the festivals keep coming. Very exciting for good movies. Alas, for normal folk outside of New York and LA, the pickins are leftovers, and shit. Though Dragon Wars should feature Dragons. So that’s something.


This week Across the Universe, Eastern Promises, and In the Valley of Elah (with the last two real contenders for awards season) hit a grand total of 42 screens. Now, a small release to build word of mouth used to be standard practice, and December has long been known for LA/NY academy qualifying runs. But that’s not what this is. Universe is a Sony release, Promises Focus (which is under the Universal foliage), and Elah Warner Independent. The latter two have been enjoying festival screenings at Telluride, Toronto and Venice, and the next two months will have a number of releases like this. In part this is to guarantee good per screen averages for the first weekends or to test the water. But the industry and its art films have changed completely in the last ten years. So let’s start from the start.

In the beginning films were often released in a very staggered method, depending on the picture and the market. Since the studio owned most of their own "houses" (pretty obvious industry talk for theaters), they could pull a picture when they needed to, or hold a picture as long as they had to to get it to profit. But in 1948 anti-monopoly laws forced the separation between the theater and distributor, allowing for people like Roger Corman, Arch Hall Sr. and Russ Meyer to make a decent living as both hustlers and (if one is to be generous) artists. It also led to a boom of regional filmmaking (which still exists to a much a smaller scale these days), so you’d get locally produced B pictures by people like Hershell Gordon Lewis – the likes of which have been populating Mystery Science Theater for years. But even so, studios didn’t normally go with large print buys, especially with their B pictures, because they could stagger the releases and bring them slowly across the country. There was no fear of piracy, and if a picture didn’t work they could re-title or repackage it (just as the minors did). They had such a steady stream of product that their revenues rarely crested on one picture until television and the pursuit of epics caused the rifts that eventually led them to pursue an interest in blaxploitation (which saved the studio system!), the corporatizing of the studios and the successes of newer directors like Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas. (which then led to Star Wars and a new cycle).

The Art film at that point was defined by foreign films, all of which would have small distribution companies that worked with films that probably cost them little to get the rights to, but films that could get good word of mouth in New York and slowly make their way across the country (or at least to the more metropolitan locations), or die on the vine there and then. Festivals helped some, but the film world was not as global as it is now. Hollywood was aware of foreign filmmakers, partly because one of the biggest booms (at least artistically) was when many of the greats moved stateside during the war, while in 1947 the first foreign film Oscar was awarded to Vittoria Di Sica’s Shoeshine. My assumption is that the cultural saturation of foreign film winners is slightly better now. But only slightly.

To get more people into the arthouse, it generally had to promise westernized sensibilities, which may explain why Akira Kurosawa has had the cultural saturation he has, while Japanese masters like Ozu and Mizoguchi are mostly just cineaste fodder. But more importantly, why the French new wave and even Bergman and Antonioni had their crossover appeal is because they offered something most audiences could only get at a stag house. That being nudity. Tits. And mixed with more "adult" ideas of sexuality, you could have crossover hits that were both edifying and spank-worthy. And you could sell the sex even if there was none… but only if there was enough of an atmosphere of heady sexuality (anecdotally my father once told me that Last Year at Marienbad was a horrible film. I get the impression that he probably saw it as a randy teenager hoping for a peak at what the French call Tati). Local censor boards (along with interfering libidinous projectionists) might gut the content or ban the movie, but – as it does now – that could often stroke the flame of interest in ways that might be ruinous for a studio production (like Baby Doll, or Lolita, which were considered failures in their day). A generation, partly exposed to some of the foreign starlets through the pages of Playboy (Catherine Deneuve did a spread for Playboy in 1965), might watch a French film like they were playing a nudie version of Russian Roulette, and making the ignorant and uninterested to sit through I am Curious (Yellow) and WR: Mysteries of the Organism
for a modest taste of trim.

