The Movie Club

The Niche-ification of Moviegoing

Dear Friends,

As usual, it seems we must end just as we’re getting off the ground. I’ll skip the teary valedictions, in part because my debt of gratitude to you, David, for the Movie Club and so much else, is simply inexpressible.

I’m hesitant to pronounce the obsequies for movies in theaters just yet. That’s a dirge that has been sounded many times before, and everything that was supposed to kill off moviegoing in the past has ended up expanding the reach of the movies. I think we may be headed for a system not unlike book publishing (not the healthiest business model, I know) in which big, broadly pitched commercial product supports a kind of art-house “midlist,” beneath which are the smaller and more specialized imported goods. The prestige pictures that the studios used to make have been delegated to the specialty divisions, while the big money is invested in fantasy franchises and family movies. The middlebrow quality movies (and I should note here that, given where my paycheck comes from, I intend “middlebrow” as an honorific rather than a pejorative term) cost less, and earn less, than they used to, which is going to cause a problem over at the Academy before too long, as the leading contenders for Oscars are movies that have been seen by an ever-smaller fraction of the viewing audience. Sometime soon, the Independent Spirit Awards and the Oscars will either merge of become identical, except for venue and dress code.

Which is, for the most part, fine. I’m glad that the specialty divisions (Focus, Searchlight, Warner Independent, etc.) are giving actors and filmmakers the chance—and the money—to exercise a measure of creative freedom. I’m grateful for the existence, and welcome the success, of movies like Capote, (Sony Classics), Brokeback Mountain (Focus), and Good Night, and Good Luck (Warner Independent). But the ascendance of the mid-level prestige picture does change what movies are and shrinks somewhat their imperial and utopian ambition to provide a universal form of entertainment. The ideal of movies for everyone survives most robustly, these days, in Pixar animation.

Recently, the conservative journalist (and big-time David Edelstein fan) Ross Douthat, writing at Andrew Sullivan’s blog, noted that almost none of the movies on the New York Times critics’ year-end lists were big commercial hits. Yes, of course, I know: So what? But he goes on to make what I think is an interesting point:

I don’t mean to suggest that a movie only counts as “good” if it passes a certain box-office threshold. And it was an excellent year for small-budget, small-grossing movies: I haven’t seen some of the holiday releases yet, but my provisional top ten would include Grizzly Man, Junebug, The Squid and the Whale and Capote, none of which were ever likely to attract a mass audience. But even so, it doesn’t speak well of the American film industry that nearly all the finest movies of the year—at least if you believe the Times critics—were art-house gems and foreign films, while most of the industry’s hits were sequels and remakes, riding built-in audiences to compensate for their mediocrity. This is true every year, to a certain extent, but 2005 seemed to particularly lack for a slate of really good films that aimed at, and found, a mass audience.

I think what Douthat is pointing toward may be the creeping niche-ification of moviegoing, and perhaps also a loss of cultural centrality, of the notion that the community sitting in the dark might extend across boundaries of region, class, background, and belief. The question may not be “Is theatrical distribution dead?” but, more widely, “Is the mass audience obsolete?” Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Back in the ‘50s, intellectuals on both right and left saw the specter of mass culture as an abomination—totalitarianism with a smiling, mouse-eared face. Is it now becoming an object of nostalgia? Is its obsolescence to be welcomed or feared?

Darned it I know. And my apologies for pulling the discussion toward such airy imponderables. I’m encouraged by your optimism, Jonathan, and by your Emersonian reminder that the golden age is around us, always, if we would only use our eyes and minds to discern it (and our voices to spread the news). It strikes me as curious and somehow apt that the two American directors we’ve discussed most these past few days are Steven Spielberg and Andrew Bujalski, who seem to operate at opposite ends of the filmmaking universe. The budget for Bujalski’s entire oeuvre to date (at what I hope is the beginning of a long and fruitful career) would purchase—what, a minute of Munich? A single shot of War of the Worlds? But when you think about it, they’re both independent filmmakers—more than most who work under that misleading label.

I’ll end it there. Jonathan, it would be wonderful to meet in person one of these days—next time I’m in Chicago, I promise. Scott, I’ll no doubt see you in Park City next month, where you will somehow manage to see three times as many movies as anybody else in half the time. David, I’m sure I’ll run into you over a bottle of fine whiskey sometime soon.

Happy New Year to all,