The cream rises

April 15, 2014


The cream rises.

Not always and not as quickly as we might sometimes like – but eventually, good work is found and disseminated, if not always celebrated.

This thought came to me as I tried to sort through the numerous films on display at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. So many movies, so much money – why aren’t more of them better?

Supposedly the New York Times ran reviews of more than 900 movies in 2013, which almost squares with my observation a year ago that, on any given Friday in New York, roughly 20 new movies open on a screen somewhere in the city. To see that many movies in a year, well, again, some rough math; You could do it if you watched three movies a day and took off one day a week plus a two-week vacation,

The Times obviously has a staff of critics and freelancers. No single critic could watch that many films, let alone review them, in a given year. Nor would he or she want to. Most important, nor should he have to.

Because the cream rises.

I’ve written in the past about the challenge of winnowing my way through the daily onslaught of screening invitations, DVD screeners and online links to stream a film. The number only seems to increase each week. I will take a day and a stack of screeners (or links) and apply my 20-minue rule: I’ll watch for 20 minutes and then decide if it’s worth continuing. Many don’t even take that long.

Because a movie worth watching announces itself almost from its first frame. What you see in that first 15 or 20 minutes generally tells you what the rest will be like.

(Which doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes last longer – but even at screenings, I have my limits. I walked out of the tedious Oscar-winner, “The Great Beauty,” after an hour, calculating that I’d seen nothing that made me want to sit through another 90 minutes of it.)

Still, there are way too many movies making it into the pipeline in one form or another. I would venture that, of those, roughly most of them will disappear into the infinite spaces of video-on-demand and the Internet, never to make the slightest dent on public consciousness.

Do I worry that some potential masterpiece is being mislaid, mishandled, ignored or boxed out? Not a lot, for a couple of reasons.

The main one is this: The cream rises. These days, there are simply too many ways to get the word out about a good film – just as, these days, you don’t have to wait to be discovered by a record company to get your music heard and disseminated.

If you’re good enough, a tastemaker or doorkeeper or some other arbiter/critic will hear about you – or, at least, someone with the power of the Internet as a megaphone. There are simply too many ways for interesting work to reach someone with the power to do something about it for it to go ignored.

Certainly, we all have our unjustly ignored favorites, films (or books or TV shows) that we champion in hopes of notifying a larger audience so they can share our pleasure. But, as Samuel L. Goldwyn famously said, “If people don’t want to go to the picture, no one can stop them.”

Indeed, it becomes more and more difficult to be the one to find some unnoticed gem. You used to be able to go to a film festival and see a movie by an unknown director that you knew nothing about and discover Jim Jarmusch or the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson.

These days, even the most modest of movies comes ready-equipped with publicists and social-media campaigns that have spread the word long before anyone has seen the film. Once it’s screened at a festival to hundreds of bloggers, the word is immediately out.

Conversely, if you see a film at a festival – or read a flurry of coverage of a particular festival film – and then never read a word about it later, well, even if it does get a theatrical release, it probably won’t make any more of a splash with the public than it did at the festival.

That seems harsh but it’s a fact. There are more and more movies, but the number of theaters willing to show them or people willing to see them remains relatively static.

And yet I’m convinced there’s always an appetite for quality. I believe that, if you make something original, intelligent and surprising, you will at least get a shot.

Because the cream rises.

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