Anthony Kaufman’s recent article in the Village Voice (also see his blog post about his decision to return to the critic-depleted Voice for this piece) is one of the paper’s must-read pieces about New York City film culture in quite a long time. Reading it, I forgot how much I missed flipping to the to Voice on my daily march through film writing, and how much I used to anticipate Tuesday evenings, when I could settle in and read Dennis Lim, J Hoberman (whom I still read), Michael Atkinson, Amy Taubin and the Voice staff writers who really framed the film-going discussion among my friends and colleagues. Yes, the writers are still out there, working hard and delivering excellent work, but the Voice used to be a one-stop shop for some of the best film writing available. Today, a diaspora of bookmarks barely replicates the experience.
Anthony’s article, which I am sure will raise a few eyebrows, takes on the real problems of the “day-and-date” model’s theatrical component; Primarily a way to capitalize on the short window of press and media attention for independent, foreign and low-revenue films, day-and-date (as I am sure you know by now) simultaneously bundles a very small theatrical release with cable television Video On Demand availability (and supposedly a DVD release, but that has not been the case for very many films at all). Anthony tackles a very important topic in his article, one that will be near and dear to the hearts of all serious New Yorker film goers; The way in which the decline in art-house screen space in New York City, coupled with the IFC Center’s use of the day-and-date model to populate their screens with their own IFC First Take distribution products, has created a shortage of opportunity for films seeking distribution.
The IFC Center (which, full disclosure, is managed and operated by people I consider to be personal friends) takes the brunt of the article’s rightful indignation, and Anthony gets some very choice quotes from the film industry, none more scathing than Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard’s withering statement that the IFC Center is “… a promotional item for television day-and-date broadcasting, and it puts films in the market that are not up to standard.” Ouch.
Of course, he is right in the first half, and half-right in the second. This past year, I hosted a panel at the Sarasota Film Festival about the challenges facing foreign film distribution in the United States, and along with Jon Gerrans (Strand Releasing), Paul Hudson (Outsider Pictures) and Josh Braun (Submarine Entertainment), I had IFC President Jonathan Sehring on the dais (ironically, Tom Bernard was invited but was a last minute cancellation). We discussed this very topic in great detail and Jonathan was unapologetic for his company’s strategy. Day-and-date, he argued, allowed the films to reach new audiences; Despite the concerns of New York City theater-goers, the IFC First Take strategy is a national one. I won’t speak for Jonathan, but the crux of his argument seemed to be that the theatrical experience was becoming less and less of a priority for most Americans and that VOD cable, which allows IFC First Take films into homes that otherwise would never have any access to these films at all, was a growth business because, in the new world of constantly emerging technologies, it was a much less expensive, less risky (in terms of IFC’s perspective) way to get movies in front of eyeballs. And so, while the IFC Center mixes in a sprinkling of non-IFC First Take releases with its repertory calendar, the primary purpose seems to be to make some box-office on the films themselves before they head on their typical five or six city release patterns (give or take) while allowing the movies to generate all of the press and attention of more traditional, multi-city release patterns. And don’t even mention film prints; Hannah Takes The Stairs, a recent IFC First Take title, will make its small theatrical run without a 35mm print ever being struck. And so, if you are running a business and rarely making much money on any of these films, this makes a lot of sense. Or, as Brian Newman argued in his recent post, this all may just be an ass-covering shell game. Who knows for sure.
The Good Ol’ Days: The IFC Center (photo by Corey Boutilier)
Of course, it may not be working for New York City, which despite the location of the film industry in Los Angeles, is by far the most movie-crazy city in America. Which is where the “films in the marketplace that aren’t up to standard” comment, which seems to be an important part of Anthony’s argument, comes into play. I have to say, that while IFC First Take has delivered some duds, I can’t point to a single distributor who hasn’t unleashed duds into the theaters of America. Copious amounts of duds at that. So, yes it is easy to pick on some of the films that IFC First Take has selected, but for me, it is much easier to praise most of the titles and directors who, had IFC not picked up their films, would have remained completely unavailable to everyone (New Yorkers included). That list is not small, by the way; Alain Resnais’ Private Fears In Public Places, Lars von Trier’s The Boss Of It All, Shane Meadows’ This Is England, Patrice Laconte’s My Best Friend, Susanne Bier’s After The Wedding, Christophe Honore’s Dans Paris, Julia Loktev’s Day NIght Day Night, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times; All of these titles, which saw different levels of theatrical success by playing in the First Take program, would never have made it into New York theaters at all without being picked up by IFC. Couple that with the fact that I can go home to Flint, MI, go online and read a
The other premise of Anthony’s article is that there are films out there that can’t get on a screen because of the IFC First Take program (and, though argued to a lesser extent, Film Forum’s desire for exclusivity in their theatrical window), or as his sub-title puts it, “More movies, fewer screens, and a new game in town means cutthroat competition for indie-film distributors.” For me, the problem is never “more movies”; I am not sure what “standard” Tom Bernard is talking about (I assume it is his own company’s standard of excellence, about which there can be no argument, but to which most other film companies cannot afford to comply), but most of the films that make it to a theater deserve to be there simply because a distributor and a theater programmer are assuming some financial risk in placing them there. That is the standard; The market and critics then compete to decide the relative merits of the movies themselves. If you think the situation is bad now, imagine what more screens and more movies could mean; A glut of movies even worse than the ones bemoaned in the article. As a programmer, I promise you, there is more shit out there than undiscovered and unreleased quality; The ratio is probably 1000:1 in favor of the crap.
