Why Can’t America’s Heartland See Itself on the Big Screen?

Why Can't America's Heartland See Itself on the Big Screen?
Why Can't America's Heartland See Itself on the Big Screen?

Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” neatly summarizes the relationship that contemporary Hollywood films commonly have to the vast, diverse American landscape. The city is where things happen: where news is made and disseminated, where heroes and villains can stage their big coming out, and where people and buildings get spectacularly destroyed. In “Man of Steel,” this buzzing city is the Manhattan-modeled Metropolis; the film’s Kansas, by contrast, is more of an idea than a place, despite its name referring to an actual state as opposed to the fictional Metropolis. Regional America is regularly portrayed as a “heartland” located perpetually in a nostalgia-infused past, where one comes of age, loses their innocence, acquires virtues, and prepares for a destiny realized in a “real life” elsewhere — that is, life in The Big American City. That the Kansas of “Man of Steel” was actually filmed in northern Illinois highlights the lack of specificity applied to regional America by this film and others like it. Regional America of the movies is defined less by its own unique character, and more by what it is not.

This hasn’t always been the case. Throughout the 1970s, numerous filmmakers — including Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, George Roy Hill, Peter Bogdanovich, Terrence Malick, Martin Ritt, Bob Rafelson, John Huston, and even Big Apple auteur Martin Scorsese — lent their cameras to the rural America of small towns, hard labor and lonely highways, depicting each region in a way that sought to capture its local character and history. Regionalism was not a generalizing metaphor or a received symbol in these films, but an opportunity to tell stories of distinctive American locales. While a few notable regionalist films have been widely released since, they are increasingly fewer and further between in a global Hollywood that prefers fictional locales or interchangeable cosmopolitan settings for everything from romantic comedies to fantasy epics.

Recent independent films have affixed a renewed lens onto American regionalism, one that takes up the mantle abandoned by a post-Spielberg/Lucas Hollywood. A feast of cinematic locavorism, such films are often shot on location and are supported by members of the community, who sometimes become directly involved in the production. These films do not, in short, portray rural America arbitrarily or vaguely, and they refuse to perpetuate received ideological assumptions or lazy stereotypes. These films seek to represent their respective regions with palpable honesty and authenticity, rejecting any lingering assumptions about the city’s inherently superior storytelling capacity.

The problem, of course, is that few ever see a release wide enough to reach areas of America comparable to those represented in these films. That Hollywood overwhelmingly prefers the city while indies provide the few films that actually survey the country has birthed something of a paradox beholden to our current distribution systems: wide-release metropolis-based films play nationwide, while smaller films set in the rural US almost exclusively play in the big city markets that carry platform releases. Such films rarely get out of this bind until the “bigger markets” have been tested.

2013 alone gave us Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” (Oklahoma), David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche” (Texas), David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (Louisiana/Texas), Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine” (Florida), and Yen Tan’s “Pit Stop” (Texas), none of which topped 60 screens. This year’s Sundance portends another crop of solid rural storytelling, with films like Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” (Virginia/Delaware) and Jim Mickle’s “Cold in July” (Texas/New York) generating some solid buzz. That many of these movies are worth your time is beyond contention; how and if they will be seen is a different matter entirely.

But several developments suggest that the archaic models which have long divided these films from potential audiences might be in the throes of erosion.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols saw his Arkansas-set third feature “Mud” substantially outperform his previous two films, “Shotgun Stories” (Arkansas) and “Take Shelter” (Ohio), in part because distributor Roadside Attractions proved willing to take risks that defy the conventional wisdom of indie rollouts.

Nichols told Indiewire that when he made “Mud,” he didn’t think of it as something that should be reserved for “arthouse theaters in New York and LA,” but rather approached the film as a piece of classical American filmmaking. He said of his experience with his first two films, “I had seen a platform release on ‘Take Shelter’ and had very mixed emotions about it, and I had seen a platform release on ‘Shotgun Stories’ which was a fairly nonexistent release. But I’d just seen them come and go, and I don’t live in New York or LA. I live in Austin. With ‘Take Shelter,’ I was a little unfair to Sony Classics. I kept saying, ‘They’re not doing anything.’ [A friend in New York] said, ‘But I see stuff’ [about the film], and it never trickles out of those main hubs. With ‘Take Shelter,’ I told myself, ‘It’s slow and it’s kind of an odd movie with a weird ending, and maybe it deserves to just play there.’ So you reason out your lack of success.”

