Why Theaters Are Refusing to Book Godard’s Moneymaking 3D ‘Goodbye to Language’

Why Theaters Are Refusing to Book Godard's Moneymaking 3D 'Goodbye to Language'
Why Theaters Are Refusing Book Godard's Moneymaking 3D 'Goodbye Language'
Goodbye to Language” grossed $11,448 in two New York theaters in its first two days after opening Wednesday. With a per screen average for $5,724, it beat films with far higher ad buys and advance theater bookings from companies such as Fox Searchlight (“Dom Hemingway”), Sony Pictures Classics (“Kill Your Darlings”), Cohen Media (“My Old Lady”) and Paramount (“Men, Women and Children”) over the past year. “Goodbye to Language” was topped by Weinstein’s “Yves Saint Laurent”–just barely.  

NPR’s story on the film details the way Godard playfully expands the use of 3D with never before seen effects. That’s why there’s so much interest in seeing it. 

Here are the reasons key big-city theaters aren’t booking it. 

1. It’s a Godard film. 

Exhibitors are shying away from Jean-Luc Godard and the challenging nature of the film, despite its Cannes pedigree and critical acclaim. It’s just not a conventional film, it’s different from what is normally booked.

Though Godard is arguably one of the most respected living filmmakers and by far the most influential over the last half century–recently earning a Governors Award from the Academy, who knew he wouldn’t show up– it has been decades since his unconventional, often experimental films have managed to make a significant dent in the U.S. market. The last Godard breakout was “Every Man for Himself” in 1981. The top gross of any of his released features in the last 20 years, “In Praise of Love,” topped out at just over $250,000. 
2. It’s in 3D.  
Distributor Kino Lorber enterprisingly handles many risky, challenging films, and its access to independent theaters, non-theatrical locations and its strong ancillary home video arm makes it an ideal home for this film. But Godard’s history makes it a challenge for them to acquire even a limited number of appropriate 3D-equipped theaters. That makes it tougher for them to nab bookings at top arthouses around the country, particularly at this competitive time of the year. 

Despite the mainstream acceptance of 3D on screens, the core art market, much of it independent, has had little reason to go to the expense of outfitting theaters (on top of expensive digital makeovers) for 3D. As a result, theaters in key cities like New York (Lincoln Plaza), Los Angeles (all the Laemmle-owned screens, Landmark’s calendar Nuart), Chicago (Music Box) can’t play the film.

The biggest 3D specialized film in recent years, Wim Wenders’ “Pina” managed to gross $3.5 million. But distributor IFC had Oscar and other awards activity to boost its access, as well as a much larger footprint and precedent for playing top-end crossover theaters that often play the most commercial screens. And significantly, much of that gross came from 2D prints (which the older core specialized audience often prefers), while Godard insists (justifiably) that his film only be presented in theaters in 3D.

Los Angeles — easily the second most important specialized market — is not yet booked yet, showing the fragile state of access for critically-lauded and cinephile-interest films in today’s market. With the Laemmle Royal and Nuart out of the question because of no 3D capacity, Kino Lorber has pursued two theaters that played “Pina” to strong results — Landmark’s flagship West LA theater and Pacific’s Arclight Hollywood, but without success so far. The former is a work in progress and remains a possibility, while the latter so far has shown no interest per Gary Palmucci, Sr. VP, Theatrical Distribution for Kino Lorber. Other potential venues, such as Sundance Film Center’s Sunset, are not equipped for 3D or unable to provide at least a full week booking. Such is the tricky state of presenting niche quality films in this key market.
Palmucci says that he has been bombarded with requests from local critics asking about screenings, and after A.O. Scott’s rave New York Times review on Wednesday requests from interest from the “Bel Air circuit” (top filmmakers and executives) for their private screening rooms. Los Angeles — like other top cities — has a strong group of film buffs for whom Godard still is a big deal, and his acclaimed 3D effort likely pushes it to the highest level of interest in many years. And of course with its special process, unlike so many other films with overall limited appeal, it can only be seen for nearly all audiences in its intended form on screen at theaters rather than alternative venues, making it potentially, as it has been in New York so far, a potential successful date for theaters.

Kino Lorber does have its usual enterprising array of dates in other markets — San Francisco opens at the Smith Rafael Film Center on Nov. 14, the Bell Lightbox in Toronto is set for a two-week run, the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis is booked. Other markets like Madison, Cleveland, Columbus, Seattle and Miami will have at least limited showings ahead. But unlike other films with similar or lower opening grosses, many of the top markets remain unconfirmed.

It is understandable that Landmark and other key players have taken a wait and see position so far. Their top screens are under elevated demand as the fall upscale season is in full swing. They are not equipped on more than limited situations in 3D. Godard has become a rarefied, limited taste for first-run. But the lack of bookings in many cities so far shows that top exhibitors and their reliance on wider appeal, bigger campaign films can block the showing of more esoteric but still essential films, particularly when technology further limits their access.

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