"Thumbs Down" for Ebert at IFP American Directors Panel at Cannes
by Anthony Kaufman
A company of first time directors gathered on Tuesday for the Independent
Feature Project's annual panel of American Directors at Cannes hosted by
"Siskel and Ebert's" Roger Ebert. A usual must-see for American press, this
year's panel was marred by director cancellations (John Turturro was in
abstentia) and Ebert's off-handed quips and self-important presence,
resulting in a superficial exploration of the issues. While the intentions
of the IFP panel are honorable -- presumably to tackle the intricacies and
challenges that American directors face either in a world marketplace like
Cannes or in their own unique cultural mega-market -- the most poignant
moment in the panel came when "High Art" (Directors Fortnight) director
Lisa Cholodenko asked critic/moderator Ebert, "What is the difference
between a 'Thumbs up' and a 'Way thumbs up'" -- which launched the panelists
into a somewhat passionate discussion and interrogation of Ebert on the
power that reviews have in sustaining a film's play.
Taking the defensive, Ebert responded, "All rating systems are equally
goofy and ridiculous...thumbs are as silly as any of them." Jake Kasdan,
whose film "Zero Effect" screens in Un Certain Regard, quickly asked Ebert,
"What would happen if 'Siskel and Ebert' abandoned the thumbs?" After much
evasive dancing around the question, Ebert got himself off the hook with
the young directors by claiming, "People say 'Siskel and Ebert' have too
much power, but I don't think we have nearly enough power compared to the
marketing people, the advertising people, and the people who book the theaters."
For Kasdan, reviews did make and break his film, which already came and
went in America. "Zero Effect' tended to perform in accordance with those
towns where there were really terrific reviews. Otherwise, they basically
wouldn't go," said Jake Kasdan. "It was brutal," he continued, speaking of his
100 screen release across the United States. A nice opening sum, but
"Zero Effect" disappeared over about a single month period. "A friend
of mine wrote to me," related Kasdan, "Jake, somehow, I've missed your movie.
Is it possible that it was only open for one day?" While not all the directors
might share Kasdan's 'tragedy' of 100 screens and a four-week release,
Tamara Jenkins's Fox Searchlight release of the "Slums of Beverly Hills"
(Director's Fortnight) may come the closest when it opens this summer.
At the other end of the spectrum, Japanese-born, Ken Yunome and his 3 hour
debut about love and loneliness in New York, "Island, Alicia" (Un Certain Regard)
can only wish for 4 screens, let alone 100.
Ebert quickly moved the discussion away from reviews and into the battle
indies fight for in exhibition. "If your film doesn't open strong and is not given
an opportunity to build through word of mouth, as films did historically in the
past," said Ebert, they will "open and close very quickly without ever having a fair
shot at the audience, because they are muscled out by the 2000, 3000, or more
prints." Kasdun pointed to Portland's destruction of all its arthouses at the
same time he was shooting there while Ebert offered some hope in the
fact that Landmark and Sundance will be building independent theaters soon.
This year's "American" panel also included two Canadians whose experiences up
North mirror much of what Stateside directors go through. Don McKellar, who
screened his print of "Last Night" for the first time in the "Quinzaine" section,
"The review dependent thing -- I don't find that so bad -- because in some cases,
that's all we have for publicity. But you have to remain optimistic, and why you
made your film, which was at least, in part in response to that juggernaut of the Hollywood film, of that exact replica film happening again and again. And
you have to believe that others are going to resist that." Jack Blum, the other
Canadian filmmaker of "Babyface" (Quinzaine des Realisateurs) noted that Canadian
films on Canadian screens account for less than 3%. So that's a battle that all
of us are fighting."