Epic screenings a test of endurance
Five-hour Carlos trimmed for Calgary
In this day of dwindling attention spans and hand-wringing over opening-weekend box office figures, it’s hard to imagine film distributors having much luck pitching the biopic Carlos to mainstream theatre chains as director Olivier Assayas first envisioned it.
In its full glory, the Golden Globe-winning epic about the rise and fall of Venezuelan terrorist Carlos The Jackal is five-and-a-half hours long. It’s in eight languages.
When it was shown in theatres, it required two intermissions.
So it’s hardly surprising that the general theatregoing public will not be seeing this version, which was initially made as a miniseries airing over three nights on French TV. For most cities, the film has been snipped down to a relatively svelte 168 minutes. That is the version that will open in Calgary this Friday at the Globe Cinema, although the original has been screened at film festivals and at least one theatre in Toronto, presenting an interesting dilemma for the film’s Canadian distributor.
“It is a challenging film to distribute,” admits Tom Alexander, director of theatrical releasing for Mongrel Media.
“We had to figure out strategically, well in advance of when we were opening the film, how we were going to balance two different versions of the film,” says Alexander.
“Would there be audiences clamouring to see the long version and in what context? As opposed to other audiences who might want to see the shorter version. Is the shorter version more accessible? Is the longer version a better film? Which version do we screen for critics?”
In the end, the five-and-a-halfhour Carlos was reserved for festivals and for a short run at the new Bell Lightbox, the Toronto Film Festival’s official venue that was thought to be best suited for attracting the sort of diehard art-house crowd that would sit through a five-hour-plus film.
This decision may have been at least partially influenced by the box office fortunes of 2008’s Che, another epic biopic that was screened in its 268-minute entirety at the Cannes Film Festival before being divided up into two separate films. Mongrel did not distribute the Spanish-French coproduction.
But Che Part I and Che Part II would often screen as a double feature, testing the resolve of even the most devoted of foreign-film fans.
Neil Campbell, chief operating officer of Calgary-based Landmark Cinemas, doubts many chains would have jumped at the long version of Carlos. Even theatres that are dedicated to art house fare, such as Landmark’s Globe Cinema, would not be able to justify screening such a behemoth, he says.
“That’s too long a marathon for the movie goer,” he says. “They’ve tried it before and it has not worked well. We played Episode 1 (of Che) and then we’d play Episode 2. To get people to come out once to a theatre in a seven-day period is doing just fine. Asking them to come twice, that was pushing it. People’s lives are way busier than they ever were.”
Formed in 1994, Mongrel Media has specialized in getting foreign, independent, Canadian and documentaries into Canadian theatres. Alexander says it is never an easy sell in today’s crowded film market to convince an exhibitor to
To see a fiveand-a-half-hour film in the theatre is an event in itself. TOM ALEXANDER, MONGREL MEDIA
screen something that may take weeks or months to build an audience.
But while foreign film may increasingly have a tough time finding a mainstream audience, the attendance at many film festivals is actually on the rise.
This suggests people may take a chance on a film if it presented as more of an event than simply a night at the cineplex, Alexander says.
“That was the thinking behind taking the long version of Carlos and putting it at a venue like the Bell Lightbox, to give it the aura of an event,” Alexander says. “To see a five-and-half-hour film in the theatre is an event in itself. It’s not something that happens every day.”
Pete Harris, manager of the Plaza Theatre in Kensington, agrees. The Plaza, which hosts numerous film festivals throughout the year, has a decidedly playful side to its programming that suggests devoted filmgoers are game for lengthy visits to the theatre.
This past Sunday, it held a triple bill of films based on Stieg Larsson’s books, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Girl Who Played with Fire and the Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Next. It ran from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m.
A recent showing of all three extended versions of The Lord of the Rings ran for 11-and-a-half hours. The Calgary Cinematheque have also held experiments in marathon viewing at the Plaza, including a showing in 2008 of Andy Warhol’s 1964 Molasses-paced curio Empire. Granted, only three viewers managed to last the entire eight hours, Harris says.
“Obviously, non-stop lengthy films or double-features would be counter to business as it stands today with the world’s shorter attention span,” Harris says. “However, in a city of a million plus, counter film programming is always needed. . . . These are the kind of screenings that can bring much-needed attention to the year-round programming.”