Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Problem With How Movies Are Released And Its Relation To Why Movie Criticism Sucks These Days

The New York Film Festival wrapped up this past weekend, and it made me realize that the current model of film distribution/presentation is at best antiquated and at worst totally stupid.

Festivals like NYFF play a lot of so-called "art-house films" (an anachronym if I've ever heard one; when's the last time you went to an "art house"?) and the way these get released to the public hasn't changed in decades: Play the festival circuit, then open in 4 theaters in NYC/LA, then maybe open in a few multiplexes, then a few more if the numbers are going in the right direction. Needless to say, unless the film is a hit, most people in the country have to wait until the video release to see these movies, which could happen a year or more after that initial festival screening.

This is dumb.

There are plenty of movies I'd like to see that were at NYFF, but I'll have to wait months for them to be available. Why are movies like this? With what other artistic medium are we prevented from experiencing the finished product for such a long time? Imagine if a novel was released and only people in New York City and LA could read it. Or if an album dropped and you could only listen to it at a certain venue at a certain time. These scenarios are preposterous, but for some reason are accepted when applied to film.

I propose a very simple idea: a movie gets one release date, and on this day it is released simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and Blu-ray, and through VOD services like iTunes. This is the omnipresent release strategy every other mainstream artistic medium has adopted in the 21st century, and movies are lagging behind with a severely outdated system.

What are the plausible reasons for keeping movie distribution the way it is now? Let's tackle each one:

"Movies cost so much that a lot of hype has to be built up about its release in order to make its money back."

Ok, assuming this is true, is the "platform" strategy really the best way for films to maximize its intake of money? One of the films I really wanted to see at NYFF this year was THE WIND RISES. Disney (or Disney-owned Miramax) has been in charge of the domestic distribution of all the Miyazaki films since PRINCESS MONONOKE and they’ve always employed a platforming strategy (film festivals, limited release, bigger release). What kind of lucre has this resulted in? Take a look….

Domestic grosses:


PONYO actually opened "wide" (927 theaters; SPIRITED AWAY topped out at 714 at its widest) and unsurprisingly grossed the most at 15 million. These are, frankly, piss-poor results. All this strategy has done is withhold the films from Miyazaki fans while Disney desperately tries (and fails) to convince other people to see something they don’t want to see. (Can you even think of another product with a publicity strategy that does everything to entice uninterested people at the expense of its actual fans?) And I’m sorry but you can't tell me that making the movie available to everyone in the US at once—in the form of $10 movie tickets, $20 Blu-rays, $7.99 VOD rentals—wouldn't result in more money. Maybe in the past the platforming strategy was necessary, but in our broadband connected world, this is not the case anymore. The acceptance of online streaming and emphasis on consumer choice has fundamentally changed the way we watch TV, and it's time for the same change to be made for movies.

"Movies were meant to be seen in a theater."

This is another thing that was true once, but no longer. Once theaters switched to digital projectors, they could no longer claim that they were offering a unique experience, or even a "correct" one. Everyone's home set-up now deals with the same pixels as movie theaters, with the same simulated 24fps. There is no more film being run through projectors with its dreamlike shutter clicking away—a moot point anyway since most movies aren't being shot on film. And consider this: The hot tech in movie theater video projection these days is 4K, a resolution that will be standard in consumer TVs within 2 years. Home presentation of movies isn't only "just as good" as theaters these days, it’s better. Besides, think about other media again. Does the music industry demand people listen to new music in optimal conditions, to preserve the “integrity” of the experience or whatever? No, they let people buy it (or stream it) and listen to it however they want, whether it's on vinyl coming out of gorgeous speakers, or hideously compressed mp3s coming out of $5 earbuds. Not only that, but everyone has accepted any of these options as legitimate means of consumption. Only those afflicted with the most distasteful snobbery would insist that someone who had only listened to an album in mp3 form hadn't actually listened to the album yet. And speaking of snobs, we come to a final reason movie distribution is the way it is....

"It allows a bunch of people to feel superior to others and write a bunch of meaningless reviews."

This seems to be the only real reason the current system is in place. (This and each individual festival's vested financial interest in keeping it going.) All these advance screenings allow the press and those in major cities to feel really special for a few months. Having attended a handful of advance screenings, I know this feeling well. There’s no question that if I lived in NYC, I’d have seen those films at NYFF. So, ultimately, I don't hold it against people for doing something I'd partake in given the opportunity.

That is, unless they write reviews immediately afterward.

Reviews of art should be a good-faith interaction between reviewer and reader. The sometimes elusive reason for writing is crystallized when writing a review; it is abundantly clear you are writing for another person, because only a "touched" person opines to nobody, to nothing but air. (Whereas in other forms of writing this distinction is a bit hazier: one might say that writing down the truth is eo ipso "of worth," regardless whether anyone is reading it, cf. Hemingway's definition of good fiction being one true sentence after another....But I seriously digress.)

So when it comes to reviews of a movie that played at a film festival 24 hours ago, it invites the question: who could these early reviews possibly be for? When someone reviews a movie that 99% of the people who want to see the movie won't watch it for months, what's the point? What good is writing a review of HER now? The truth is that that person is writing the review solely for other film critics, trying to impress them and appear cool to everyone else. It's no wonder that film critics these days seem more cloistered and snobby than ever.

