Starting life as an arthouse theatre, a specialty film distribution enterprise is thinking outside the Box. Patrick Z McGavin reports.

The first time William Schopf (pictured) met film distribution consultant Ed Arentz to discuss opening a new specialty film distribution venture, Arentz did everything he could to dissuade Schopf from the idea. He even joked that playing the horses was a safer guarantee of income. But Schopf is a skilled lawyer, and proved highly persuasive.

Music Box Films was officially launched at Cannes where Schopf acquired the company's first title, Chinese director Wang Quan'an's Berlinale Golden Bear-winner Tuya's Marriage from Cineclick Asia. It has since picked up the French film OSS 117: Cairo, Nest Of Spies from Gaumont.

Schopf says the company will release Tuya's Marriage in the autumn, the opening salvo of an acquisitions slate that emphasises foreign-language and documentary titles in up to eight feature releases per year.

The company is named after Chicago's Music Box Theatre, the architecturally imposing 1929 art deco building that is a key independent arthouse cinema in the city. The founding partner of a prominent business litigation law firm and an arts impresario, Schopf bought the building in 1986 and took over the theatre's operation and management four years ago.

Encouraged by the theatre's performance, Schopf looked for expansion possibilities. He is particularly keen on new technology and alternative distribution platforms such as video-on-demand.

He says Music Box plans to have its own video imprint, and will contract out the distribution. Schopf is self-financing the start-up costs. 'I don't like taking on debt,' he says.

Schopf and Arentz were introduced by Brian Andreotti, programmer at the Music Box Theatre. Schopf's financial security attracted Arentz, a native of Philadelphia who was a co-founder of Empire Pictures, a well-regarded, if cash-starved, operation that failed to ride out the turbulent business cycles of US specialty distribution.

Most recently, he had been working as an acquisitions and booking consultant for Palm Pictures, and as a booker for New York's Cinema Village.

Music Box Films intends to launch its films theatrically in New York. 'We're looking at the major markets, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and Boston, but (exhibitors and bookers) look to see how something plays in New York when deciding whether it's a title they want,' Arentz explains.

In Chicago, the Music Box battles the powerful Landmark Theatres chain for access to the top arthouse titles (the Landmark-owned Magnolia Pictures occasionally supplies Music Box with important titles, such as Johnnie To's forthcoming Exiled).

'It's tough competing with Landmark, but this gives us an opportunity to secure good films for the theatre,' says Schopf.