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Why Manohla Dargis's Sundance Proposal Is Behind the Times

Festivals
by Anne Thompson
January 9, 2014 8:27 PM
17 Comments
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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!"

17 Comments

  • Sujewa Ekanayake | January 16, 2014 3:36 PMReply

    Dan Mervish, re: this - "Another solution would be for the Times to only review films that aren't four-walled." A better solution would be to not review 90% of the crappy Hollywood films that are being handled by distributors. How a film is released - self-distribution vs being distributed by a second party/another distributor does not = quality. Oscar Micheaux, Melvn van Peebles, Upstream Color recently & countless other great movies & movie makers have used self distribution to get their films out to the public. Let me know when you have some time, I'll go over how self-distribution is a major part of independent film & has always been (& will always be so) :)

  • Michael Walker | January 16, 2014 3:03 PMReply

    No one seems to mention the studio cabal that keeps indie films in check. For the thousands of screens in this country, there are only a couple hundred screens that will show the indie films at all. This, and the massive advertising budgets of the studios, conspire to keep indie movies in the ghetto. There is just no way to compete. So theatrically, the only strategy that makes sense is a theatrical requirement to draw attention to the VOD release. If there were time or space in theaters for some of these films to draw an audience, then there would be a much more competitive market place for the indie films.

  • rgm | January 14, 2014 1:09 PMReply

    I greatly fear that everyone is arguing furiously beside the point. There are no longer enough working movie theaters across the country for the current output. Many cities have only one house with, perhaps, two or three screens, while other small towns can no longer even support a single movie theater. Given one house, which are you likely to book.: Iron Man or a minor Sundance indie? Such screens cannot risk an unheralded indie even if reviewed in NYC.

  • Dan Mirvish | January 13, 2014 12:08 AMReply

    Anne - very well put! Manohla has the right complaint, but the wrong solution. Ted puts it best: "If critics put their efforts towards making sure films were discovered online too, platforms might reduce their requirements for a theatrical opening." Another solution would be for the Times to only review films that aren't four-walled. And I like Anne's idea - just hire more critics! (it's called supply and demand). How bout taking those 6 Indiewire-led aspiring critics going out to Sundance and give them unpaid internships at the Times to review all the crappy little four-walled films? It'd be a win for everyone: The young critics get the Times on their resume, it'll lighten the regular Times critics' loads, and more filmmakers will get reviews in the Times!!!

    As for those Manohla haters out there, I wouldn't fire her - I like Manohla personally - but truthfully, if you don't like reviewing that many movies, maybe take a break from film reviewing? Plenty of other great jobs for you out there: academic, fest programmer, film series curator, author, etc. There's no rule that says that film critics need to be film critics their whole lives. Some great critics like Scott Foundas, Robert Koehler, Elvis Mitchell and others have shown how their love of films can be reinvigorated by temporary career shifts. Hey, how about blogging for Indiewire?

  • Sujewa Ekanayake | January 16, 2014 4:18 PM

    Dan Mervish, re: this - "Another solution would be for the Times to only review films that aren't four-walled." A better solution would be to not review 90% of the crappy Hollywood films that are being handled by distributors. How a film is released - self-distribution vs being distributed by a second party/another distributor does not = quality. Oscar Micheaux, Melvn van Peebles, Upstream Color recently & countless other great movies & movie makers have used self distribution to get their films out to the public. Let me know when you have some time, I'll go over how self-distribution is a major part of independent film & has always been (& will always be so) :)

  • Andre Bazin | January 13, 2014 11:27 AM

    All due respect to Ted, Dan and Anne, but I think they're a bit off in their estimation of the financial and intellectual resources of the New York Times. Because the staff critics have managed to narrow the scope of their activities to two or three reviews a week (and a handful of Sunday pieces), the huge majority of these indie releases are handled by freelancers or copy editors with little knowledge or experience, but presumably with an evening free to watch a DVD and type up a couple of paragraphs for a nominal fee. The result: dozens of reviews every week that no one (at least, no one not immediately related to the filmmakers) bothers to read and few bother to see, all at considerable cost in freelance fees and even more precious editorial space for the Times. The NYT didn't start reviewing every release until sometime in the 70s, when the market had shrunk sufficiently to make it possible; in previous decades, when Hollywood and the many independent producers were turning out films in large numbers for theaters that changed programs two or three times a week, the Times skipped a huge proportion of titles -- many of them same genre films that are now considered central to the American cinema. I would much rather see that money and space being devoted to the many excellent film series in New York, including the programs at BAM, Lincoln Center, Film Forum, MoMA, MoMI, etc., etc.

  • jim emerson | January 11, 2014 7:35 PMReply

    Manohla is right, though: The marketplace is glutted. Especially for so-called "indie" and "art-house" movies. So, either filmmakers are going to have to learn to make fewer and better movies, or face that fact that not all their movies can justify theatrical releases (that's what the festival circuit is for). Or distributors are going to have to figure out more cost-effective ways of presenting the non-stop flood of movies to the public, even if only a handful of people are interested in seeing them. So, where are the small, single-screen independent art houses that could nurture a film the owner/operators believed in, give it personal attention and care to help it find an audience over weeks or months? The economics of multiplex exhibition doesn't encourage that anymore. When the theatrical engagement is considered to be little more than an advertisement for a VOD release, what's the point?

