Even When a Great Film Comes Out, You Can't See It (Except Maybe in New York)

Mindless kiddie fare opens at around four thousand screens across the country. When at last a brilliant, provocative film for grown-ups gets produced, it merited four screens. Doesn't this strike you as just a trifle lopsided?
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Let me simply lead off with the sobering statistic that inspired this piece:

While mindless dreck or kiddie fare like Thor, The Hangover - Part 2 or the latest Pirates Of The Caribbean installment all opened on around four thousand screens across the country, when at last a brilliant, provocative film for grown-ups gets produced -- Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life -- it merited... are you ready... four screens.

Doesn't this strike you as just a trifle lopsided?

True -- this is what's known as a "limited release", and in fact the film is doing so well with audiences that it's being rolled out to over 200 screens as of next month. That's good news, but even then, it will have commanded under ten percent of the exposure awarded to Pirates, without the latter film even having to prove itself. ( I guess as the sequel of a sequel, you earn that privilege.)

This huge disparity in distribution between mainstream and independent, "art-house" fare reinforces a grim reality: as we're increasingly inundated with purely commercial, derivative junk mostly aimed at our kids, it gets harder and harder to find something remotely original and intelligent for ourselves.

It does not help of course that of the roughly 40,000 screens in the U.S, the share devoted to these independent films is -- again -- under ten percent.

The tragedy of course, extends in two directions: while discerning movie lovers feel bereft, this stark new landscape also makes it harder for serious filmmakers to compete for recognition, since without any meaningful distribution -- not to mention marketing- you can labor over a masterpiece that basically noone will ever see.

And if a renowned veteran director like Terrence Malick -- with no less a light than Brad Pitt behind him -- can only command four screens on release, and with success only hope to build that up to perhaps 300 screens, what are the prospects for some promising but unknown filmmaker?

Until and unless online film distribution becomes viable and profitable, the harsh answer is: pretty lousy.

So what exactly happened to create this environment?

It goes back to the advent of the "high-concept" picture in the 1980s, which fundamentally involved applying the same methods of marketing, research and distribution to movies as to a brand of soap. This new approach would reduce both the number and variety of movies overall, focusing on fewer, bigger franchise-type pictures intended to have virtually limitless, broad appeal.

While sometimes yielding enormous profits, the too-frequent result of aiming for so wide an audience -- and relying on research and committees to make creative judgments -- has been to turn many a flavorful movie concept into plain, predictable vanilla. It was true then, and it's even truer now.

At the same time, smaller, literate, human-scale films with a modicum of originality and edge have been marginalized. Thus intelligent movies that a generation ago might have entered the mainstream, are today that much more limited in their prospects from the outset.

Some of my readers have suggested that the reason more "serious" movies never see the light of day is that a) they don't make money, and b) the market for them is small and shrinking.

When I hear that, I worry that the only thing actually shrinking is some people's IQs.

Time and again such films have in fact been highly profitable; the issue is that many of the high-concept features they compete against prove themselves even bigger money-makers -- more by virtue of how they're packaged than innate quality -- and so win the day.

It's important to emphasize that these more literate features can and do make money, because it proves that the viewing public is not as stupid or undemanding as the Hollywood brass seems to think they are. They know quality when they see it, and contrary to conventional wisdom, like to vary their movie diet, adding something thought-provoking into their entertainment mix every once in a while -- or perhaps, even more often.

As to the second point, who says the audience for this type of film is shrinking? Last time I checked, the baby-boomers were still a big chunk of the population, aging but still going strong, and with both time and money to burn.

Now our attendance at movie theaters may be shrinking, but think about it: how many of us really want to take in Kung Fu Panda-2? There are plenty of folks over forty who will go to the movies if there's something intended for them that's worth seeing. Surely, last year's The King's Speech proved that. (A rare crossover hit, that film would eventually reach over two thousand screens -- but only after it became a top Oscar contender.)

Nevertheless, most of us grown-ups are still forced to look abroad -- or back in time -- to find the movies that satisfy both our heads and hearts. And we are looking to DVD and streaming as well, because all too often there is nothing for us playing nearby.

How many people out there may have heard the buzz about The Tree of Life only to learn it is still playing nowhere in their area?

I am fortunate to live in New York City, where I was actually able to see it.

