters. Meistrich is hoping that if the Film Club movies prove to be a success, Loews Cineplex and other mainstream theaters will find it easier to devote one or two of their screens to American independent and foreign films. Loews Cineplex has made a two-year commitment to the experiment.

To run the club, the Shooting Gallery has enlisted Harlan Jacobson, the founder of Talk Cinema, a film discussion group that has been meeting for eight years in 10 cities. (The Washington, D.C., chapter of Talk Cinema meets at the Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin 6.) For Jacobson, the Shooting Gallery Film Club has meant an opportunity to recruit new members in existing Talk Cinema cities, and perhaps start chapters in new cities, although he wouldn't specify which ones.

"We're following our own course in terms of which cities we're going to continue in," he said from Talk Cinema's headquarters in Westchester County, New York. "This is a good way for us to move into cities that were on our drawing board."

Jacobson said he was especially attracted to the idea of putting smaller films into bigger, suburban theaters. "It's a good way to reach audiences who might otherwise say, 'Art, that belongs in an art theater. Who cares?' " Jacobson said. "[But if] you actually put it in front of them, then they'll see the world is smaller, and that they're a part of it. Peoples' lives aren't so very different."

Although Baltimore has its own film club, Cinema Sundays, which meets each week at the Charles Theatre, Meistrich insists that the two organizations are not in competition ("Judy Berlin" played at the Charles yesterday).

"We are pro-film club, so we're not trying to be competitive there," Meistrich said. "Anybody who wants to listen, we'll talk. Word of mouth is very important to us. So if Cinema Sundays can spark some talk about the film, we'll let them do it."

Shooting Gallery Film Club

Where: Loews Valley Centre, 9616 Reisterstown Road

When: 7 p.m. tonight and every other Monday through May 1

Cost: Memberships to the six-film series cost $90 and may be purchased by calling 1-877-905-FILM or by visiting the series' Web site at www.movies Memberships may also be purchased at the Valley Centre box office.

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