With “Mud,” however, the star power of Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon portended bigger possibilities in the eyes of Roadside Attractions — who, Nichols attests, sought to open the film on as many screens as possible in addition to the given big city markets (debuting in 363 theaters, eventually expanding to 960). Nichols credits the successful rollout of “Mud” in part to Roadside’s efforts to promote and advertise the film via the web rather than “saturating one town with posters.” Nichols suggests that maybe instead of looking at films in terms of the conventional wide/limited release dichotomy, distributors should formulate “targeted releases” exemplified by Roadside’s rollout of “Mud”: a model in which theater counts are based in projections of how specific regions, rather than size-based film markets or select cosmopolitan theaters, would most respond to the potential appeal of a particular title.

Another McConaughey project, Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” also makes the case for the targeted release. “Bernie” opened on April 27, 2012 in three places: New York, Los Angeles, and Austin. Austin is a sizable city known for its movie culture, but typically isn’t given the opening-weekend platform that NYC and LA regularly receive for alternative commercial releases. But Linklater, Millennium Entertainment, and downtown Austin’s Violet Crown Cinema clearly saw some potential in bringing the Texan dark comedy directly to the state of its setting from the get-go. The film enjoyed an almost self-sustaining theatrical lifetime in Texas, and its Austin release set the stage for its expansion to less sizable cities across the state, including several towns in East Texas (where “Bernie” takes place) that played to sold-out crowds.

Bill Banowsky, CEO of the Violet Crown, told Indiewire that he thinks there’s a lot to be learned from “Bernie”: “At the time of ‘Bernie”s release, traditional patterns for specialized films called for a NY and LA platformed launch, the notion being that NY and LA would provide a superior per screen average while generating national critical support and awareness for the wider release. It was clear to us that, on certain titles, Austin was a natural place to launch films along with NY and LA. And ‘Bernie’ was one of those films. There was no reason to believe that Austin would pull down the per screen average. In fact, we pulled up the opening average.”

While Nichols recognizes the unique support of exhibitors like the Violet Crown, it was important to him that “Mud” play in the everyday multiplex or mall: “Little Rock [Nichols’s home town] has this one arthouse theater, and that’s not where I wanted ‘Mud’ to play. That’s not a knock on the arthouse theater. The way that my family talks and my friends at home talk, I know they’re not even paying attention to that. Getting in a cineplex stamped this validation on the film…There’s something about it showing up in that part of the paper or on that web search that changes, I think, the dynamic of everything.”

And that is clearly the biggest obstacle for regional indies: convincing distributors and exhibitors that movies about people who live in suburban East Texas or alongside the Mississippi river should actually play in places where those populations go to the movies. Last summer’s VOD and digital rollouts of “Prince Avalanche” or “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” can’t necessarily deliver on their democratizing potential if word-of-mouth is nonexistent in areas and amongst audiences that still consider moviegoing a mostly social, public activity.

Yet the digital option still contains notable promise, even if it contributes to the entrenched thinking of what does and doesn’t belong at the multiplex. Grassroots films that would never have been realized in the exclusionary boy’s club of 1970s Hollywood are being made and seen thanks to digital filmmaking, digital distribution, and digital word-of-mouth, including the aforementioned “Pit Stop” and “Sun Don’t Shine” and other regional indies like Lance Hammer’s “Ballast” (Mississippi), Lee Daniels’s “The Paperboy” (Florida by way of Louisiana and California), Patrick Wang’s “In the Family” (Tennessee by way of New York), and Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” (Missouri).

But for now, the relationship between regional filmmaking and regional exhibition remains tenuous and uncertain.

After eight weeks of release, on January 10th, “Nebraska” finally opened in Rapid City, South Dakota (pop. 67,956), where a portion of the film was shot on location. The “Nebraska” shoot was enthusiastically covered by the local Rapid City Journal last year, yet it didn’t always seem certain that the locals who tracked the film’s production would ever witness the movie’s arrival at a theater near them. Whether the residents of Rapid City actually enjoy Alexander Payne’s latest Best Picture nominee, or appreciate its representation of their area, is for them to decide. But at least, in this case, the distributor hasn’t already made that decision for them.

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