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Are There Too Many Movies -- And Is It the New York Times' Fault?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire January 9, 2014 at 3:40PM

Manhola Dargis asks theaters to stop booking so many movies, but some say her paper is the reason they do.
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Quad

In a New York Times article called "As Indies Explode, an Appeal for Sanity: Flooding Theaters Isn't Good for Filmmakers or Filmgoers," co-chief film critic Manohla Dargis takes aim at the proliferation of theatrical releases, especially in New York, where the Times reviewed 900 films in 2013. 

I have a little favor to ask of the people cutting the checks: 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. Because no matter how exciting Sundance will be this year, no matter how aesthetically electrifying, innovative and entertaining the selections, it’s hard to see how American independent cinema can sustain itself if it continues to focus on consumption rather than curation. 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.

No one would question that the number of movies has grown out of control, and in New York, the practice of renting out a theater  -- known as "four-walling" -- is a common way for films without distribution to get press coverage. (Take a look at the upcoming listings for the Quad, whose very mention among New York critics is likely to prompt an involuntary eye-roll.) Most outlets long ago cried "uncle," but the Times sticks to its policy of reviewing every movie that opens in the five boroughs, a good many of which will never open anywhere else.

It's a complicated situation, and Dargis' argument seems to fold in on itself in a few places. Take this passage:

Yes, there were good and great movies among those 900 titles, although it’s instructive that many of the movies that dominated critics’ Top 10 lists last year -- and have monopolized much of the demented obsessing over who will win at the Academy Awards -- were distributed by the big studios and their divisions, from 12 Years a Slave to Her to Before Midnight. The website moviecitynews.com has combined 150-plus such year-end lists, and only two independently released movies -- The Act of Killing and Frances Ha -- were among the pooled top 10 titles. Most of the truly independently released movies tend to be further down, including the radically dissimilar Computer Chess and Don Jon, both of which were well received at the last Sundance....

Computer Chess, a droll comedy about chess nerds shot on black-and-white video, was never going to make all that much. It’s supremely individual, too odd, too interesting. But it’s hard not to believe that it might have done better if it hadn't been forced into the marketplace alongside 20 other independent releases that opened in New York the same week and were all vying for pretty much the same nonmainstream audience. Only four big-studio movies opened the week it did, and they crushed the box office.

No critic wants to watch bad movies, and contrary to popular belief, reviewing them often isn't much fun either. But apart from Dargis' quixotic plea to "stop buying so many movies" -- a little like asking a genie if it wouldn't mind going back in its bottle -- it's not clear who she'd rather perform the hard work of separating the gold from the dross. Those 900 reviews notwithstanding, some of the best movies in the world opened nowhere at all -- I'd rather watch a random title from the top 25 undistributed films in Indiewire's poll than 90 percent of major studio releases. 


This may be a controversial statement, but by and large, films that get distribution -- at least in the medium-to-long run -- are better than those that aren't. But like Rene Ricard in Basquiat, I worry about the Van Goghs, the potential, possibly chimerical, geniuses who for whatever reason -- temperament, bad luck, the wrong sales agent -- slip through the cracks. It's part of a critic's job to lift them back up. Perhaps Computer Chess would have ranked higher had more people seen it, but rather than blame the theatrical glut, why not blame the critics who failed to watch it? It was never in more than a handful of theaters, but there was certainly enough positive press to mark it as a movie worth seeking out. 

One thing is for sure: Running 900 reviews a year isn't good for anyone. The Times is forced to stretch its resources, tapping unqualified staffers rather than knowledgeable freelancers, and the films get lost in the shuffle anyway. So perhaps the Times should review fewer films. But if that's the case, everything should be up for reconsideration. Why bother reviewing the latest superhero sequel or studio castoff? The people going to see those movies don't care what critics think, and the people who read critics aren't going to see them. Of course, someone will still have to see them, or at least enough of them to determine whether they meet the basic standards of competence, so maybe the Times should use pre-screeners, the way film festival selection committees do. Of course, that would be yet another expense, but then it might be only fair, since according to some other New York critics, it's the Times' fault so many open in the first place.

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