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The Wagging Finger of Death

By S.T. VanAirsdale

I needed a couple of days to think about Anthony Kaufman's new Village Voice piece Crowded House before I wrote about it. There's a lot there to unpack: a movie glut in Manhattan art houses is indiscriminately thrusting wheat, chaff and even some fertilizer at filmgoers; distributors are frustrated that sub-par day-and-date releases are occupying real estate where modestly successful foreign and indie titles should be having extended runs; IFC's vertical integration is undermining the theatrical experience; Kaufman blogging afterward that The Voice sucks but, hey, the checks clear... Where to begin?

I still don't know, really. What I do know is that I've never been that fond of Ma Kaufman telling me what's good for me, from trend-fishing among the "Romanian New Wave" to pitting "cloggers" vs. critics to his professed distaste for "corporate bully" Mark Cuban (whom -- surprise! -- Kaufman's piece scolds as well). It's all so shrill, reductive and predictable. A "progressive athiest" by his own admission, he nevertheless pines for the good old days of art-house sanctuary, where foreign cinema flourished in theaters on seemingly every city block and indie distributors had yet to concern themselves with the X-factors of DVD's, the Web, video-on-demand, multiplexes, conglomeration, etc. etc. Or least the days before IFC Center came a-rapin' NYC film culture with its scandalous First Take slate, a group of titles released simultaneously on theatrical screens as well as on VOD:

The service provides an innovative and arguably financially viable way for IFC to distribute art cinema, but it also floods the marketplace with more movies -- some of which are terrific films that deserve theatrical exposure, such as Ken Loach's Cannes winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Shane Meadows's recent This Is England. But others -- Alone With Her, Snow Cake, Unknown -- do not, and only serve to crowd an already saturated marketplace. To be fair, determining what "deserves" a theatrical release is largely subjective (though trust me on Unknown), and First Take's 2008 lineup, which includes a litany of Cannes winners and granddaddy auteurs, is better than its first year's -- but that still doesn't help with the sheer mass of titles hitting the market.

For those of you who turned the page after this passage, you missed some follow-up IFC Center money quotes from Sony Classics' Tom Bernard ("It's a promotional item for television day-and-date broadcasting, and it puts films in the market that are not up to standard.") and Zeitgeist's Emily Russo ("There are just too many releases, many of which are not justifiable theatrical releases, and that's where the squeeze comes in."). Earlier in the piece, ThinkFilm's Mark Urman more generally lamented some of his own titles falling by the wayside elsewhere after relatively successful one- or two-week runs.

But I'm still confused: Why is this IFC's fault? Sure, Kaufman rarely passes up an opportunity to oversimplify about anyone or anything that threatens his idealism; you could see this thwack coming last year when he named IFC Films as an accomplice in The Weinstein Company's "killing" of his beloved Wellspring. (Of course, as Kaufman writes this week in The Voice, TWC is opening this fall's anticipated indies I'm Not There and Control at Film Forum). The IFC First Take model was as suspect then as it is now, evidently despite its subsequent stateside releases of films by Hou Hsiou-hsien, Catherine Breillat, Alain Resnais, Cristian Mungiu, Lars Von Trier and scads of other foreign auteurs. Micro-budget filmmakers like Julia Loktev and Joe Swanberg -- whose endangered status Kaufman noted earlier this year in Filmmaker -- made it out of festival eternity with their respective First Take pick-ups Day Night Day Night and Hannah Takes the Stairs. Five months ago Kaufman called Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, the Duplass brothers et. al. "the SXSW All-Stars" and "the hippest filmmaking posse in town"; last week he warned on his blog, "If these films are hyped, they may be doomed."

Lord knows I'm not here to ride IFC's jock, which is kind of the point: What's with the agenda, Kaufman? Is it just huge-ass, vertically integrated corporations like IFC and Landmark/Magnolia/HDNet that offend your sensibility? Because certainly that's a different issue than who will ask Tom Bernard how SPC determined The Quiet was a smart addition between triumphs like Volver and The Lives of Others, or why Zeitgeist didn't think twice about booking Manufactured Landscapes for a second run at IFC Center after Film Forum rotated it out, or how a challenger like ThinkFilm, with its dynamite DVD library and marketing savvy, required art house stopovers for dreck like Looking For Kitty and Loverboy. I thought progressives were optimists who embrace new platforms while keeping an eye out for the little guy, not holier-than-thou reactionaries clinging to the past.

