Worst Indies

In January, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis wrote an article headlined “As Indies Explode, an Appeal for Sanity” bemoaning the increasing number of films hitting theaters, which her employer, due to a blanket policy, decrees should be reviewed. By her count, some 900 films received reviews in the paper in 2013, a jump of 75 from the year before (something like 7,500 more minutes of movie that had to be covered—over five straight days’ worth of films).

Her argument against this avalanche of films, many of them mediocre, is a cogent one: “There are, bluntly, too many lackluster, forgettable and just plain bad movies pouring into theaters, distracting the entertainment media and, more important, overwhelming the audience. Dumping ‘product’ into theaters week after week damages an already fragile cinematic ecosystem.” At a time when moviegoing is already so degraded by an aging infrastructure and the uneasy shift away from film to digital, not to mention threatened by home viewing options that inch ever closer to the theatrical experience, how can a fragile cinematic ecosystem thrive?

It’s a good question to be asking now, and it’s nice to see the sentiment expressed in the nation’s paper of record. Dargis’s playfully suggested solution to this problem was simple: “Stop buying so many movies. Or at least take a moment and consider whether flooding theaters with titles is good for movies and moviegoers alike.” This modest proposal, addressed to the small pool of independent theatrical distribution companies still out there, was published just prior to Sundance, the year’s first major market for film buyers, and one that this edition proved to be lackluster at best.

Human Centipede 2

Human Centipede 2

Some of this flood of indie films is tied up in the workings of the still-nascent on-demand platforms. It may seem counterintuitive that the endless, unnavigable menus on your TV screens filled with films you’ve never heard of deeply affect what movies play in theaters in New York, but they do. The idea behind the initial multi-platform experiments was that by making independent films available in multiple places at once, it might be possible to make an end run around theatrical releasing’s venerable but highly speculative platform model, whereby a great review from a paper like The New York Times could enable a small film to achieve a decent box-office result in a New York theater, giving it the ability to open in more theaters elsewhere in the country. But if the review or gross doesn’t come through, such a movie is dead on arrival. With multi-platform, the theory is that more viewers can access more movies earlier, and the films in turn can better benefit from the initial waves of press that surround openings in New York and Los Angeles.

This all sounds terrific and there is a great study to be done someday about the benefits of making smaller films available earlier and more widely. But the multi-platform model has evolved, as in most instances where commerce is involved, into a hierarchical system whereby films at different stages in their lifespans command different price points; if a movie is available on VOD before or during its theatrical run, it sells for a higher price than once it is out on DVD. This further spurs the quest to secure a theatrical run, especially in New York and Los Angeles. Some VOD multiple-system operators even demand up to 15 theatrical markets, in many cases for films that, once upon a time, might not have made it to a theater at all to get into the highest-priced bracket: the “preview” category “Before It’s in Theaters.” Given the lucre associated with VOD over the past few years, there has been greater impetus for getting films into that space, and given that distribution companies are responsible for putting movies in theaters, it seems like Dargis has found a reasonable place to lay blame for the glut.

The only problem is that, on the whole, most theatrical distributors aren’t really buying and releasing many more films than they have in the past few years (though the majors aren’t in the purview of her article, almost all of them have actually cut output in recent years). Consider IFC and Magnolia, two of the leading practitioners of the multi-platform model. In 2011, Magnolia released 26 films, 33 the following year, and in 2013 34. IFC over the same period released 39, 38, and 32 films, respectively. When you factor in the emergence of new companies and the shuttering of established outfits, you have a picture of an ever-shifting, but not necessarily expanding, landscape. So what’s causing the flood? Increasingly, it’s filmmakers, producers, and financiers, who—frustrated with the deals on offer—are circumventing distributors to find their own pathways to theaters through four-walling (renting a theater for a run) or service deals (paying a distributor to release your film). They can cut a deal with an aggregator and get onto VOD platforms, but if they add a theatrical to the mix, it sweetens the pot. And given that most of these films hit theaters with little or no significant P&A spend or buzz, and aren’t even expecting to recoup via box-office performance, the only thing they’re gunning for is the higher profile that comes from, you guessed it, a New York Times review.

I Believe in Unicorns

I Believe in Unicorns

Dargis is right to argue that flooding the dwindling number of theaters with subpar films is no way to build a healthy film culture. But there’s a more apt prescription than jokingly asking distributors to put out fewer films (most indie distributors today tend to use lackluster and mediocre but commercial releases to subsidize more adventurous fare), or trying to shame filmmakers into making fewer movies. Instead of attempting to achieve some impossible platonic ideal of fairness (the Times, though it reviews every release, certainly prioritizes films in a number of subtle ways: review placement, photo inclusion, length, additional feature coverage), shouldn’t the cultural gatekeepers live up to their responsibilities? Instead of covering every film released, they should make smart decisions about what films are worth covering (and on what platforms they’re being released—should great films released only on streaming be penalized for how they reach viewers?). I imagine that the arts editors, in conjunction with the lead reviewers—who, one assumes, talk to other critics, hear about interesting films, and see other interesting films while attending film festivals—could do a decent job of putting together an editorial calendar that makes sense. Films would fall through the cracks, sure. But instead of being a clearinghouse, the weekly review coverage could be a curated space for the best writing about the best films. Does the front page of the Times cover all the news? Or just what’s fit to print?

And just why does the Times review every film that hits theaters? At one time there might have been an unofficial correlation with the amount of advertising space bought by distributors, but the advertising market has been steadily contracting for 10 years now, and not all of these self-distributed films are buying print ads. Perhaps only their editors can answer that for certain.

For their part Dargis, A.O. Scott, and Stephen Holden are lucky: they generally get to pick and choose the films they want to review, leaving the dross to the faceless Genzlingers and Hales of the world. Even so, Dargis is correct—they should all be able to cover fewer films for the benefit of film culture at large. Unfortunately this won’t come to pass until the Times takes an active step to de-incentivize the frivolous, window-dressing theatrical release that exists almost solely because the promise of a New York Times review remains.