Indie films find a new home: Yours

The Washington Post - - THE WEATHER - Ann Hor­na­day

Show of hands: Who’s plan­ning to see this week­end’s big movie?

That was a trick ques­tion. Be­cause with screens get­ting smaller, choices get­ting wider and au­di­ences get­ting nar­rower, the en­tire no­tion of “big movie” has be­come ex­po­nen­tially more dif­fi­cult to de­fine.

No doubt, such world­wide be­he­moths as “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Fate of the Fu­ri­ous” count as big movies, if only in def­er­ence to their bud­gets, spec­ta­cle and widerang­ing ap­peal. But a glance at some of this week­end’s new re­leases re­veals how, with Hol­ly­wood de­pend­ing ever more heav­ily on re­makes and se­quels, and stream­ing ser­vices such as Net­flix and Ama­zon be­com­ing play­ers in the art-house space, the pro­por­tions of mod­ern films — the am­bi­tion with which they’re made and their ul­ti­mate size and scale on the screen — have be­come in­creas­ingly fluid.

There was a time when “Un­for­get­table,” the psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller star­ring Kather­ine Heigl and Rosario Daw­son, would eas­ily count as this week­end’s big movie. But, from con­cept to ex­e­cu­tion, the tale of a jeal­ous ex-wife and the new bride she ter­ror­izes is puny in­deed — a grim, hope­lessly ret­ro­grade por­trait of toxic fem­i­nin­ity and neu­rotic sex­ual jeal­ousy. Al­though a few cu­ri­ous on­look­ers might want to see how Heigl is far­ing in her at­tempt to rein­vent her­self as a post-rom­com hero­ine (hint: not well), early track­ing sug­gests

that film­go­ers will most likely re­ject “Un­for­get­table,” de­spite the name recog­ni­tion of its ac­tors.

Mean­while, a “smaller” movie with far greater artis­tic as­pi­ra­tions is open­ing, not in the­aters, but on Net­flix, which has ag­gres­sively been scoop­ing up in­de­pen­dent films to pro­duce and dis­trib­ute. Along with “Rod­ney King,” Spike Lee’s film of Roger Guen­veur Smith’s one-man show, and the Iraq War drama “Sand Cas­tle,” today the ser­vice will start stream­ing “Tramps,” a play­ful love-on-the­lam ro­mance by Adam Leon. With its nods to the likes of the French New Wave, its bravura cam­er­a­work and fleet, as­sured edit­ing, “Tramps” is a lively, high-spir­ited crowd-pleaser. It played well at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, where it made its de­but and where Net­flix pur­chased it for a re­ported $2 mil­lion. But de­spite Leon’s cin­e­matic sen­si­bil­ity and high-minded as­pi­ra­tions, he’s fine with his film not be­ing seen in the­aters. What was once the holy grail for young film­mak­ers — hav­ing their work shown on the big screen — has now given way to plat­form-neu­tral re­al­ism.

Leon, who grew up in New York, ad­mits that he har­bored the the­atri­cal dreams for his first film, the 2012 ca­per com­edy “Gimme the Loot.” And those dreams came true: The film wound up play­ing in more than 50 the­aters through­out the coun­try. But for “Tramps,” he said in a re­cent tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion, “it was go­ing to be a ma­jor chal­lenge to get crowds into the the­ater. And the re­al­ity is that most peo­ple would end up see­ing it on a stream­ing ser­vice any­way.”

When Net­flix bought “Tramps” in Septem­ber, Leon cried with re­lief that he could make his in­vestors whole, and that the pres­sure of fill­ing the­aters was lifted. De­spite his con­fi­dence in the film, Leon ob­served, “It’s far from a slam dunk. There are no known quan­ti­ties, it’s not a hor­ror movie, it doesn’t fea­ture the Rock. There are no TV ac­tresses tak­ing off their clothes. But on VOD, some­one will buy it.”