Maybe the larger issue is not too few screens for too many movies, but too many distributors whose gatekeeping mechanisms -- let alone their release platforms -- need repair. There absolutely are too many bad films being made, bought and foisted upon audiences that can afford less and less to visit the cinema in the first place. But they're everywhere, as though the laws of supply and demand were suspended below 14th Street. And for theaters without the community constituencies of the Quad, the Pioneer or even Film Forum, programming is branding; for better or worse, films like those on the First Take slate and in the Generation DIY series are what you get at IFC Center, with a few Killer of Sheeps and Inland Empires thrown in for good measure. Opening new theaters in Park Slope or the Upper East Side would only be "a license to print money" (as Bernard tells Kaufman) in as much as it's a destination for something other than what casual filmgoers -- not Kaufman's idealized cinephiles, which are themselves a dying breed in NYC -- would rather look for on DVD or cable three or four months down the road.

Or, in my own dream world, online and on demand. But God -- and Anthony Kaufman -- forbid such outlets compromise the sanctity of the theater. This is New York, after all; someone has to be bitching about something.

Posted at August 30, 2007 9:16 AM

Comments (6)

And how does one expect Lincoln Center's redesign to affect things? They're adding what, another 2 theaters or so to compliment the Walter Reade? What other plans could they have other than to feature first runs?...

How did SPC determined The Quiet was a smart addition to their slate?

What, haven't you seen Elisha Cuthbert?

Much ado about nothing, both you and Kaufman.

You're both acting like censors, not critics: you're trying to mandate what everyone else should be able to see, and what they should not.

And as far as going after IFC Center, or whatever, neither of you is doing anything of the sort. You're keeping the entire discussion focused on IFC and 2929/Magnolia/Cuban, with a little bit of Film Forum mixed in for authenticity or whatever.

Just more blah blah blah.

Stop being censors.

Start being critics.


I don't agree or disagree, Stu, but this is awfully personal coming from the guy who spends more time throttling IFC press releases than anyone else I know... haha.

To be fair, I think Anthony is right in some respects; We need to preserve the theatrical experience (which he never says outright in the article). That said, when has it ever been an ideal place, showing only "great" films? The idea is, I think, that indie distributors are always covering their bets with libraries, DVD and (in the case of HDNet and IFC) vertical integration and the marketplace will be the final judge and jury of overall success for them. For critics and people who love movies, its up to us to separate "wheat from the chaff" as you say. That is what being a film-goer is all about. As I said in my own response to Anthony's piece, "most of the films that make it to a theater deserve to be there simply because a distributor and a theater programmer are assuming some financial risk in placing them there. That is the standard; The market and critics then compete to decide the relative merits of the movies themselves."

So, I agree with you that there is no harm and no foul in putting out crap. That said, I really do think Mark Urman (no pun intended) is right when he talks about NYC being under-screened. There has always been shit, and there has always been a competitive environment for screen space. Its just easier to make and see shit now.

Dear Anonymouse--

Two things, and I'll keep them short because I know who you are and we've had this discussion before; I'd hate to repeat myself at other readers' expense. But maybe I can clear up a few things for others as well:

1) Grow a pair and either direct your complaints to me privately or sign your name. This isn't Ain't it Cool News.

2) The censor thing doesn't deserve comment, but you'll be waiting a looooong time before I become a critic. I write news and I comment on issues, some more important than others. In any event, the *last* thing I am is the custodian responsible for brushing the chip off your shoulder. It's not my problem.


Thanks for this. Kaufman's article pissed me off tremendously, mainly because it seemed written out of discomfort with the corporate ownership of an increasing amount independent film than from any actual problems posed by the IFC Center.
I also happen to love seeing films at IFC- those are freakin' couches, man, and I love any place with real butter on its popcorn.

I think what pissed me off most was that I have a hard time seeing Zeitgeist's Emily Russo intending her comment as a direct spank on the IFC Center, as Kaufman implies. The quote ("There are just too many releases, many of which are not justifiable theatrical releases, and that's where the squeeze comes in") is entirely plausible; it is only if she is saying this specifically about IFC that it gets questionable. I don't know why, but I doubt this- she's a bright woman.

Anyway, thanks. I really didn't like that piece.

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