The issue, as Mark Urman clearly articulates, is screen space; “Manhattan is scandalously under-screened, and the rate at which theaters playing specialty films are renovated and created is far behind the rate they’ve been dying, ” he says. Later, Tom Bernard is absolutely correct when he “remembers the Upper East Side as the Boardwalk to Park Place of specialized exhibition, with the Cinema 1, the Beekman, the Baronet and Coronet—and that’s fallen off. If there were a theater that had the trappings of the Angelika on the Upper West or East Side today, they’d have a license to print money. That is the heart of our audience…and there’s a big hole with nothing there.'” But why should anyone, Film Forum, The IFC Center, whomever, be beholden to adding screenings of films already playing elsewhere in town? What we need, as is made clear, are more theaters.
And maybe not in Manhattan; As Bernard puts it in the article, “Brooklyn is thriving.” Really? Because we have nowhere near enough art-houses. As a Park Slope resident, I head to BAM all the time, but talk about under-screened and a license to print money; If someone partnered with The Brooklyn Brewery and built an Alamo-style art-house in Williamsburg (go ahead, do a search for 11211 on your favorite on-line ticketing website) and Park Slope, they’d be putting screens where the audience for these films now reside. Brooklyn is the most populous borough by far, and yet BAM, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights Cinemas represent the extent of art-house; That’s roughly nine to eleven screens (as Cobble Hill mixes in Hollywood fare) for art-house films to accommodate roughly 2.5 million people. You think we like riding the subway back into Manhattan for the 9:00 p.m. show? Real estate in New York City is ridiculous, the theater business is in decline, distributors continue to open Brooklyn on the second or third weekend of a New York City release, and so, the shortage continues.
No one, and I truly mean no one, loves the experience of sitting at Film Forum (or IFC Center, or BAM, or the Laemmle 5 In LA, of the Burns Court in Sarasota, etc etc etc) among a group of committed movie-lovers as much as I do; I positively need a darkened movie theater and have spent the best part of my life’s work up to this point trying to program films that will inspire that same love in others. But I also know how far outside of the mainstream experience my own passions have become. For me, the problem isn’t the IFC Center’s programming choices, which seem to me as hit or miss as anywhere else, but the dying experience of going to a movie theater and having the space be reverential toward movies. In the overwhelming majority of America, that experience is long-since dead; Movie theaters have become disposable edifices that share more in common with a Wal-Mart than with the movie palaces of old. Multiplexes are full of teenagers running wild, crying children at their parent’s knee in R-rated films, cell phones blaring, advertisements looping for a good half-hour before the movie itself begins and few people bothered enough by the collective experience to prohibit them from talking in full-voice during the movie. All of that for $10 a head?
Which is why, on any given weekday, the art-houses of New York City are an absolute sanctuary. Let me confess; I’ve actually taken a 30 minute train-ride to Film Forum on a bright and sunny summer’s afternoon without any idea as to what is playing that day and paid an admission simply to be at the movies at favorite place to see them. When I return to New York City, I have to go there within the first few days in order to re-connect to the city itself. Which is why, like Anthony, I am highly sensitive and defensive about the art-house experience, but the problem is not the films; It’s the change in the city and the world around us, the shortage of screens, and the realization that theatrical exhibition is more and more expensive for art-house titles that make less and less money. All I can do is continue to spread the word via my festival work, and get my ass into a movie theater seat as often as I can. All I can hope is that artists, distributors and theatrical programmers just keep the movies coming. Without them, I’m nothing.
My previous thoughts on the new distribution platforms can be found HERE.