At the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this month, renowned critic Andrew Sarris–the man who helped cultivate the auteur theory in the U.S.–appeared at a panel with critics J. Hoberman and Dennis Lim to celebrate the publication of the Village Voice Film Guide and a screening of Robert Bresson‘s “Au hasard Balthazar.” But despite the overflowing crowd and cineastic fervor at this one-night event, the auteur model is fading, the Village Voice is a shell of its former self, and film culture is undergoing a radical shift.
Aside from Pedro Almodovar, few international directors generate the sort of public interest they once garnered. The vast majority of foreign-language films receive diminutive releases across the U.S., and more and more editorial space and art-house screens are devoted to the studio divisions’ bigger English-language films and documentaries.
“The market can only take so many films, unfortunately,” says Film Society of Lincoln Center director Richard Pena. “We know that our specialized houses are increasingly showing English language fare, so the [Film Society’s] Walter Reade Theater is often the only exposure these films get.”
If the distribution system is “dysfunctional” and “distributors are not serving the public,” as Film Finders‘ Peter Belsito recently noted at the International Film Festival Summit, film festivals, non-profit institutions and other alternative models are stepping in to fill the void.
Last weekend, for instance, The Museum of the Moving Image held a sold-out never-before-screening of Jacques Rivette‘s 12-1/2 hour movie “Out 1,” while the Film Society opened its annual Spanish Cinema Now series, which features more than a dozen recent features from Spain that will likely never see the projection light of a theater again. Together with the help of nations’ ministries of culture, which fork over prints, marketing dollars and plane tickets for talent, nonprofits continue to bring foreign cinemas to New York and help build audiences.
According to Pena, for instance, the Film Society’s Italian series “Open Roads” started out modestly, but has since grown to match the popularity of the 15-year-old Spanish showcase. He also credits the institution for helping to popularize Iranian cinema, Argentine cinema and Korean cinema in the U.S.
In 2009, the Film Society will launch its expanded facility, the Elinor Bunin-Munroe Film Center, which will have two additional screens. “One of those screens we will give to one-week or two-week runs,” says Pena, “and there are certainly a number of films that deserve that attention. With three screens, that’ll be a possibility.”
And because of the Film Society’s non-profit nature, Pena acknowledges he has greater freedom “to experiment,” he says. “That’s our raison d’etre, to be on the cutting edge, introducing films and filmmakers into the contemporary dialogue.”
Many other companies are looking to follow in the footsteps of the Film Society: creating a sort of art-house brand, where audiences come to expect high-quality and rewarding cinema from trusted curators. “In the post-auteur culture we are living in,” says Carlos Gutierrez, co-founder of non-profit Latin American cinema promotion outfit Cinema Tropical, “maybe it’s the time for the purveyors.”
Gutierrez is referring to places such as the Film Society or Cinema Tropical, where even if audiences don’t recognize director’s names like David Trueba or Julia Solomonoff (director of “Hermanas,” which opened last Wednesday in New York courtesy of Cinema Tropical), they’ll put faith in the institutions to bring them worthwhile movies.
For such a small company like Cinema Tropical, Gutierrez says they’re increasingly relying on the loyalty of their members. “We’re surprised how many people know about Cinema Tropical, how people recommend it to friends. Email has been an informational tool, but ultimately word of mouth has helped us a lot,” he says. “That’s the next step, the distribution company as a brand.”
Similarly, for-profit ventures such as IFC Films‘ Gotham-based IFC Center and its First Take video-on-demand and theatrical release program, have helped cultivate art-film watchers, says IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring. While the one-year-old day-and-date series is still establishing itself, Sehring takes confidence in the filmmakers represented, including Hou Hsiao-hsien, Ken Loach and Lars von Trier. “A lot of these films are the best from film festivals around the world,” he says.
While he acknowledges movies such as “Requiem” and “The Aura” were theatrical disappointments, he says, “the model that we developed is an economically viable one for the films, for the cable operators, and for the movie theaters.”
Sehring also uses the “brand” concept, hoping that with the help of a new website launching in January, the IFC First Take program will continue to grow. (Over the weekend, the company’s latest release, Daniel Burman‘s “Family Law,” made only $5,000 in two theaters.)
Meanwhile, the IFC Center continues to be a hub for New York film-happenings. At a recent showing of “Vertigo” hosted by director David Lynch, hundreds of people were turned away. “That’s the type of environment that we always envisioned the IFC Center would have,” says Sehring, likening it to Lincoln Center, “where it’s a destination that people go to no matter what the programming is.”
Likewise, Ira Deutchman, president of Emerging Pictures, which runs a digital circuit of 20 theaters in 19 cities, says, “We want you to depend on us to come back to week after week. It’s about loyalty. I’m a big believer that curating is the biggest solution to solving a lot of the problems we’re having in the marketplace right now.”
While Emerging Pictures is a pioneer, going into markets that haven’t had arthouse theaters before such as Scranton, Pennsylvania, Deutchman acknowledges, “It’s not going to happen overnight; it requires cultivation.” But the company has focused on creating special events out of their screenings. “We have better extras than DVDs,” explains Deutchman, inviting filmmakers and other personalities to lead post-screening discussions. In Ft. Lauderdale, the company even held a wine tasting, without a film, just to get people into the venue. “Alcohol is a good way of getting people hooked on anything,” he says.
But for art films to survive, they may have to expand beyond New York. Both Emerging Pictures’ digital circuit and IFC’s video-on-demand endeavors are fortunately bringing foreign films to those who previously haven’t had access. The same could be said for Netflix, which has also helped deliver hard-to-find foreign and indie cinema to those outside of major cities.
But technology’s greatest gift to film culture may be the blogosphere, which has seemingly ignited a passionate audience for auteur cinema around the country. Film historian David Bordwell, whose film textbooks are used in college classrooms around the world, has recently taken to blogging, which he calls an “overturning of the critical establishment,” he says. “In the 1950s and 1960s, when film culture really got going, it was a small space, mostly in New York City. Now that monopoly is eroding very fast and there is a tremendous amount of people out there. They don’t buy newspapers. They’re not my students, and they’re not the general public, either,” he continues. “And their cinephilia is much greater.”