Updated: March 12, 2012 8:02AM
The Music Box Theatre in Lake View is establishing itself as a distributor of best-selling independent films, and is using social media and home-entertainment outlets to expand its empire.
The film distribution business — Music Box Films — rakes in five to 10 times the revenue of the quirky 1920s-era theater in any given year, partly because it released two of the top-grossing foreign films in the United States in the past four years — “Tell No One” in 2008 and “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” in 2010.
Music Box also has won attention as the U.S. distributor of two spy-movie spoofs that starred French actor Jean Dujardin, now known for his leading role in “The Artist,” and directed by “The Artist” director Michel Hazanavicius. Both Dujardin and Hazanavicius are Oscar nominees for “The Artist.”
Earlier this year, the company distributed “Monsieur Lazhar,” one of five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscar Awards.
Since 2009, Music Box Films has distributed independent movies through video-on-demand and subscription-based channels, starting with iTunes. The films now are distributed after their theatrical releases through iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Wal-Mart’s VUDU, Sony’s Playstation, Microsoft’s Xbox and similar channels.
“Home entertainment has for years been the bigger market, bigger than theatrical releases,” said Bill Schopf, 63, a North Shore native and lawyer for more than 40 years who founded his downtown law firm, Schopf & Weiss, and bought the Music Box Theatre 25 years ago.
Schopf describes himself as an amateur film buff still learning about the art-house industry. Yet his business discipline and experience in real-estate ventures and running the law firm proved prescient. After taking over the Music Box Theatre’s operations in 2003, he seized upon the specialty-film niche that major studios were exiting.
Now, he plans to expand the distribution business geographically and through new and social media.
“I’m looking forward to a greater ability to put our films on television,” said Schopf, who launched the distribution business with his own money. “You don’t see many sub-titled movies on TV. Competition and an increasingly sophisticated audience, as well as an audience interested in watching films in a particular way, could allow it.”
After all, home theaters now boast powerful projectors, including models with 3D and hi-def capabilities, built-in stereo speakers and correcting-focus tools.
And Web powerhouses Google and Apple are expected to launch their own TV devices in 2012, if technology forecasts prove true. Google is rumored to be set to launch YouTube TV, while Apple is reportedly working on a TV that will use wireless streaming technology to access content.
Viewers are also unplugging by watching TV and movies on tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles and Internet-connected TVs.
Dana Harris, editor-in-chief of Indiewire, an independent-film online publication, said a hurdle to wider acceptance of video-on-demand is the difficulty in finding film titles. As that glitch gets resolved, people will be tempted to stay home even more to watch movies, she said.
The trends reflect the ever-changing nature of how, when and where audiences watch movies.
“The distribution business is as much an art as is providing the perfect theater ambiance,” Schopf said.
“We clearly lose money on a certain percentage of our films. The trick is not to lose too much, and to make enough on the ones that succeed to cover the cost and make some profit,” he said. “So far, we’ve done a good job of that.”
Harris, of Indiewire, credited Music Box Films with keeping its costs low and showing “real vision and real taste” in recognizing the popularity of the trilogy of books on which “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is based.
“People were thinking the film was too genre, but there is a new space for genre films in the indie world,” Harris said. “There is real money in it.”
Mana Ionescu, whose Ravenswood company, Lightspan Digital, is advising Music Box Films on its social media strategy, said Music Box aims to start an online conversation about the remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and use Google+ and YouTube to more closely connect with movie fans.
“We’re exploring discussing movies online much like the workings of a digital book club, as well as building the equivalent of a virtual film club,” Ionescu said.
Music Box Films competes primarily with Sony and Independent Film Channel (IFC) Films, which have started expanding operations globally at the same time as Netflix and iTunes. So Music Box Films is setting up a permanent presence in Canada and cementing its existing relationships with distributors in Australia, the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe. Schopf is also exploring setting up a distribution entity in Latin America and advertising movies online.
“You can’t sit still in this business,” Schopf said. “It keeps you young.”