Expanding cinemas reach

STEVENS SQUARE — A guy walks into a bar.

This guy is Lucas Rayala and he’s in the bar to pitch an idea: Rayala’s start-up business, Altsie, aims to bring independent movies to bars, restaurants and cafes — basically turn these non-traditional film venues into pop-up theaters. Altsie licenses the films, handles the ticketing and, hopefully, brings a few extra customers through the door.

If you’re waiting for a punch line, well, there really isn’t one. In three short words — one of them definitely not fit for print — Rayala was asked to leave.

“The second bar I went to, the bartender bought me a drink and he said he loved the idea,” Rayala said. “I didn’t get that one either.”

The founder of Altsie, though, is nothing if not persistent, and that attitude eventually took him through the doors of The Nicollet in Stevens Square, where he met owner Jeremy Konecny, himself a bit of a film buff. Konecny said “yes” almost instantly.

“He didn’t even finish telling me,” Konecny recalled.

By the time of Altsie’s debut — an April 1 screening of writer-director Jamin Winans’ 2009 supernatural thriller, “Ink,” at The Nicollet — Rayala had secured agreements with the rights-holders of three independent films and the owners two Minneapolis venues, as well as enough buzz from a write-up on the tech blog pandodaily.com that he was preparing for talks with several film distributors.

“A lot of people are wondering why this hasn’t been done before,” said Rayala, a CARAG resident and a writer employed by a local technology and research firm.

He has a true believer in Konecny, who filled a curtained-off area of his restaurant to capacity with 38 ticket holders while doing swift business in the kitchen.

“We pumped out pizzas at the rate Domino’s does on a Friday night,” he said.

In the audience were Jeff and Lois Elrod of Maple Grove and their teenage son, Trevor. It was Lois’ first time seeing “Ink,” but her husband and son had been “Ink” super-fans since shortly after Jeff watched the movie late one night on Netflix. It passed Jeff’s test: He didn’t fall asleep.

Added Trevor: “It’s one of my favorite movies because of the sheer genius behind it. There are a lot of unique ideas in it.”

A surplus of content

There are a lot of independent movies like “Ink” waiting to get in front of someone like Trevor Elrod, but the odds are not good that one will find the other, said Jane Minton, executive director of IFP Minnesota Center for Media Arts.

“I think Sundance is a really good litmus test,” Minton said, referring to the annual film festival held in Park City, Utah. “I think they had something like 250,000 submissions this year, and they usually choose about 100 [to appear in the festival].”

There are other festivals, too, of course, but even then only a small percentage of films get picked up by a distributor and released in theaters. Other films will go directly to DVD or video-on-demand services. Some may get picked up for a foreign theatrical release or shown on the Sundance and IFC cable channels.

“There’s a lot of content out there,” Minton said. “And there’s a lot of content that may have gone through all that and still hasn’t been seen by a lot of people.”

At that point, she added, filmmakers would probably be happy to have their film shown in restaurants and cafes for a cut of ticket sales — which is how Altsie works — even if that means their film is shown in a less-than-ideal theater setting, over the din of dinner service, for example.

Fresh ideas

Mario Cocchiarella, owner of the Crooked Pint Ale House, the other Altsie venue, had movies in mind when he opened up last year with one of downtown’s largest screens, but he struggled to strike an agreement with an independent film distributor.

“We were looking for something like this, so when [Rayala] called us I immediately thought this was perfect,” Cocchiarella said.

Cocchiarella cherishes the communal movie-watching experience, and is worried about its future in the days of home theaters. In a separate conversation, Rayala echoed that concern.

“I have a philosophical reason for doing this, too,” Rayala continued. “… Our film system, because of the costs of distribution now, that’s raised the risk threshold [for Hollywood].”

In other words, the stakes are so high for mainstream Hollywood movies that new ideas are sometimes seen as too great a gamble. Better to bet on a sure thing, even if it’s the same old idea dressed up in new costumes.

“What I want to do is work with some of these lower-budget films that have really fresh ideas,” he said. “One of the reasons I really like Altsie is because we can start turning [out] new ideas and … getting them out to a mass audience.”

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