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Why Manohla Dargis's Sundance Proposal Is Behind the Times

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 9, 2014 at 8:27PM

NY Times critic Manohla Dargis can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the number of world premieres at the Sundance Film Festival, the toughest festival to cover, because so many new movies demand to be reviewed. But is she really rooting for fewer of them to get picked up? She complains that the Paper of Record has too many films to review each year.
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Texting in theaters

New York Times critic Manohla Dargis can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the number of world premieres at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. It's the toughest festival of the year to cover, because so many new movies demand to be reviewed. But is she really rooting for fewer films to get picked up? While she seems to be really complaining that the Paper of Record has too many films to review each year (a record 990 opened in New York in 2013), does she really want to see fewer movies booked into theaters?

But 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.

For one thing she seems to be missing the fact that while many films open in the admittedly congested New York corridor, they do so in order to meet contractual obligations and obtain that all-important New York Times review. And yes, that's her job. But all of those films do not make it to other cities, in fact remarkably few do. Dargis misses the “the moment” we’re in, says one indie distributor: "a gray zone where theatrical is still needed as an uplift for video-on-demand." That is the new world order. The flip side of her kvetching is the hundreds of films that would, a techno-generation before, never have been available.

But to tell buyers to buy fewer films is the wrong answer. Some of the "nothing" films that opened in New York do wind up mentioned by at least one critic on the annual Indiewire, Village Voice or Film Comment 10 best lists. A few micro-indies opening in New York is not the end of the independents as we know it. 

In an email, producer and new Fandor CEO Ted Hope writes that Dargis, like many folks, is a "part of the transition we are going through as an industry and a culture.  We still think of cinema in terms of how it was built, and not what it could become.  Theatrical is thus the prime way that we become aware of films, and that primarily is because films are assured of being reviewed nationwide when they are released. If the NY Times changed it’s policy from only reviewing all films when they premiere in a NYC theater to one of covering all films when they premiere regardless of platform, filmmakers would not buy a NYC opening.  If critics put their efforts towards making sure films were discovered online too, platforms might reduce their requirements for a theatrical opening."

Furthermore, from the other side of the fence, Hope adds: "Filmmakers are trained how to embed 'inciting events' into their first acts of their scripts, but they don’t do the same for their release campaign. There is no escaping this world of abundance. The barrier to entry for both creation and release have diminished significantly.  We need to move from impulse buys regarding our entertainment to one of educated choice. Curation is a key element but distributors can not do that in today’s economy — they have to seize opportunity where they can (and hence why Focus Features has so changed its strategy).  

"Filmmakers need more support in their marketing and thus often team with distributors, but since those very same distributors are often in a volume game, they rarely get the intention, let alone the innovation they need. The industry has done a poor job matching people with the content they are most likely to enjoy, particularly in a presentation and context that they will appreciate.  We can really build it much better.  But why not start by changing the NYTimes policy of reviewing all films released theatrically, and make it all films released nationwide on any platform? There are a lot of out of work critics who could use the work!"

This article is related to: Sundance Film Festival, Festivals, Media, Critics


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.