So now what?
That’s the question I’ve asked myself recently after watching any number of worthy but small movies. I come out of the screening room – or turn off the TV because I’ve had to watch a DVD screener – and thought, “This is a nice little movie – but who will ever have the chance to see it?”
Maybe these films will have a life on DVD or on cable or video-on-demand. But how will anyone hear about them if they wind up painted/tainted with that “straight-to-video” label?
Most of them, it seems, will barely be released into theaters, so they join the slurry of movies that seems to increase daily: films which, just a few years ago, would have had an arthouse release at a minimum. They’d have been reviewed, seen, remembered.
Recently I wrote about David Hollander’s film “Personal Effects,” which starred Ashton Kutcher and Michelle Pfeiffer – and which was going straight to DVD after one-night-only screenings in Los Angeles and New York. Or “The Deal,” a witty little film about the movie world that William H. Macy co-wrote, co-produced and starred in with Meg Ryan.
And the list goes on. In March, I screened several films at a film club I host that were getting extremely limited releases before heading to the DVD/on-demand universe: “Reunion,” “Sherman’s Way,” “The Cake Eaters.”
This week, the movie “The Escapist,” a British prison-escape drama, hits video-on-demand two days before its limited theatrical release in New York.
Indy-film guru John Pierson explained it to me a year ago at South by Southwest, when I was trying to peddle a documentary I’d made (still trying). The number of screens available for independent/foreign/documentary films isn’t growing. Neither is the size of the audience for these films – at least not the audience willing to leave its home to pay to see a movie in a theater.
But the number of these movies being made has mushroomed. Literally thousands of films were submitted to Sundance this year for a couple hundred slots. Everyone seems to be operating from the model of 20 years ago when, as John Sayles once told me, “If it had sprockets, you could sell it.” Or the model of five or 10 years ago, when selection to a major film festival meant your film had a good shot at being released.
So what of the thousands that don’t get selected? Or worse – the hundreds that DO play the festival circuit without ever attracting a buyer? It makes you shudder to think what would happen to first film by Jim Jarmusch or David Lynch, John Cassavetes or Steven Soderbergh, if they were just starting out today.
Several factors have come into play, most of them in the last two years alone. Most of them were well underway before the economic downturn that kicked into high gear last fall. And we’re not even talking about the threatened extinction of print film critics at daily newspapers and weekly newsmagazines, who championed these films and brought them to the public’s attention.
Let’s start with the loss of several companies critical to the health of well-made but challenging-to-market movies. In the past two years, the arthouse labels of several of the major studios have vanished: Warner Independent, New Line, Fine Line, Picturehouse, Paramount Classic/Vantage – poof! Gone.
That’s had a huge impact on movies that, even 18 months ago, would have been snapped up and sent into theaters with strong marketing campaigns and critical, if not audience, awareness.
“All the distribution outlets that used to be part of the scene are no longer here,” says Anna Boden, co-director of the upcoming “Sugar,” which was made by Picturehouse, then orphaned when Time-Warner shuttered Picturehouse. (It subsequently was picked up by Sony Classics.) “It’s a scary time for a lot of independent filmmakers.”
Greg Mottola, whose film “Adventureland” opens this week as well, says, “The independent film world has changed so radically. It’s hard to sell a movie because so many companies have gone under. It’s hard. It’s grim. ”
The studios obviously have no interest in releasing tough, serious films – except in December – and the mixed results for intelligent, imaginative studio movies such as “Duplicity” (great reviews, disappointing box-office) or “Watchmen” (big – but not big enough – opening, huge drop-off) probably have studio execs running even more scared, narrowing their focus even further to only the most surefire of the surefire (as if anyone knows what that is).
Obviously the paradigm has changed – radically and suddenly – in terms of smaller films. “Nobody is buying anything,” producer Ted Hope told me recently. As Mottola put it, “No one is interested in a modest profit.”
It will all change permanently the day the satellite dish/internet interface is made both cheap enough and easy enough that we’re all be able to stream movies from the Internet to our family-room TVs, the kind we used to go to the local arthouse to see.
And it will change when someone figures out how to publicize unknown movies to that home audience – to create a market for new movies that don’t ever make it to theaters, not because their quality isn’t top-notch but because their potential profit margin is too small for a studio to pay attention to.
For years, people have predicted the death of the movie house, based on the rise of home video formats, digital cable/satellite, and the gains in home-theater picture and sound.
The movie-theater experience isn’t going to disappear. There will always be movie theaters. But the movies that make it there will be the blockbusters and tentpoles, the special-effects extravaganzas, sequels and remakes.
And that will kill the movie theater experience – for all the independent films out there. It’s happening already.
So now what?
Print This Post