Coming soon: The New Roxie

What happens when an artsy film guy who has gone way into debt hooks up with a school that doesn't know how to run a nonprofit theater? We hope it has a happy ending.

Found Footage has been Prueher and Pickett's main source of income since they quit their day jobs to work on a documentary film project about a lewd country singer. Instead of making money from the Roxie engagement, they had apparently provided the theater with a no-interest loan. Banning says both bounced checks were the result of optimistic "miscalculations" about revenue at the Roxie in the weeks after the checks were sent.

Prueher says he'd play the Roxie again if it actually paid up, but he doesn't feel sorry for Banning. "While I sympathize that they're an institution that chooses edgier fare, it's difficult for two of us, being the artists who did the show, to say, 'All right, we're going to give you this loan while we starve. We'll worry about rent, you guys keep trying for that nonprofit status.'"

As the weeks wore on, Prueher and Pickett started to get the feeling they weren't the only indie filmmakers on the long list of Roxie creditors. They were right.

The projector at the Little Roxie.
James Sanders
The projector at the Little Roxie.
The desk where the projectionist prepares film reels.
James Sanders
The desk where the projectionist prepares film reels.

Many independent theaters owe debts and pay late -- it's often the only way they can stay in business. Sometimes, a theater owner will withhold payment from a distributor until that distributor has another film the theater wants to show. Independent producers and directors have even less power, and are often paid in installments over the course of months. Yet several distributors, filmmakers, and theater owners nationwide say that when it comes to overdue payments, the Roxie goes above and beyond almost any theater still in business, with debts to small distributors stretching at least as far back as 1999. It's an open secret around the tightknit Bay Area film community that the Roxie pays many filmmakers very late -- and sometimes not at all.

"The worst thing that can happen is to owe local filmmakers money," says Banning, who claims that paying filmmakers is among his top priorities. But the Roxie must first pay its employees, then write checks to the IRS, PG&E, its landlord, and other organizations with the ability to shut the theater down. The way the business has been operating the last few years, little money has been left over for the people who actually make the movies.

Henry Rosenthal, the San Francisco- based producer of last year's Sundance hit The Devil and Daniel Johnston, considers Banning a friend -- their children even went to the same elementary school. He loaned Banning thousands in 1996 to finance the national distribution of Freeway, a sort of trailer park version of "Little Red Riding Hood" starring Reese Witherspoon, by Roxie Releasing, the theater's sister business unit. The film performed well in San Francisco but made little money elsewhere, and Banning defaulted on the loan. Rosenthal filed a lawsuit, recovering some of the money but forgiving a significant percentage of it.

Independent filmmakers outside the Bay Area have the least power of any creditors when the Roxie strings them along. One of the most appalling tales is that of the trio of Italians behind Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin, a documentary about a surgeon setting up a hospital for civilians wounded by war in Afghanistan. The film was originally released in the U.S. in mid-2001, distributed by the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. After 9/11, the filmmakers agreed to show the movie for free, although many theaters continued to screen it commercially. Jung grossed thousands at the Roxie in early 2002, with the filmmakers owed more than $3,000. Banning didn't pay up until the Italian Trade Commission in Los Angeles stepped in to collect the money more than two years later. "These three guys were living in the fucking Panjshir Valley of north Afghanistan in a war hospital, and [Banning] can't even give them their $3,000?" asks Andrea Holley, a manager of the Human Rights Watch festival. "I respect his reputation as a programmer, but if he's being championed as some savior of art-house film, is that how you treat filmmakers?"

Though he's never publicly discussed it, Banning isn't indifferent to his creditors' pain. "I can't say how badly I feel about that -- and guilty," he says. "You have to face these people. You have to face their friends. That's where the 'hate' of the love-hate relationship of my feelings about the job are concerned. It's just a terrible position to be in."

Over the years, Banning's practice of running up debts has come back to haunt the Roxie. In choosing which films to show, he's now hamstrung by whom he's pissed off by not paying, hampering the theater's programming schedule. Banning claims the Roxie owes around $40,000 to distributors, half of it to just two companies, and owes money to only one localfilmmaker.

The theory is, the "new" Roxie will pay off all debts immediately, and the filmmakers and distributors will instantly change their opinion and screen their films at the theater again.

"That'll make all the difference," Banning says. "If you don't pay or you're a slow payer, they don't want to do business with you. But if they know you can pay --" He cuts himself off. "That's another painful thing, because I've known all these people for a long time ... but now they won't do business with us."

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