Run­ning on empty

Dis­trib­u­tors of art house cin­ema need to re­think their approach, writes Lyn­den Bar­ber

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

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

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