  • Benny White Eyes | January 10, 2014 7:28 PMReply

    Think about this. Runner Runner cost how much? Had how much talent. Script sat on shelf for how long? Producers had what credits? And did you see the garbage? Question is why a script with such poor writing was able to get to a screen at all. Then take up 3000 screens. And all that marketing money. Can you imagine if we split up all that money all those wasted resources and talent and used it on real scripts written with talent?
    Ask yourselves. How and why something so bad got through. There's your answer to why cinema sucks today.

  • jean vigo | January 10, 2014 2:36 AMReply

    At the end of the day, the few truly innovative, game changing, indies every year DO find their way to viewers, will pave paths for the filmmakers, and are remembered years after the fact.

    Wait 2 years and see what you remember from 2013. Why aren't people talking about "Drinking Buddies" "The Spectacular Now" "The Way, Way Back" "Touchy Feely" much right now? Nice cutesy stuff, but hardly "WOW-who-is-this-Scorsese-Lee-Anders-Jarmusch-Tarantino-Haynes-Campion-Hartley-Anderson (Wes and P.T)-Coen Bros-filmmaker?"
    Ryan Coogler and Jeff Nichols are certainly folks I'm going to keep looking out for, though.

  • J. Warner | January 10, 2014 2:29 AMReply

    One thing not mentioned yet in the comments here: some people still believe (and I don't think wrongly) that the best way to see any movie, regardless of its size in budget or ambition/scope, is in a darkened theater with a mass amount of people (most of who you don't know) experiencing it.

    The fact that that remains to be so hard for independent films to achieve is never-not-depressing for those of us who still value the theater-going-experience, more so than the convenience and ease of use of VOD/streaming.

  • JoeS | January 10, 2014 12:41 AMReply

    Easy solution.

    Fire Dargis (as should have been done YEARS AGO).

    Hire someone else.

    Solved.

  • Peter Rinaldi | January 11, 2014 10:10 AM

    Yes, totally agree with you. I think she is screaming to be fired for this. No one is talking about this -- Why did she mention Iron Man 3 twice but not mention any indie film that she thinks is undeserving of getting into theaters? Maybe it's because this will destroy her silly argument because there will be thousands of people who loved that film and some who were happy they saw that thing in the theater. I mean, when she mentioned "Computer Chess" I thought it was going to be as an example of something that DIDN'T deserve to be in theaters (I happened to love it personally) not something that was a victim of the 'flood'. Sorry, this is just an insanely subjective argument. It is irrelevant. But what's serious is what this does for Dargis. It makes HER irrelevant.

  • LeonRaymond | January 9, 2014 9:35 PMReply

    Sounds to me like more Elite'ish White Supremacy crying. There are some awesome films that are made in Africa, Brazil, and of other cultures other than White -Lilly White. Why should they be hinged to be in New York Openings, Online showings would do, streamed from other parts of the country. Besides half the films she would review she would not understand since they would be way out of her White Tower view of what she would find good great or enjoyable!

  • mwblock | January 9, 2014 9:17 PMReply

    Occasionally a great film is produced by this process, some good films are produced and a lot of really bad films are produced. The gate keepers' role is to call our attention to those few great ones and some good ones. The rest of the time they need to have the courage to say, "less is better" and raise the bar higher. With 900+ films opening in New York City in 2014, it's likely there will be a lot of not very good films. The critics' role is to tell us which should live and which should die or just disappear.

  • Incremental Jones | January 9, 2014 9:03 PMReply

    Sorry, but have to agree with Dargis here. Films are too easy to make nowadays and quality has not increased with volume. Small and interesting isn't enough anymore, even for VOD. There are just too many titles to choose from and most of them are mediocre or amateurish at best. I am tired of all the poorly written or improvised movies made with limited skill. Mumblebore.

  • Incremental Jones | January 10, 2014 7:37 AM

    I said nowadays. I was obviously talking about the relative ease of making a film today as opposed to say 10-15 years ago when in addition to the base level of effort you would have had to additionally deal with labs and equipment houses, etc., not to mention higher budgets. It's even easier to find people to work on films. You can find cast and crew online.

    3,724 features submitted to Sundance five years ago. 4,057 this year. It used to be just a few hundred. Its been going up every year for decades because it is easier to make films now.

    Most of them belong on the shelf, not on public screens. It's not the fault of the filmmakers for not knowing their films are lackluster but of the buyers who pick them up. They belong in the slush pile where they can't dilute the culture.

  • Christopher Bell | January 10, 2014 1:34 AM

    Poorly written or not, improvised or not, mumblecore or not... films are NOT easy to make. So we have cheaper equipment? So what? Even the worst film takes a lot of time and a lot of effort from many, many people.

    Does that mean give them a pass and a pat on the back for effort? No, certainly not. But please, please: movies are not easy to make.

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