“Moonlight” is the type of film at the center of the lawsuit filed by independent movie theaters against national art-house chain Landmark. (David Bornfriend/Courtesy of A24)
Movie critic

A little over a year and a half ago, Landmark Theatres undertook a pivotal legal action when it sued Regal Cinemas for monopolizing first-run films in the Washington area and harming Landmark’s business.

At issue was the common practice of “clearances,” whereby the theaters that exhibit movies demand that the movies’ distributors decline to license their films to theaters located in zones they deem competitive, because of geographic proximity or shared audiences. Landmark — best known as an art-house chain — wanted to play mass-appeal mainstream movies at its new Atlantic Plumbing location, and accused Regal of unfairly squeezing it out.

The suit was ultimately settled, and Atlantic Plumbing now has access to the movies it wanted to show. But when former West End Cinema owner Josh Levin read the original complaint, which described Regal using its national reach, local dominance and monopoly power “to coerce film distributors to deprive Landmark . . . of fair competitive access to commercial films,” thereby “insulating itself from competition on the merits,” he was gobsmacked. “It felt like I was reading the story of my life, with the names changed by the bully who is now complaining about being bullied,” said Levin. After he closed the West End in 2015, he had considered suing Landmark but decided against it. When he read Landmark’s brief against Regal for doing “exactly the same thing” that he believes drove him out of business, “the hypocrisy and the irony were so strong I reconsidered my position.”

On Wednesday Levin, along with Washington’s Avalon Theatre, the Denver Film Society and Cinema Detroit, filed suit against Landmark in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The four independent exhibitors seek relief from “Landmark’s unlawful anti-competitive practices,” alleging that “Landmark uses its market dominance to demand exclusive rights to screen specialty films, resulting in no local competition for those films despite consumer demand.”

A Landmark representative was not available for comment on Wednesday. But historically, the chain has argued that the kinds of independent, foreign-language and nonfiction films it plays — known as “specialty films” — have too small an audience to justify playing on several local screens at once. If the Avalon and Bethesda Row were to play the same movie at the same time, the argument goes, it would cannibalize the film’s box office and unfairly hasten its early demise.

That argument might hold for an obscure, micro-budgeted indie with a minuscule audience. But in recent years a different kind of specialty film has emerged, especially during awards season, that becomes a must-see title — exemplified by movies like “Moonlight,” “Hell or High Water” and “Birdman,” all of which are mentioned in the theaters’ complaint. Those movies occupy a space between art house and mainstream, becoming modest juggernauts that not only withstand runs at multiple theaters but benefit from them. As Tom Bernard, co-president of specialty distributor Sony Pictures Classics, told me, specialty-film clearances make no sense in an art-hungry market like Washington. “I don’t understand why anyone would do that, because D.C. still doesn’t have enough theaters to hold the art market,” he said. “Films are still coming off the screen early. So the more mouths to feed, the better for the business.”

To Bernard’s point, on those vanishingly rare occasions when small theaters have played a movie along with Landmark, the result is usually a healthier box office return for the title in question. Earlier this year, the Avalon opened the World War II drama-comedy “Their Finest” one week after it opened at Bethesda Row. Although business dropped at that location, it was still the theater’s best-performing title that weekend; with the Avalon’s added receipts, “Their Finest’s” overall local box office held steady instead of dipping by the usual 30 or 40 percent.

Although the Landmark lawsuit concentrates on business practices, what’s really at stake is audience choice and autonomy: No one knows their communities better than local independent theaters, whose programmers and bookers regularly scour the festival circuit for movies they know will appeal to patrons, many of whom they know on a first-name basis. Those loyal customers, in turn, come to rely on their local theaters’ taste, amenities and attention to comfort and pristine presentation.

What really hurts as a theater owner, said Levin, is being forced to break faith with an audience you’ve taken care to develop and feel honor-bound to serve. At the West End, he said, he went out of his way to program documentaries as well as sophisticated movies that would appeal to African American audiences.

The 2013 film “Anita,” about Anita Hill, was “the absolute sweet spot for us.” But, because of Landmark’s clearance policies, he said it was unavailable. “To not be able to show that film was a doubly painful experience as a business,” Levin recalled, “in that we couldn’t serve the audiences we were cultivating and they had to go somewhere else.” In another bitter irony, Levin stands to receive monetary damages, should the lawsuit be allowed to proceed. But the programming at the West End will probably remain unchanged: It’s now a Landmark theater.