Hot Button Archive for April, 2008

The End of An Era: Episode One – The Critics

David Ansen joins the parade of film critics heading out the Traditional Media door at 62.  He will, as Time’s Corliss and Schickel, remain in the game.  But unlike some outlets, Newsweek will surely establish a new critic, likely from their familiar gene pool. 

I’d be shocked if the answer they come up with is not someone like Dave Karger from EW, Rebecca Keegan from Time, their own Ramin Setoodeh or some other young, New York media savvy,
non-critic who has been around the industry for years.

The whole series of anti-criticism events demands a look at the bigger picture.  I was asked last week about whether I thought all of these firings (with plenty more to come) really hurt independent film.  And the answer is more complex than I would like it to be.  Let me start with the punch line and then go back to the detail work …

The weight of responsibility is now on exhibitors who want to be in the Indie business – and not just the Dependent business, which is rarely "indie" in any
real way these days – and the distributors and the publicists to find the new dynamic to get audiences to show up at "art house" movies.  The lack of as large a poll of critics to use as promotion to sell these films is a small issue compared to finding the screens around America to show these movies on and the uphill fight against scores of millions of dollars spent to sell "bigger" movies every weekend of the year.

Moreover, the studios have unthinkingly (with a few exceptions) conspired to turn even the critics who are keeping their jobs into worthless players.  On
the one side, you have a total whore like Peter Travers – when his name or that Rolling Stone logo on top of an ad now assures that a movie is suspect … which is a shame for the good movies he is quoted for – who has become about as valuable as David Manning because no one reads his full reviews and he is so shameless about quoting that no one wants to do so.  Doesn’t it occur to studio ad departments that the only people who care about critics’ reviews are the same people who know that Travers and Roeper are not remotely reliable?  (Roeper is not a quote whore … nor is his taste often horrible … but he adds little in terms of ideas to the mix and is still referred to as "that guy" in most conversations I wander into with people.)

It is, obviously, arguable that studios are not responsible for promoting new critical talent.  But at the same time, if they want critics as a truly valuable marketing tool, they need to make real choices about seeding the next generation.  However, the mind set remains, "quote from the biggest, most legitimate possible media outlet, regardless of who the critic is." 

When is the last time you saw a quote from The Baltimore Sun‘s Michael Sragow?  Well, it was likely either in The Baltimore Sun or in a national ad for a movie that got weak quotes from a dozen other outlets before they even turned to the list that Sragow was on.  And since Sragow – as an example here – doesn’t write to be quoted, they would probably
be adjusting his quote to make it hotter even in that situation, finding it easier to use a quote whore from the junket circuit who gave some mouth-breathing year’s best kind of praise.

The flip side is The Indies, whose system of releasing films relies heavily on New York, then Los Angeles, then Chicago, and then on to another dozen markets,
and then beyond, if things go well.  But Indie advertisers still have the mindset of majors … they want the biggest media outlets for quotes. 

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin