The Movie Club

Can Anyone Watch 600 Movies a Year?

Nathan, thanks for the shoutout to Judd Apatow, whose movies were actually seen (and liked) by the “mass” audience, and who I also think is a really funny dude (although, not long ago, one-time-Movie Clubber Armond White told me he thought Judd Apatow was Satan, so I guess even this is something about which not everyone agrees).

On to other matters: Though it’s true that I saw several thousand movies in 2007 while simultaneously training for the Ironman and performing charity work at a Ugandan orphanage, I did manage to avoid seeing a few biggies—including Away From Her and Gone Baby Gone, as it happens—until the 48 hours prior to the voting meeting of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, at which point I barricaded myself inside my apartment and embarked on a DVD-viewing marathon that also included my first exposure to Lady Chatterly and La Vie En Rose (the end credits of which were just beginning as I was running out the door to get to the LAFCA powwow). Beowulf, alas, I missed in all of its multiple dimensions, and Nathan, after reading your exuberant paean to its phallic grandeur, I’m sorry I did.

And Wesley, how on earth could I have forgotten The Sopranos (my own pick for best narrative film of the decade, though I must further confess to never having seen so much as a frame of The Wire) in my roster of 2007’s great unresolved endings? I ended up watching that final, brilliant hour with a rowdy bunch of folks in a Las Vegas hotel suite (none of whom hesitated to voice their displeasure with David Chase’s blackout-heard-’round-the-world)—less-than-ideal circumstances where TV viewing is concerned, but a wonderful setting in which to observe the denial (“That can’t be it”), anger (“That better not be fucking it”), depression ("You mean that’s it?”), and bargaining ("HBO: I’ll give you my first-born child if you just produce another season”) that course through an audience that has just had its expectations boldly subverted. Many of the responses to my blog post about that episode also evinced a similar hostility, the gist being that David Chase should have made things clear, laid everything out neat and tidy for us on a silver morgue slab: Did Tony get whacked or not? It’s a similar yen for closure that seems to upset some detractors of No Country, The Mist, et al. But who ever said a movie—or a TV show—was obliged to give you all the answers? Of course, I’m being a little coy here: I know some people want their entertainment served up simple, uncomplicated, and life-affirming. Speaking for myself: You tell me there’s something new at the picture show about the cruel hopelessness and inhumanity of existence and I am so there.

I’d like to come back now to something Dana mentioned in her first post, and which both Nathan and Wesley have subsequently touched on: namely that, nowadays, even in “cultural capital” cities like New York and Los Angeles, dedicated filmgoers—even film critics—can easily miss much-ballyhooed foreign and independent films if they happen to be out of town, or simply otherwise engaged, during the week (if you’re lucky) or couple of days that those films happen to play in their town. And if you live in the flyover markets and don’t count yourself among the satisfied ticket buyers who have turned Alvin and the Chipmunks and National Treasure: Book of Secrets into the holiday season’s two bona fide smashes, God help you.

It’s a distressing reality, if not an especially surprising one. Nathan mentioned the 600 movies released in the United States last year—and bear in mind those were just the ones that got a weeklong commercial engagement on some screen somewhere. Factor in all the unreleased films—the ones shown for one- or two-night stands at film festivals and cinematheques—and you’re well into the thousands. When this oversaturation of the movie marketplace first started to happen a few years ago—back when the number of commercially released films first topped 500 and that was news—I figured it was probably a good thing, the fulfillment of a prophecy the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami had shared with me in the course of a 2001 interview. “The best filmmakers are not necessarily the ones that we’ve come to know as the best filmmakers of the century,” Kiarostami reasoned, lamenting the cost and inaccessibility of 35mm film equipment. “Now, this digital camera makes it possible for everybody to pick it up, like a pen,” he continued. “If you have the right vision, and you think you’re an instinctive filmmaker, there’s no hindrance anymore. You just pick it up, like a pen, and work with it. I predict that, in the next century, there will be an explosion of interest in filmmaking, and that will be the impact of the digital camera.” Well, eight years into that new century, it’s clear that Kiarostami was right about the explosion of interest in filmmaking. Whether filmmaking is any the better for it is another question entirely. (Or to put it another way: The fact that you can pick up a pen doesn’t mean you can write.)

