Why Manohla Dargis’s Sundance Proposal Is Behind the Times

Why Manohla Dargis's Sundance Proposal Is Behind the Times

New York Times critic Manohla Dargis can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the number of world premieres at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. It’s the toughest festival of the year to cover, because so many new movies demand to be reviewed. But is she really rooting for fewer films to get picked up? While she seems to be really complaining that the Paper of Record has too many films to review each year (a record 990 opened in New York in 2013), does she really want to see fewer movies booked into theaters?

But I have a little favor to ask of the people cutting the checks: Stop buying so many movies. Or at least take a moment and consider whether flooding theaters with titles is good for movies and moviegoers alike. Because no matter how exciting Sundance will be this year, no matter how aesthetically electrifying, innovative and entertaining the selections, it’s hard to see how American independent cinema can sustain itself if it continues to focus on consumption rather than curation. There are, bluntly, too many lackluster, forgettable and just plain bad movies pouring into theaters, distracting the entertainment media and, more important, overwhelming the audience. Dumping “product” into theaters week after week damages an already fragile cinematic ecosystem.

For one thing she seems to be missing the fact that while many films open in the admittedly congested New York corridor, they do so in order to meet contractual obligations and obtain that all-important New York Times review. And yes, that’s her job. But all of those films do not make it to other cities, in fact remarkably few do. Dargis misses the “the moment” we’re in, says one indie distributor: “a gray zone where theatrical is still needed as an uplift for video-on-demand.” That is the new world order. The flip side of her kvetching is the hundreds of films that would, a techno-generation before, never have been available.

But to tell buyers to buy fewer films is the wrong answer. Some of the “nothing” films that opened in New York do wind up mentioned by at least one critic on the annual Indiewire, Village Voice or Film Comment 10 best lists. A few micro-indies opening in New York is not the end of the independents as we know it. 

In an email, producer and new Fandor CEO Ted Hope writes that Dargis, like many folks, is a “part of the transition we are going through as an industry and a culture.  We still think of cinema in terms of how it was built, and not what it could become.  Theatrical is thus the prime way that we become aware of films, and that primarily is because films are assured of being reviewed nationwide when they are released. If the NY Times changed it’s policy from only reviewing all films when they premiere in a NYC theater to one of covering all films when they premiere regardless of platform, filmmakers would not buy a NYC opening.  If critics put their efforts towards making sure films were discovered online too, platforms might reduce their requirements for a theatrical opening.”

Furthermore, from the other side of the fence, Hope adds: “Filmmakers are trained how to embed ‘inciting events’ into their first acts of their scripts, but they don’t do the same for their release campaign. There is no escaping this world of abundance. The barrier to entry for both creation and release have diminished significantly.  We need to move from impulse buys regarding our entertainment to one of educated choice. Curation is a key element but distributors can not do that in today’s economy — they have to seize opportunity where they can (and hence why Focus Features has so changed its strategy).  

“Filmmakers need more support in their marketing and thus often team with distributors, but since those very same distributors are often in a volume game, they rarely get the intention, let alone the innovation they need. The industry has done a poor job matching people with the content they are most likely to enjoy, particularly in a presentation and context that they will appreciate.  We can really build it much better.  But why not start by changing the NYTimes policy of reviewing all films released theatrically, and make it all films released nationwide on any platform? There are a lot of out of work critics who could use the work!”

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Comments

Sujewa Ekanayake

Dan Mervish, re: this – "Another solution would be for the Times to only review films that aren't four-walled." A better solution would be to not review 90% of the crappy Hollywood films that are being handled by distributors. How a film is released – self-distribution vs being distributed by a second party/another distributor does not = quality. Oscar Micheaux, Melvn van Peebles, Upstream Color recently & countless other great movies & movie makers have used self distribution to get their films out to the public. Let me know when you have some time, I'll go over how self-distribution is a major part of independent film & has always been (& will always be so) :)

Michael Walker

No one seems to mention the studio cabal that keeps indie films in check. For the thousands of screens in this country, there are only a couple hundred screens that will show the indie films at all. This, and the massive advertising budgets of the studios, conspire to keep indie movies in the ghetto. There is just no way to compete. So theatrically, the only strategy that makes sense is a theatrical requirement to draw attention to the VOD release. If there were time or space in theaters for some of these films to draw an audience, then there would be a much more competitive market place for the indie films.

rgm

I greatly fear that everyone is arguing furiously beside the point. There are no longer enough working movie theaters across the country for the current output. Many cities have only one house with, perhaps, two or three screens, while other small towns can no longer even support a single movie theater. Given one house, which are you likely to book.: Iron Man or a minor Sundance indie? Such screens cannot risk an unheralded indie even if reviewed in NYC.

