A.O. Scott wrote an uncharacteristically inane piece for The New York Times over the weekend. If you’re reading this after the brief period of free online access, it’s basically about why nobody watches artsy, miserabilist foreign films in U.S. theaters anymore. But it’s based on really shaky ideas, starting with the title: “The World is Watching. Not Americans.” Is that the case? Are we just ignorant Americans being force-fed entertainment like “Superman Returns?” When I was living in Berlin they were playing a LOT of blockbuster American films dubbed into German. Original German-language productions seemed like the exception rather than the rule. Obviously that’s just one example, but I find it hard to believe that downers like “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” outsell “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” in Romania.
The fact is, there is a problem with U.S. film distribution, but The New York Times deserves a fair portion of the blame. A small independent or foreign film has a very large hurdle to overcome if it wants any success in the U.S. theatrical market. It’s a good review in The New York Times. Without that review, you’re out of luck. You might be able to limp through a few screens for a week or two, but without the support of a Roger Ebert (who’s not going to like your movie either) you’re screwed. Nobody’s going to go out during the one or two weekends your movie plays to 1/4 full houses. It’s not fun.
But you know what is fun? Discovering a hidden gem on Netflix or at your local video store, if you still have one. It’s cheap, the soundtrack doesn’t have to compete with the subway (Angelika Theater, I’m looking in your direction) and you don’t feel bad if there’s an empty seat or two in your living room.
Unfortunately for filmmakers and distributors, you can’t skip the theatrical release without looking like a loser. If your film goes straight to video, you can’t get that review in The New York Times because they won’t review it, even if it’s one of A.O. Scott’s fabled brilliant pieces of cinema that distributors are too scared to release. You need a week-long run in New York to get yourself on their sacred pages. A run which is guaranteed to lose money in the short term.
Sure, things might have seemed better in the old days when the only way to see difficult films was at the art house, but Netflix and Amazon (and brave DVD distributors) have made things better than ever. If you live outside of a major metropolitan area, you can actually watch these movies now. And they are inevitably released on DVD in some format, so you can find them even if they don’t get the publicity of a theatrical release. A.O. Scott is really lementing the death of the arthouse, not the diminishing demand for arthouse films. They’re out there A.O., they’re just not at The Film Forum anymore.
Update: Mahnola Dargis wrote an article a few days before A.O. Scott’s that outlines the alternative distribution methods distributors are trying. It’s informative and on the right track. Do the NYT critics read each other’s articles?