I come back to the numbers: 600 movies. That’s an average of 12 new movies a week in New York and Los Angeles, which is all that really matters since movies that die a quick death in one or both of those places never make it to most of the rest of the country. And die quick deaths they do (many of them, I must admit, deservedly): Of those dozen, few of the ones without $20 million advertising campaigns stick around for more than a week, since there are another 12 waiting where those came from and only a finite number of screens on which to show them. That makes it next to impossible for any smaller film—no matter how well-reviewed or well-liked by audiences—to last long enough to build the steady, word-of-mouth momentum that propelled such storied art-house hits of yesteryear like My Dinner With Andre, A Room With a View,and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Of course, even I’m not crazy enough to think that the infinitely more demanding Colossal Youth and Syndromes and a Century were ever going to be catnip for the ladies in lavender who comprise art-house theaters’ prime constituency. But something is unquestionably awry when a movie with the rave reviews and positive festival buzz of Syndromes grosses all of $16,000 in its entire North American theatrical run (which, again, effectively amounted to a single run in New York). Meanwhile, another movie with some of the year’s best press—Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire—topped out at a whopping $25,000, and that was with an L.A. opening! Admittedly, Kaye’s brand of abortion drama wasn’t quite as date-night friendly as Juno or Knocked Up, but I expected Kaye’s film to at least spark some pro-life vs. pro-choice demonstrations outside of the theaters showing it, like the Christian activists who once upon a time picketed the one cinema in my hometown of Tampa, Fla., ballsy enough to book Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Ah, those were the days!

You can chalk this apparent audience apathy up to inflated ticket prices, the dumbing down of the American public, the rise of DVD, or any number of other popular excuses for the troubles facing “specialized” movie exhibition. But to do so is to assume that moviegoers are aware of these great movies in their midst and consciously choose not to see them. And on that point, I remain squarely unconvinced, no matter the folks lurking in the “Fray” section of this very Web site who clearly have no interest in hearing about any movies they, well, haven’t already heard about. The more I talk to friends, readers, and filmmakers, the more I find that for those people who love movies, but whose lives (unlike critics’ lives) aren’t shaped by the fluctuations of the film-releasing calendar, there’s simply too much information to parse nowadays—too many movies, too many reviews of those movies, too many Web sites compiling and indexing those reviews. By the time some people finally catch wind of a movie they might like to see, it’s no longer playing anywhere within driving distance. So, it becomes easier to throw up your hands in defeat—to simply stick with what’s playing at the neighborhood googleplex, or to “wait for Netflix.”

Now, you may ask: What, exactly, is so bad about Netflix? Well, nothing in concept. Ditto for IFC Films’ ambitious “First Take” program, which simultaneously distributes high-quality foreign and independent films (including the past two Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winners, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) in theaters and via on-demand cable television. Now that I too have joined the ranks of the HDTV-equipped, I’m slowly coming around to the pleasures of the home-theater experience. Still—and if this makes me an old fuddy-duddy, so be it—I put a premium on seeing a movie on a big screen with a large audience, even if, like Nathan, I’m a child (b. 1978) of the home video era. (My parents even had one of the first VCRs on the block—you remember, the kind with the pop-up loading mechanism.) Nevertheless, I saw as many or more movies as a kid in real movie theaters as I did at home in the living room, and in some ways it’s those theaters—with their dim recessed lighting and musty plush curtains (when they still had curtains)—that linger in my memory as much as the movies I saw there. Even at that time, long after the end of the grand movie palace era, going to the movieswas still an event, and I’m pleased to see that some of today’s theater developers—like those responsible for the highly successful Grove and ArcLight multiplexes here in Los Angeles—are trying to bring that feeling back, even if too many of their seats are filled by rude teenagers (and sometimes even ruder adults) who think nothing of checking e-mail and sending text messages in the middle of the feature presentation.

I’m sure this will all sound like some sort of wacko nostalgia trip to those crazy kids with their iPhones and other newfangled doo-dads (another confession: I own no products whose names are preceded by a lowercase i), and maybe it is. But what’s not in dispute, I think, is that the big-screen moviegoing experience still matters and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And once again, it’s a matter of the numbers: Until someone comes up with a truly viable alternative, the theatrical distribution of movies remains the most effective way for filmmakers to access the largest possible audience at any one given time, to have their movies acknowledged by the mass media, and to promote the eventual existence of those movies in all other distribution streams. In other words, even if you’ve resolved to “wait for Netflix,” it’s thanks to the theatrical distribution of movies that you have some idea of what you’re waiting for. On a more human note, I’d like to think that the ritual of mass gatherings before the flickering light is not at all a bad thing at a time when technology gives us so many ways to “communicate” with the outside world without ever encountering another actual person.

I guess what I’m saying, to paraphrase the old Coca-Cola commercial, is that I’d like to buy the world a movie ticket and keep it company.