Leon’s sen­ti­ments were echoed by Ma­con Blair, whose movie “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Any­more” opened the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val in Jan­uary be­fore go­ing di­rectly to Net­flix. Blair had tried to get fi­nanc­ing for the se­ri­o­comic thriller for about a year, but was un­able to coax fa­mous-enough ac­tors to sat­isfy stu­dios and in­vestors. When he made the deal with Net­flix, he said, the com­pany sup­ported his choice of Melanie Lynskey and Eli­jah Wood for the lead roles, and completely left him alone while film­ing.

“Yeah, it would be rad to get your movie into the­aters, but ei­ther the movie hap­pens or it doesn’t hap­pen,” Blair said philo­soph­i­cally. “And, if it does hap­pen, not only does it hap­pen, it gets to hap­pen with this huge amount of cre­ative con­trol with the ac­tors you want, and they to­tally stay out of your hair.”

Thanks to rec­om­men­da­tion al­go­rithms and sub­scriber data, Net­flix is able to make sure that films such as “Tramps” and “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Any­more” get in front of view­ers who are likely to en­joy them — and, more cru­cially, to tell their friends that they en­joyed them. (The com­pany doesn’t make its view­ing sta­tis­tics pub­lic.) It’s the same model used by Ama­zon’s Video Di­rect ser­vice, on which such di­rect-to-stream­ing movies as “The Break-In” and “Black Field” have found im­pres­sive au­di­ences, purely on the ba­sis of the site’s if-you-liked-this-you’ll­like-that user in­ter­face.

Th­ese are all films that, had they em­barked on tra­di­tional the­atri­cal runs, most likely would have ul­ti­mately lost money. For them, a streamin­gonly run isn’t a mat­ter of fore­closed ex­pec­ta­tions, but right­siz­ing. As Joe Swan­berg, whose movie “Win It All” is on Net­flix, put it, “No film­maker dreams of a half-empty the­ater on a Wed­nes­day night.”

There are still films that de­mand to be seen in the­aters — films like “The Lost City of Z,” which opens through­out the coun­try on Fri­day. A sprawl­ing, vis­ually lush epic about the Bri­tish ex­plorer Percy Fawcett and his at­tempts to un­cover a lost civ­i­liza­tion in the Bo­li­vian jun­gle, “The Lost City of Z” is the kind of sen­si­tive, sweep­ing ad­ven­ture tale that evokes such names as David Lean, Ter­rence Mal­ick and Werner Her­zog. It was even made on old-fash­ioned 35mm film.

Thank­fully, “Lost City of Z’s” par­ent stu­dio, Ama­zon, is giv­ing it a strong the­atri­cal run be­fore stream­ing it later this year. (Ama­zon founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Jef­frey P. Be­zos owns The Wash­ing­ton Post.) As Gray ob­served at the New York Film Fes­ti­val pre­miere, this is pre­cisely the kind of film that stu­dios used to make and should still be making. Now ad­dicted to se­quels and du­bi­ous star ve­hi­cles like “Un­for­get­table,” they’ve handed the ba­ton to smaller out­lets and stream­ing ser­vices adept at know­ing which movies are meant to be seen on the big screen, and which are just as well-served by by­pass­ing the­aters en­tirely, and meet­ing au­di­ences where they are. It’s an ethic that a new gen­er­a­tion of film­mak­ers is em­brac­ing with­out com­plain­ing.

“I had a pro­found mo­ment about a year ago,” Swan­berg re­called. “Sud­denly the idea that we booked a room with seats fixed to the floor and set screen­ings at Tues­day at 6:15 p.m. and ex­pected peo­ple to come to this room and pay money and sit down seemed so ar­chaic to me. I had this shock­ing mo­ment of, ‘Oh my God, this doesn’t make sense.’ ”


Grace Van Pat­ten and Cal­lum Turner in “Tramps,” a play­ful ro­mance movie that opens on Net­flix in­stead of in the­aters.

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