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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“We now have a situation where audiences very often prefer commercial trash to Bergman’s Persona or Bresson’s L’Argent. Professionals find themselves shrugging, and predicting that serious, significant works will have no success with the general public. What is the explanation? Decline of taste or impoverishment of repertoire? Neither and both. It is simply that cinema now exists, and is evolving, under new conditions. That total, enthralling impression which once overwhelmed the audiences of the 1930s was explained by the universal delight of those who were witnessing and rejoicing over the birth of a new art form, which furthermore had recently acquired sound. By the very fact of its existence this new art, which displayed a new kind of wholeness, a new kind of image, and revealed hitherto unexplored areas of reality, could not but astound its audiences and turn them into passionate enthusiasts.

Less than twenty years now separate us from the twenty-first century. In the course of its existence, through its peaks and troughs, cinema has travelled a long and tortuous path. The relationship that has grown up between artistic films and the commercial cinema is not an easy one, and the gulf between the two becomes wider every day. Nonetheless, films are being made all the time that are undoubtedly landmarks in the history of cinema. Audiences have become more discerning in their attitude to films. Cinema as such long ago ceased to amaze them as a new and original phenomenon; and at the same time it is expected to answer a far wider range of individual needs. Audiences have developed their likes and dislikes. That means that the filmmaker in turn has an audience that is constant, his own circle. Divergence of taste on the part of audiences can be extreme, and this is in no way regrettable or alarming; the fact that people have their own aesthetic criteria indicates a growth of self-awareness.

Directors are going deeper into the areas which concern them. There are faithful audiences and favorite directors, so that there is no question of thinking in terms of unqualified success with the public—that is, if one is talking about cinema not as commercial entertainment but as art. Indeed, mass popularity suggests what is known as mass culture, and not art.”
~ Andrei Tarkovsky, “Sculpting In Time”

“People seem to be watching [fewer] movies, which I think is a mistake on people’s parts, and they seem to be making more of them, which I think is okay. Some of these movies are very good. When you look at the quality of Sundance movies right now, they are a lot better than they were when I was a kid. I do think that there have been improvements artistically, but it’s tough. We’ve got a system that’s built for less movies in terms of how many curatorial standard-bearers we have in the states. It’s time for us to expand our ideas of where we find our great films in America, but that said, it’s a real hustle. I’m so happy that Factory 25 exists. If it didn’t exist, there would be so many movies that wouldn’t ever get distributed because Matt Grady is the only person who has seen the commercial potential in them. He’s preserving a very special moment in independent film history that the commercial system is not going to be preserving. He’s figuring out how to make enough money on it to save these films and get them onto people’s shelves.”
~ Homemakers‘ Colin Healey On Indie Distribution