Of course, the critic can rebut that people will be able to track down his review after they've seen the movie (in 4+ months).  My response to that is: If the audience for your piece isn't going to read it for 4 months, why not write it 4 months from now? I think we’d all agree that time spent on almost anything—especially writing—makes that thing better. But the fact is your average movie critic places a premium on being first to comment on something and to make some sort of judgment, and this rush to add to the noise comes at the expense of insightful, considered writing.

A concrete example of this: I watched UPSTREAM COLOR on blu-ray, about five months after its premiere at the Sundance film festival. I was struck by the movie and wanted to write something that would contribute to the discussion. I wrote an essayish thing that concentrated on something very narrow: The similarities it shared with Kieslowski’s BLUE. Now, a quick Google search reveals that I wasn’t the first one to notice these similarities. Ray Pride, writing for Movie City News, wrote about it right after he saw the movie at Sundance. The thing is, he briefly mentioned it and moved on. My piece was 1,700 words and offered a far more detailed look.

Now maybe Mr. Pride didn’t have anything else on the subject. If I had to guess, he was just citing all the allusions he could remember as quickly as possible in order to be the first to do so, which is something that all film critics do these days. But here we are, not even a year removed from Sundance, and people looking for more information on this particular connection don’t really care about a brief mention by someone just trying to meet a deadline. My blog post is rightly at the top of the search results on the subject.

I’m not even saying my piece is particularly great. I’m not a film historian or anything. (This is not false modesty; I thought the essay would be a lot better when I first began it but quickly found that I lacked the in-depth knowledge required to make it truly incisive.) But it is a hell of a lot more developed than Mr. Pride’s cursory mention. Of course, I had many advantages that Mr. Pride didn’t: I was able to see the movie more than once, revisit certain scenes, and use screencaps to support my thesis. Having the Blu-ray as a reference was overwhelmingly useful when sitting down to write a critical piece, and I found myself with the same benefits typically afforded those who write critically about other art forms. I had the movie available to me in the same way music critics have the album they’re writing about on hand.

In a way, how silly is it that most movie reviewers watch a movie exactly once and don’t go back over it at all before writing their reviews? Imagine a music critic listening to an album exactly one time, or a book reviewer not having the book around to either quote from or double-check a reference. Put simply: how insightful can we expect film critics to be after only one viewing?

Someone arguing this might point out that critics have been operating this way since time immemorial. And some of them were quite good. Pauline Kael—who notoriously refused to see a movie more than once—wrote some of the best film criticism of all time, dropping insight that is still valuable to read today. And she did it on a weekly basis.

Well, I hate to break it to all you contemporary film critics: None of you are Pauline Kael. She was a one-of-a-kind genius, a brilliant writer who just happened to write film criticism. Kael should not be regarded as just another critic with an innate ability shared with lots of other critics, but rather as an outlier with the uncanny ability to be both perspicacious and illuminating, all under a time crunch. Not everyone can do what she did, in fact she might be the only one who could do what she did. Which is why most critics would be better served waiting a few months and really thinking about a review they will feel a lot more responsibility for, since many more people will be reading it.

The public discourse about film these days reeks of some kind of weird elitism. Upon a worthwhile movie's release, there always seems to be a sharp division between people who have already seen it months ago at some film festival or during a limited release in NYC/LA and those who are getting the opportunity to see it for the first time. For better or worse, any voice can be disseminated as easily as the next, and those who see movies first have the opportunity to not only drive the discussion but exhaust it as well, so that by the time a film is available to 99% of the population, it feels stale and stripped of relevance.

It’s because of this situation that film is no longer a cultural touchstone. For something to be important to a culture, it has to have the participation of the culture. It has to be readily available to be experienced and discussed with other people. Without that wide involvement with the general public, we are left with a small group of self-styled arbiters of taste who do nothing but make facile judgments in an attempt to seem cool to others in their group.

This is a real shame because film criticism is very important. Good criticism shows us the way to great art. The passionate critics of the Cahiers du Cinema made us see Hollywood stalwarts like Hitchcock and Ray in a new light, and critics like Kael explicated the value of the Nouvelle Vague.

With no genius critic in sight, I suppose all we can do is implore the current crop of critics to take more time to write their criticism, in the perhaps futile hope that they get better. It would also help to change the mindset that has made writing about movies nothing more than a way to advertise how cool one is. A lot of critics just need to stop writing, stop talking, and stop thinking about movies altogether. Of course, you won’t be able to tell this to the people who truly love cinema. But it’s also easy to convince yourself you love movies when in reality all you love is the feeling of talking before anyone else can get a word in. If all you care about is when review embargoes are lifted, that's a good indication of where your true interest lies. Also, I would ask all the critics or wannabe critics who attended NYFF this question: If every movie you saw was available to everyone in the country on that day, either in the theater or on a Blu-ray disc or as a download, would you still have seen it? If the answer is “no”—or even if there is the slightest hesitation on your part—then I would say you should get really introspective for a minute and be prepared to confront some truths about yourself you might not like.