The arthouse evolved (so did porno, to which – as trivia will note – the first film to feature penetration was marketed as a documentary called Pormography in Denmark, again, note the "foreign" roots) to incorporate some American filmmakers, but many of those artists were usually of the Warholian/Brackage anti-narrative sensibility. Serious minded films were still the province of studios – and to that sense dullards – though directors like Coppola or Scorsese were working within the system, because the system needed new blood badly and hadn’t yet been fully won over by the Spielberg/Lucas/Stallone style films. This also allowed for more risky material that would (these days) be labeled arty, films like Midnight Cowboy, because they wanted to capitalize on the new adultness. The academy might award sanctimonious highfaluting drivel or the occasionally great film, but they were from the home team.

It wasn’t until the 80’s, and not really until the late 80s that you had the DIY spirit in America embraced to the point of the crossover festival successes for national films. Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, and Steven Soderberg weren’t exactly making films for the studios to start, but partly in that the studios needed fresh ideas and new takes, a door was opened and money was made. And through that door also walked (rather importantly) organizations like Miramax, which helped rejigger the academy season and a new sense of honest horseshit that was serious enough to seem adult, but often was just a slightly rawer version of the important films of yore. The evolution is that it took a couple years for Miramax to go from releasing these sorts of films to actually making them. Or that is to say, the difference between something like The Crying Game, and something like Chocolat.

I may have bitten off too much to chew here, because in some ways I feel I have to now summarize almost fifty years of cinema, and the entirety of Down and Dirty Pictures, along with capsulizing huge movements of cinema. Basically, with Sundance and Miramax, there was a greater acceptance of independent cinema, but what they shepherded tended to be films much like the art house hits of old: films with easily saleable elements. And in the process, Warner Brothers begat Warner Independent, Universal has their Focus, Disney has their Miramax, Fox has their Searchlight, Sony has their Pictures Classics, New Line has their Picturehouse and Paramount has their Vantage. The studios have assimilated the ways of the arthouse to the point that they launch films that cost forty, fifty, even more millions in these platformed releases knowing that the studio system’s shitting of thousands of prints is not the way to market these slightly more intellectual titles.

There is good and bad to this. The good is that a lot of films sold as underdog films – made with an eye towards exploiting their DIY sensibilities, and often aimed at minority markets – were (from this boom) terrible. Too often incompetence was labeled as rawness (and to a certain extent still is). Also, (yeah, I’m sorry, I’m going to go there): Kevin Smith. The bad side is that on top of the Spike Lees and Todd Hayneses who have survived, it’s more than likely other young artists with minority opinions have been silenced and shut out when they easily could have improved on Better than Chocolate, while art houses in smaller markets have seen an interest in the art house scene co-opted to the point of financial difficulties. The idea of supporting independent businesses who have to take the second-runs (because anything super-marketable will be bought up by the bigger distributors) puts them on awkward footing, hoping for the films that might be of some worth that sail under enough of a radar to not have to fight for them, while worried that audiences might just wait for DVD if word of mouth is not good enough. In a sense, whatever air or explosion of new ideas that happened with the American art house movement in the late 80’s and early 90’s has been coalesced and raided to the point that it has all been brought back in under the studio umbrella.

The two points I wish to make here, in closing (in very sloppy closing) is that Crash is Gentleman’s Agreement (which Jeremy pointed towards in his great interview with Paul Haggis) dressed in independents clothing, and that it’s kind of absurd that a film like Eastern Promises, which features action and a fairly commercial narrative, must be sold as an art house picture because it may be slightly too cerebral for mainstream audiences to get into without some sort of pedigree.


The question this week is: why go to the theater for this shit? The Brave One has Jodie Foster who has an audience, and it might make for a well compromised date night. Also this period was considered a biug winner for the truly awful Double Jeopardy, so this could do quite well. Mr. Woodcock has been sitting around for at least six months, while Dragon Wars nearly a year, so neither are likely to make more than fifteen. 3:10 to Yuma could take second place, while Superbad should hang in the top Five for its last week. Still, a very good run.

My Predix:

1. The Brave One – 19.6 Million

2. Mr. Woodcock $13.2 Million

3. 3:10 to Yuma – $ 10.4 Million

4. Dragon Wars – $8.7 Million

5. Superbad – $6.4 Million

And then on Sunday, I’ll come courting.