A Bad Month for Independents in Houston

In a period of just under two weeks in August, Houston, Texas, lost its eclectically-programmed college radio station and 75% of its dedicated arthouse screens.

August was a rough month for fans of independent music and film in Houston. First off was the surprise sale of Rice University’s KTRU to the University of Houston on 17 August. Rice and U of H managed to keep their ongoing negotiations completely quiet until about 12 hours before the sale was approved by Houston’s Board of Trustees. U of H already has its own radio station, and when they add KTRU they plan to use one station as an NPR news outlet and the other as a classical music channel. While having a dedicated classical music station in Houston is certainly not bad in and of itself, the classical content will not be locally produced. The big loss is KTRU. Rice’s student-run station is true college radio, specializing in wildly eclectic programming that plays everything from local indie-rock bands to obscure jazz to African music.

The fact that the two universities made the sale surreptitiously, with zero input from students and faculty, seems to indicate that the respective administrations were fully aware of the firestorm this sale would generate. Rice’s students and the greater Houston community have quickly rallied to try and save KTRU, but there really isn’t much to be done at this point beyond trying to get the administration to change their minds. KTRU will not be disappearing entirely, of course. It will continue as an internet radio station, but the fact that it will be vanishing from terrestrial airwaves is a big blow to the city.

But KTRU felt like a warm-up compared to the shocking closure of downtown Houston’s Angelika Film Center on Sunday, 29 August. People who went to the movies on Saturday night had no idea that the theater wouldn’t be reopening the next day. Patrons who arrived at the theater on Sunday morning found the marquee empty, doors covered in brown paper, and signs on the ticket windows explaining that the Angelika’s lease had been terminated and the theater was closed for good. Subsequent local stories revealed that theater employees and managers had also not been informed in advance that the closure was about to happen.

A movie theater closing down is usually not big news, but the Angelika was a dedicated arthouse theater, devoting at least eight of its ten screens to independent and foreign films. That may not mean much to the general populace, but the news spread like wildfire among local movie fans who enjoyed having the option of seeing films that didn’t contain dozens of explosions or revolve around forced romantic coincidences.

Angelika higher-ups haven’t had much to say beyond their press release, which blames Bayou Place (the leaseholder) and (somewhat weakly) states that the chain is looking for a new location in the Houston area. Representatives of Bayou Place have been slightly more

forthcoming, explaining that the Angelika operated on a 10-year lease from its opening in 1997 through 2007, but refused to sign a new long-term lease, operating month-to-month over the past three years. Bayou Place also claimed that they had tried to work with the Angelika to extend their relationship but blamed the theater operator for not wanting to continue. Indeed, the theater had been in gradual decline for several years. It once had an operating bar and restaurant in the lobby but it hadn’t been open since I moved to the city in 2006. This past July, the air conditioning went out in the lobby and two auditoriums. A lack of A/C in midsummer in Houston is no joke, but it took days to restore it in the auditoriums. The theater's lobby never did get theirs back.

Despite all the he-said, she-said, though, the fact remains that Houston, literally overnight and with no advance warning, went from 13 dedicated arthouse movie screens to three. Only the Landmark River Oaks, an old art-deco movie house with a main auditorium and two tiny screens upstairs in the former balcony, remains. Bayou Place promises that a refurbished theater will be open soon with a new (as yet unnamed) operator. And it may be that the Angelika actually does find a new location and reopens. Maybe by late 2011 Houston will be better off than ever in terms of independent and foreign film. But for the foreseeable future, the sixth-largest metropolitan area in the United States has been reduced to what amounts to table scraps as far as movie selection goes.

The dual losses of KTRU and the Angelika are a huge hit to a city that seems to be constantly struggling to present itself as world-class. Despite having a wealth of museums and cultural institutions (symphony, ballet, opera), Houstonians routinely fight the perception that the city is a wasteland of highways and shopping malls. Music fans often have to travel to (hipper) Austin or the (slightly bigger) Dallas metroplex to attend concerts from medium-to-small size bands that skip Houston entirely. The impending sale of KTRU, one of the very few radio outlets that promote those bands, certainly won’t help to improve that issue. To add insult to injury, the small Angelika chain continues to operate two theaters in the Dallas area.

Austin’s venerable Alamo Drafthouse chain runs just two small theaters on the outskirts of Houston while cheap Alamo knockoffs Studio Movie Grill and The Movie Tavern have proliferated throughout the city. Maybe the Houston Angelika’s downtown location, with its confusing parking situation, wasn’t the best place for an arthouse. But a region with over 5 million people should easily be able to support more than three independently-oriented movie screens. And to have the city’s two major universities conspire to effectively shut down their one college radio station borders on the unconscionable.

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