Dan Mirvish

Anne – very well put! Manohla has the right complaint, but the wrong solution. Ted puts it best: "If critics put their efforts towards making sure films were discovered online too, platforms might reduce their requirements for a theatrical opening." Another solution would be for the Times to only review films that aren't four-walled. And I like Anne's idea – just hire more critics! (it's called supply and demand). How bout taking those 6 Indiewire-led aspiring critics going out to Sundance and give them unpaid internships at the Times to review all the crappy little four-walled films? It'd be a win for everyone: The young critics get the Times on their resume, it'll lighten the regular Times critics' loads, and more filmmakers will get reviews in the Times!!!

As for those Manohla haters out there, I wouldn't fire her – I like Manohla personally – but truthfully, if you don't like reviewing that many movies, maybe take a break from film reviewing? Plenty of other great jobs for you out there: academic, fest programmer, film series curator, author, etc. There's no rule that says that film critics need to be film critics their whole lives. Some great critics like Scott Foundas, Robert Koehler, Elvis Mitchell and others have shown how their love of films can be reinvigorated by temporary career shifts. Hey, how about blogging for Indiewire?

jim emerson

Manohla is right, though: The marketplace is glutted. Especially for so-called "indie" and "art-house" movies. So, either filmmakers are going to have to learn to make fewer and better movies, or face that fact that not all their movies can justify theatrical releases (that's what the festival circuit is for). Or distributors are going to have to figure out more cost-effective ways of presenting the non-stop flood of movies to the public, even if only a handful of people are interested in seeing them. So, where are the small, single-screen independent art houses that could nurture a film the owner/operators believed in, give it personal attention and care to help it find an audience over weeks or months? The economics of multiplex exhibition doesn't encourage that anymore. When the theatrical engagement is considered to be little more than an advertisement for a VOD release, what's the point?

Benny White Eyes

Think about this. Runner Runner cost how much? Had how much talent. Script sat on shelf for how long? Producers had what credits? And did you see the garbage? Question is why a script with such poor writing was able to get to a screen at all. Then take up 3000 screens. And all that marketing money. Can you imagine if we split up all that money all those wasted resources and talent and used it on real scripts written with talent?
Ask yourselves. How and why something so bad got through. There's your answer to why cinema sucks today.

jean vigo

At the end of the day, the few truly innovative, game changing, indies every year DO find their way to viewers, will pave paths for the filmmakers, and are remembered years after the fact.

Wait 2 years and see what you remember from 2013. Why aren't people talking about "Drinking Buddies" "The Spectacular Now" "The Way, Way Back" "Touchy Feely" much right now? Nice cutesy stuff, but hardly "WOW-who-is-this-Scorsese-Lee-Anders-Jarmusch-Tarantino-Haynes-Campion-Hartley-Anderson (Wes and P.T)-Coen Bros-filmmaker?"
Ryan Coogler and Jeff Nichols are certainly folks I'm going to keep looking out for, though.

J. Warner

One thing not mentioned yet in the comments here: some people still believe (and I don't think wrongly) that the best way to see any movie, regardless of its size in budget or ambition/scope, is in a darkened theater with a mass amount of people (most of who you don't know) experiencing it.

The fact that that remains to be so hard for independent films to achieve is never-not-depressing for those of us who still value the theater-going-experience, more so than the convenience and ease of use of VOD/streaming.

JoeS

Easy solution.

Fire Dargis (as should have been done YEARS AGO).

Hire someone else.

Solved.

LeonRaymond

Sounds to me like more Elite'ish White Supremacy crying. There are some awesome films that are made in Africa, Brazil, and of other cultures other than White -Lilly White. Why should they be hinged to be in New York Openings, Online showings would do, streamed from other parts of the country. Besides half the films she would review she would not understand since they would be way out of her White Tower view of what she would find good great or enjoyable!

mwblock

Occasionally a great film is produced by this process, some good films are produced and a lot of really bad films are produced. The gate keepers' role is to call our attention to those few great ones and some good ones. The rest of the time they need to have the courage to say, "less is better" and raise the bar higher. With 900+ films opening in New York City in 2014, it's likely there will be a lot of not very good films. The critics' role is to tell us which should live and which should die or just disappear.

Incremental Jones

Sorry, but have to agree with Dargis here. Films are too easy to make nowadays and quality has not increased with volume. Small and interesting isn't enough anymore, even for VOD. There are just too many titles to choose from and most of them are mediocre or amateurish at best. I am tired of all the poorly written or improvised movies made with limited skill. Mumblebore.

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