Running on empty
Distributors of art house cinema need to rethink their approach, writes Lynden Barber
SEEING independent movies at the cinema has been a dispiriting experience recently. Not because of the quality of the films — it has been the usual mixture of good, bad and mediocre — but because, unless you attend at peak times, it’s become alarmingly common to find yourself sitting in a cinema with fewer than 15 other people.
In a short period, I had the depressing experience of sitting in audiences of seven people ( for Cannes film festival prizewinner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days on its opening weekend), 11 ( Beatles musical Across the Universe ), four ( Death Proof ) and 14 ( for another Cannes prizewinner, Red Road ). True, the sessions were mostly on the traditionally quiet Sunday and Monday evenings and included titles never likely to attract big audiences. Nonetheless, it has been slightly creepy to see independent cinemas so consistently empty in the evening.
My subjective impression that we have entered a slump in art house and independent film- going is backed up by many in the business here and overseas. The Los Angeles Times recently proclaimed we are in an ‘‘ art house depression’’.
Antonio Zeccola, head of Palace Films and Palace Cinemas, one of Australia’s two key independent cinema and film distribution outfits ( the other being the Dendy chain), says the last 31/ months’ box office has been ‘‘ diabolical, not
2 just at Palace ( cinemas) but across the board’’, a result he puts down to lack of decent product.
But, at first glance, downbeat assessments seem contradicted by the recently released 2007 boxoffice figures. For limited- release films ( showing on fewer than 100 screens), the top three films were all foreign language titles — Swedish feelgood tale As It is in Heaven , French Edith Piaf biography La Vie en Rose and German Oscar- winner The Lives of Others — earned $ 2.6 million to $ 3 million, with the Spanishlanguage Oscar winner Pan’s Labyrinth accruing a healthy $ 2.1 million. Yet look more closely: two of those titles were released in 2006 ( Heaven and Pan’s ) while The Lives of Others debuted in March. With the exception of the Piaf biography, the picture for films released during the past nine months has been far less rosy.
Recent hits on independent screens — Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Death at a Funeral — are so close to the mainstream they are also screening at suburban multiplexes.
Madman Films managing director Paul Wiegard says there’s ‘‘ no question that films are having short lives on the big screen, with a couple of exceptions that have been celebrated just for the reason that they bucked the trend’’. Wiegard points to an apparent cap on box- office earnings for most specialist films of slightly more than $ 1 million, compared with the $ 2 million to $ 3 million earnings that breakout films used to reach. Documentaries, which had been running hot at the box office, have felt the chill wind too.
Another Australian independent film distributor, who asked not to be named, sees the issue as less about poor business than changes in patterns of consumption. Older audiences are flocking to middle- of- the- road films such as Heaven and the anti- slavery story Amazing Grace , while those aged 18 to 35 are staying at home surrounded by DVDs, plasma screen televisions and computer screens.
‘‘ True auteur cinema is disappearing faster than ever from our screens, whereas light, conservative fare is taking its place,’’ the executive says. ‘‘ The edgier titles simply don’t do as much business as they used to. Anything that skews young and cool we tend to avoid like the plague. Even well reviewed and- or credentialled titles like Shortbus or The Science of Sleep should have done better.’’
Los Angeles Times film reporter Patrick Goldstein wrote in November that ‘‘ something has gone horribly wrong in the specialty film business. Movies are dying left and right, with even the modest successes doing half of the business they used to do.’’ To explain the trend, he cited a glut of movies caused by ‘‘ dumbmoney’’ pouring into US independent films from Wall Street and a US citizenry depressed at the state of the nation and in the mood for the kind of uplift that independent movies tend not to traffic in.
Meanwhile, educated, up- scale audiences are being offered a wealth of well- written adult TV dramas screening on pay TV and DVD. Simon Killen, acquisitions manager for Melbournebased distributor Aztec International, reports huge sales for DVDs, especially boxed sets of TV series. ‘‘ I think that is an enormous factor,’’ he says of the drop in box office. Faced with ‘‘ the decision to risk it all on going to the cinema or watch a boxed set of The Sopranos , The Wire or Dexter ’’, people are choosing to stay at home.
Two leading British art house distributors, Tartan and Artificial Eye, have undergone structural changes recently in response to disappointing box- office results. The changes at Artificial Eye threatened to ‘‘ homogenise further the selection on offer in UK cinemas’’, commented film journal Sight & Sound.
British- based trade journal Screen International last month asked whether we were witnessing the death of art house cinema, observing that international sales companies that used to handle films from revered European directors were turning increasingly to cast- driven English language and genre fare.
Nobody knows if this is a short- term trend or part of a paradigm shift in which younger audiences are permanently turning away from cinema- going in favour of alternative media including DVD, pay TV, downloads and the internet. Zeccola is optimistic, pointing to an unusually strong slate of acclaimed specialist films due for release during the holiday season, including Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men and the Daniel Day- Lewis vehicle There Will be Blood . Hopscotch Films head Troy Lum is upbeat. ‘‘ There are always lags in the business but you have to ride them out,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t think it’s terminal.’’
What is certain is that whenever consumption shifts, business must change its behaviour. Recent years have seen a huge growth in the number of independent film distributors and hence the number of films being released; more, it would appear, than the market can sustain. Natalie Miller, joint owner of Melbourne’s Nova Cinema and head of distributor Sharmill Films, is spearheading a move to beam eight productions by New York’s Metropolitan Opera on to digital screens, a move with the potential to revolutionise the function of cinemas.
Meanwhile, it’s significant that As It is in Heaven is the highest earning foreign language film of 2007. Instead of releasing the film on several screens in every city — today’s standard, expensive method — distributor Paul Dravet initially opened it on a single screen in Sydney, the Cremorne Orpheum, which he also manages. The film was allowed to stay on long enough for positive word of mouth to get around.
Dravet’s campaign marks a return to patterns of distribution and exhibition that were common in the ’ 70s and early ’ 80s and whose decline has long been regretted by many film commentators. The future may look uncannily like the past.
One that hit the mark: Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck in a scene from The Lives of Others . The German film found a responsive audience in Australia