With Labor Day over and the fall season of serious movies about to begin, it's time to put away one concern that got a lot of press this summer - that movie critics no longer matter. Maybe not in summer, but now there are so many upcoming movies chasing after the "upscale" audience of well-educated adults and college students that hype and massive advertising alone won't do the trick. Not just independent/specialty films, either - the Hollywood studios are competing for that audience, too.
"If a film doesn't resonate or gets bad reviews, it gets knocked out immediately," said Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse, which is affiliated with New Line/HBO, and is home to Steven Shainberg's "Fur" (opening Nov. 10) starring Nicole Kidman and inspired by photographer Diane Arbus' life. "That's the way fall has been since they moved the Academy Awards up. And it's also the time of year people feel they have to release their upscale films."
And if this makes one wonder what chance a tiny micro-indie with a limited budget has in this climate - say, Goodbye Cruel Releasing, home of Andrew Bujalski's rock-life comedy "Mutual Appreciation" - the answer is: Good reviews are the great leveler. It opened Friday in New York to a positive notice from The Times and now the company's Houston King is busy planning a fall expansion into big cities starting this Friday. "I wanted to follow up very quickly after the long-lead press was so kind to us and after we created buzz in New York City," he said. He already has inquiries from the AMC and Regal chains in Washington and Austin.
The major studios are offering many "upscale" movies with directors and stars of proven appeal to the indie/specialty market. These include Brian De Palma's Venice Film Festival opener "The Black Dahlia" with Scarlett Johansson (Universal, Sept. 15); a remake of political drama "All the King's Men" with Sean Penn and Anthony Hopkins (Columbia, Sept. 22); Martin Scorsese's latest crime thriller "The Departed" with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson (Warner Bros., Oct. 6); Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" (Columbia, Oct. 20), and Marc Forster's absurdist comedy "Stranger Than Fiction" with Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson (Columbia, Nov. 10). (Release dates and distribution patterns mentioned in this story come from Rentrak Theatrical and are subject to change.)
Most of these will be released wide into urban, suburban and smaller-city multiplexes or as "faux platform" pictures - a few days in limited big-city release, hopefully to pick up strong reviews. But in an interesting development, Lionsgate Films is also opening "Bug," William Friedkin's Ashley Judd-starring psychological thriller about contemporary American life, wide in December. It expects it to perform like its Oscar-winning "Crash."
"It's a smart movie, an award-contending movie, like 'Crash,'" said Tom Ortenberg, Lionsgate's president. "So it can withstand that pressure of opening wide. It has some of Ashley Judd's strongest work to date, and it's a return to form for Friedkin."
A partial list of the bigger fall titles from the studio-affiliated specialty divisions includes:
Focus is releasing the Iraq documentary "The Ground Truth" on Sept. 15.
Fox Searchlight, which expects "Little Miss Sunshine" to play well into fall, also has Forest Whitaker portraying Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" (Sept. 27); Richard Linklater's dramatic adaptation of Eric Schlosser's muckraking book "Fast Food Nation" (Oct. 20), and the screen version of Alan Bennett's Tony-winning "The History Boys" (Nov. 22).
Paramount Vantage's big release is "Babel," Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's latest interlocking-narrative drama. It stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, again, as an American couple in Morocco (Oct. 27).
Sony Classics has Pedro Almodovar's latest, "Volver," set for release on Nov. 3. Almodovar won an award for "Volver's" screenplay at Cannes; his female cast - including Penelope Cruz - won for acting. Sony Classics also is planning a Dec. 22 release of Zhang Yimou's new martial-arts romantic-adventure film, "Curse of the Golden Flower" with Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat.
Warner Independent Pictures, besides having one comedy that lampoons the Oscars (Christopher Guest's "For Your Consideration," Nov. 17) and one literary adaptation targeting Oscar nominations (John Curran's adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's "The Painted Veil," with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, Dec. 15), also has a tricky title to market - "Infamous." This Oct. 15 release is the second film in two years about Truman Capote's writing of "In Cold Blood." Toby Jones plays Capote.
Steve Friedlander, Warner Independent's executive vice president of distribution, sees the film's inevitable comparison to "Capote" as a plus. "Part of the job of marketing/distribution is raising awareness of a film's subject matter, and they've done that for us with that film last year. Depending on how you look at, that's either a marketing challenge or audiences will want to see this to make comparisons."
Among the so-called true indies, some of the films that have advance interest are Regent Releasing's "Aurora Borealis," a Sept. 15 release which features Donald Sutherland and Louise Fletcher and has been getting support from Alzheimer's organizations; Balcony Releasing's documentaries "Al Franken: God Spoke" (Sept. 13), "Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner" (Oct. 4), and "So Much So Fast" about a young man with Lou Gehrig's disease (Oct. 11), and Kino Releasing's launching of Kelly Reichardt's film festival favorite "Old Joy" starring Daniel London and Will Oldham (Sept. 20).
And some of the indie releases are controversial. Lionsgate's "Deliver Us From Evil," which opens Oct. 13, is a hard-hitting documentary at how a pedophile California priest's actions were handled by Catholic Church hierarchy.
IFC Films will be expanding Kirby Dick's "This Film Is Not Rated," a Sundance-debuting documentary about the hypocrisies of the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings policy, after its debut last Friday. Magnolia Pictures' "Jesus Camp" (Sept. 15) is about the hearts and minds of Evangelical children attending a North Dakota summer camp.
And ThinkFilm, which last year had a hit with "The Aristocrats" about the world's dirtiest joke, is planning on Nov. 10 to release "Fuck," an irreverent documentary about the history of that word's usage. It also has John Cameron Mitchell's comic "Shortbus" - a sensation at Cannes because its actors have real sex - set to play New York on Oct. 6 and expanded the next week.
"'Shortbus' and 'Fuck' are both fun, spirited, lighthearted films that nonetheless touch on the increasingly serious issue of freedom of expression," said ThinkFilm's Mark Urman in an e-mail. "Though very different from one another, they both come from a place in our culture that is fed up with being told what we cannot do. They are quintessentially indie in that regard and they are perfectly timed to a season that is all about 'out with the old, in with the new!' whether one is talking about things that are trendy or things that are trenchant.
"What can I say? THINKFilm is single-handedly trying to ring in a new counterculture and I think people are hungry for just that! Let the sun shine in!!!"