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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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas