My Brilliant Career
The gawky S.F. State grad, proud of his new degree in film production, couldn't help overhearing the United Artists Theaters exec huddling with his minions. "Don't go hire some film buff," one staffer cautioned the boss. "That's the last thing we need around here." Sound advice, but the boss gave the kid a job anyway, and Gary Meyer had his first paying gig in the film business, booking second features in UA drive-ins in Northern California, Washington, and Colorado. His instructions: "Don't pay more than $35 a week, and the movie should have a man on a horse."
Meyer is now a major player in the local exhibition scene, arguably the key figure in the Bay Area's muscular art-house industry. In 1976, he and a partner took over the UC Theater, the first cinema in what evolved into the powerful Landmark Theaters art-house chain, now topping 100 screens across the country. In the Bay Area, the company came out on top of a convulsive art-house shakeout that ran from about 1988 to 1995; Landmark now controls 33 screens, including the Bridge, the Clay, the Embarcadero Center, the Lumiere, and the Opera Plaza in the city, and the Piedmont, the Act I and II, the California, the Shattuck, the UC, and the Albany in the East Bay.
But effective Wednesday, Oct. 23, Meyer is leaving the company. For the first time in more than 25 years he will have no day-to-day programming or exhibition responsibilities. The decision has been anticipated in some circles since 1992, when he and his partners sold Landmark to the Los Angeles-based Samuel Goldwyn Co. Goldwyn facilitated Landmark's growth from 49 screens to the current 138. But Meyer's operating style, like that of many entrepreneurs, wasn't completely in sync with a corporate bureaucracy. "If there's any weakness I have," Meyer concedes, "I haven't easily conformed to a system for a company that's gotten fairly large."
For the last year, Meyer has been in gradual phaseout mode. He reduced his Landmark schedule to 18 hours a week, trained program directors for the UC and the Nuart [Landmark's rep house in Santa Monica], and mulled various options. Then the Metromedia conglomerate finalized a deal on July 3 of this year to acquire Goldwyn and Landmark. Although the new owner has maintained a hands-off attitude, the 48-year-old Meyer decided it was time to move on.
"I'll miss that Monday morning thrill of how we did," Meyer admits, "and calling a theater Friday night and seeing if something I was excited about did well." Meanwhile, Bill Graham Presents has retained Meyer to explore the feasibility of setting up a distribution company for American independent films. "There may be some really interesting ways of promoting a film using BGP's rock 'n' roll knowledge," Meyer muses.
The real hook of the BGP venture for Meyer, one suspects, has to do with reaching a new audience that's had little exposure to adventurous films. Thanks to TV and home video, moviegoing isn't the habit for younger people that it was for previous generations. Regardless of the circumstances, Meyer's career reflects an obsession in turning on casual film fans to the provocative, offbeat, and unfamiliar. You see, that United Artists job wasn't really Meyer's first in the biz: From eighth grade through high school, Meyer showed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Freaks, and other weird fare in his family's Napa hayloft, charging four bits for admission.