Certainly, Tree has its flaws, but they seem minor and easily forgivable since Malick is aiming so high. In particular, for me, the film's more "cosmic" elements -- several short sequences representing both the origin of life and what happens after -- don't quite come off and feel disconnected from the rest of the film.

That said, the core of the movie, about a couple raising a family of three young boys in 1950s' Waco Texas (the very time and place where Malick grew up), achieves a lyrical brilliance and emotional power I have seldom, if ever, experienced. Astoundingly, there were moments when "Tree" caused me to tap in to childhood memories of my own, long since dormant but suddenly vivid again.

And talk about a film that exposes the real possibilities of the medium -- when the end titles came up, it was as if the audience had been holding their collective breath, and only then could exhale -- emitting a sort of hushed "Whoa!" in unison. The last time I heard anything like it was over thirty years ago, at the end of The Deer Hunter (1978), another then-mainstream movie that might not get made or seen now.

New York City is indeed the ideal place to be if you love movies, because there are still theatres that cater to educated folks out of their teens. And Film Forum on Houston Street in Manhattan's West Village stands as the beacon -- the example every independent cinema aspires to -- or should.

Entertainment Weekly labeled it New York City's "finest cinema," while Time Out New York described it as "...one of the most beloved institutions in the city, treasured by film aficionados who live for revisiting rare classics, and the simply curious who come to see what they'll never get from Hollywood."

In its 41st year, Film Forum meticulously programs its own three screens, selecting the best indie and foreign features, and -- importantly -- mixing in both the work of new, emerging filmmakers, and retrospectives of classics you won't see on a big screen anywhere else, with retrospectives programmer Bruce Goldstein often cajoling studios to strike new 35 MM. prints just for them.

How are they able to pull this off?

First, they have a smart, charismatic leader in Karen Cooper, who's been there almost from the start and basically built the place up from scratch. She not only oversees administration, but works (with Mike Maggiore) as co-programmer of all premieres.

Second, they are non-profit, and can therefore solicit both private and public funds to augment ticket and concession revenues. A recent private event I attended honoring actress Claire Bloom attested to their skill in keeping their most generous supporters loyal and in the fold.

(In keeping with our country's paltry level of support for the Arts as compared to Europe, only four percent of Film Forum's impressive fund-raising effort comes from public sources.)

However, a particular point of pride for them is that their care and skill in programming has resulted in strong box-office receipts on a fairly consistent basis. The strength of the Film Forum brand is such that its members trust that most anything they go see there will be worthwhile -- and they are seldom disappointed.

And for any film lucky enough to play there, Film Forum serves an imprimatur of quality, one which registers well beyond the city limits of New York.

So -- why aren't there more such theaters across the country, with the clout to show a Terrence Malick film, new or old -- and just as important, to showcase the Malicks of tomorrow?

In talking with Karen, she cited many of the same trends I've raised in previous pieces, starting with the blurring line between information and entertainment, and our increasingly "dumbed-down" popular culture.

Then, there's the impact of technology on our collective attention spans, as we lead more fractionated lives filled with telegraphic messaging and numbing, quick cut imagery. Indeed it seems there are more and more factors hindering our willingness and ability to really engage, which is what more serious films require of us.

Finally, Karen pointed out a more practical but no less daunting issue: real estate. Notwithstanding the current slump, many landlords are sizing up cinemas with a predatory eye... after all, movie theaters tend to be centrally located, expensive to operate, and require lots of space. Eventually, as both demand -- and rents -- increase, struggling theaters may be forced to make way, for, let's say, a shiny, new, and much more lucrative condominium.

But this does not have to be.

Even given all the tough hurdles confronting art-house cinemas, Film Forum provides a blueprint for success. If they can confront the future with confidence, others can too.

In fact, it's abundantly clear we must not only maintain the art-houses we have, but actually grow their numbers over time. This will require that we all work harder to support our local not-for-profit cinemas, not just with ticket sales, but also via membership dollars and (let's not forget) personal involvement.

Why is this so important? Because if we don't do it, it won't much matter if any great films get made anymore, because there will be virtually nowhere to go and watch them.

For over 2,300 of the best movies on DVD, visit www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com

To see John's videos for WNET-Channel 13, go to www.reel13.org