When "Half Nelson," one of the best American independent films of the year, opens today in theaters, will it become the latest low-budget American drama to fall by the way side next to celebrity-driven superindies such as "Little Miss Sunshine"? Or will it defy the odds and reach an audience hungry for strong performances and compelling psychological depth? While Ryan Gosling delivers a fiercely dedicated performance as a crack-addicted teacher, does he stand a chance against the marketing machines of News Corp (especially since he isn't willing to whore himself out to the press with a bizillon interviews)?
For instance, last weekend, I saw a film at prime Brooklyn arthouse BAM Rose Cinemas and one of the first things I noticed upon entry was that the entire staff were wearing bright yellow T-shirts with a slogan associated with "Little Miss Sunshine." "Why are you all wearing those T-shirts?" I asked. "They were given out free on Friday when the movie opened," replied a ticket-taker. "You want one?"
And what of the other movies also playing in the theater? While "Half Nelson" is not showing at BAM (not yet, at least), will the staff all wear "Half Nelson" T-shirts when it does? What about the other movies that were playing there last weekend? How come the staff didn't wear T-shirts for Jean Renoir's "Boudu Saved from Drowning."
The battle to stay on art-house screens is tougher than ever (at BAM, for instance, that little indie called "World Trade Center" is taking up a valuable screen) and terrific American films are not finding the time or space to find their audience. This isn't new news, but when I think of other strong films (not even foreign-language ones) such as "Keane" and "Forty Shades of Blue," which virtually no one saw in theaters, I agonize over the state of specialized distribution and the way studios have skillfully orchestrated a major shift in the tastes of art-house audiences.