In a typically excellent and provocative post, Anthony Kaufman asks some good questions about the role ‘alternative’ distribution (TV, DVD, On Demand) can play for filmmakers seeking an audience for their work and why, in general, the film press seems to ignore films premiering in these alternative forms. Is it bias and snobbery or is it a conservative rejection of the new in order to prop up traditional (and shrinking) models?
For me, alternative platforms for film distribution are, generally, a failure of the medium. In the same way that the Opera critic doesn’t cover the PBS airing of Madame Butterfly (or, for example, the recent screenings of the Metropolitan’s Madame Butterfly in movie theaters around the country or, say, festival screenings of Kenneth Branagh’s The Magic Flute), film critics seem locked into the theatrical model because that is the place where films are INTENDED to be seen. Ask any filmmaker if he or she prefers TV or a straight to DVD project with no theatrical OR a theatrical release, and you’ll get the politik answer (if a film is made for TV, a justification of the medium), but there is a reason why HBO rented out the Ziegfeld for for their “premiere” of Angels In America; The theater is the ultimate home for a movie.
One of the great failures of the so-called “day and date” model is (for me) its dismissal of the theatrical experience in favor of the broadest commercial interests. I’m sure it seemed (and to many, still does seem) like a good idea; The theatrical margins for certain films are so slim that a simultaneous release on every imaginable platform allows people to pick their preference. Too busy to go out? Netflix the film! Can’t be bothered to deal with a DVD rental? Watch the film On Demand on your cable box! Feel that watching films on TV, with your cell phone ringing and the kids running around while you shout conversations between rooms (which, tragically, sounds a lot like a screening at the local multiplex on a Friday night), is somehow a non-cinematic experience? Go see the film on one of the five screens on which it will play in the whole of America! Live outside of a major metropolitan area? Too bad, but you probably hate art anyway, right?
This seems to me to be making a distinction not of quality but of cost; In a xenophobic, anti-intellectual, isolationist time like this, the best way to get a return on a “difficult” film (that is, almost anything subtitled or ‘downbeat’) is to spend next to nothing on them. Ad buys and marketing? Why bother? Print making? Minimal. Festivals? If you play them, charge them money to screen and market your film for you in communities where the films won’t otherwise be seen. It’ll only help your DVD and cable sales down the road and you can turn a nice profit on the backs of small, non-profit arts groups. The most difficult part to swallow regarding this strategy is that the model is a used as a pretext for “art” and is seen as somehow less commercial and more independent. Hrm. I guess if, when you say ‘less commercial’ you mean lowering expenditures in order to maximize returns, then yes. But that smells like commericalism to me. Let’s just call it what it is; Low-revenue profit making. That’s the system.
Back to Anthony’s main point, though; If TV and On Demand (both on cable and online) are truly the legit distrubtion platforms these companies make them out to be, where is the critical validation? Even The New York Times’ weekly DVD column primarily focuses on classics and hard to find films getting a DVD release; Not so much about the day and date DVD titles, with few inches deciated to straight-to-DVD relases. Film critics will write about films getting a theatrical run, but hardly a mention is made of the film’s simultaneous cable and DVD release. Is the strategy ahead of the curve? How much money is being made this way? I can’t believe it is, even by independent film standards, a commercial success that somehow transcends the income made on a traditional (theatrical, followed by DVD a few months later, followed by cable a few weeks later) roll out. But I don’t know the numbers, so maybe I’m wrong.
My Desk (or The Cinema Of Today!)
Where TV as a platform does seem significant to me is as a distinct platform for working artists; I am thinking of a director like Jim McKay, who works on his own films, but also on shows like The Wire and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. There are also artists like Mike Nichols, who made a terrific, large scale miniseries from the aforementioned Angels In America and also delivered Closer for traditional distribution. Lots of independent filmmakers, writers and actors have found work in TV (Tom DiCillo, Mary Harron, Michael Cuesta etc. etc.) and as a commercial enterprise, it is terrific that these artists are able to receive a solid paycheck for their work. That said, the fictional narrative feature is, as a form, something distinct from a television program. Yes, there are made-for-TV movies that can be transcendent, but I’m sorry; Cinemas are the proper context for cinema.
Ultimately, the question boils down to a personal one. Just how important is that context for you when you want to watch a movie? How much does a movie matter to you? For someone like me, who moved to New York specifically to be involved in a thriving theatrical film community, this context is of the utmost importance. And so, as a passionate and dedicated filmgoer, I try as hard as I can to avoid supporting shit and instead spend my money on theatrical releases for films that I want to see and support. Of course, for most Americans, the context issue is irrelevant; It’s TV/DVD or you don’t get to see the movie. Period. Working in Florida has been an eye-opener; The snobbery in the industry toward non-metropolitan communities is a self-fulfilling prophecy of low turnout; Little is invested and little returned. And yet, the interest is there. A community like Sarasota has multiple film events all year long and our festival generates 45,000 admissions primarily because, despite the presence of a year-round program at the local three screen art-house (of which I am a paying member), most of the 160+ films we’ll show in April won’t be seen in this community again in a theatrical context. Ever.
Maybe individuals, downloading films for hours on end, gobbling up GB after GB of hard drive space, burning them onto a blank DVD and watching them on their computer, iPod/iPhone or television is the best way to deliver foreign and independent film to audiences isolated by the dearth of theatrical distribution for these films. Or maybe this is just another revenue stream and a way to cut costs while maximizing returns on ever-shrinking investments. Either way, I don’t think it’s a strategy that is in the best interests of movies or audiences. Bottom lines might be another story.