06 mai 2010

Second Class Film Distribution

If the audience was the first and only one voting for the popularity of films, I would trust the "invisible hand of the free market" (supply/demand direct self-regulation, if such thing is conceivable for cultural goods)... unfortunately, films are pushed into a niche depending on preconceived formats and speculations. There are films born under a lucky star, because they are engineered since the start to become an easygoing mainstream commodity that will fit all. Ultimately successful or not at the Box Office, they will enjoy the easy life, every step of the way, thanks to money and an influential protection.
Then there are the underdogs. Not only they struggle with a Spartan budget, and a less appealing final product due to cheaper production value, but once the film is all done, they also have to face a second class distribution that is sure to bury them. When you make an art-film, a challenging film, a non-conventional film (or even a commercial drama or documentary in a foreign language) the maximum audience base that it could reach in theory is already much more limited than any mainstream drama. This is an empirical fact : people interested in mainstream entertainment will always outnumber the art film scene. That's how humanity works, there is more demand for distraction than for pure culture. Nothing wrong with that, and we can't blame the press for not attracting enough public...
Even if admissions were free, and every potential viewer was available and willing, this maximum niche would still be in minority, even for the greatest films. In fact it is generally the opposite we expect. The movies attracting the most comprehensive audience are usually rather mediocre artistically. But it's OK. I respect this law of the market, each get the popularity they deserve. And art doesn't require the democratic majority to leave a mark in history.

However, what bothers me is when the market is forged artificially to favor a certain class of movies and intentionally undermines the self-limited success of other films. Even if this corruption of the system is more or less legal, by way of injecting amounts of money that smaller producers/distributors could never match, it is unfairly killing a competition that couldn't even claim a dangerous share of the cake under ideal conditions.

Why refuse an equal chance to reach the audience to all films? The audience will make a free choice and each film will get the audience share their popularity/quality deserves. Art films are not stealing any sizeable audience share from the big blockbusters, so why deny them an accessible distribution, for the sake of cultural diversity?

1st Class
(anything by major studios, mainstream appeal, formulaic format, TV-cast compliant)
2nd class
(Independent projects, Non-domestic imports, Documentaries, Short films, Experimental cinema)
  • Lose censorship board certification (complacent) Less restriction, bigger demographic allowed in
  • Harsh censorship board certification (discriminatory) more restrictions, smaller demographic allowed in
  • Comprehensive nationwide marketing, 2-6 months ahead (TV, mainstream press, radio, WWW, specialized press, billboards...)
  • Limited, regional marketing, 1 week ahead of release
    (specialized press, few blogs)
  • Quick release, scheduled far ahead
  • Delayed release, long time after the post-production is completed, always subject to last minute postponed date without re-scheduling
  • Public/commercial release
    open to everyone, everywhere
  • Discreet release
    Festival circuit only, for professionals, or at selected art-houses, cinémathèques, in capital cities only
  • Plethoric numbers of prints to flood the market on 1st weekend (>1000 prints) many version available for accessibility (dubbed, subbed, and original)
  • Few prints, circulated around on the circuit, degrading the projection over time.
    (only subbed version or original)
  • Worldwide simultaneous distribution
    (critical mass of screens, optimisaion of the initial marketing buzz, global zeitgeist vibe)
  • Local distribution
    (limited release, few cities, few screens, spaced out tour circuit)
  • Widest screens, largest auditoriums, best sound quality, proximity, accessibility
  • Smaller, older screens, tiny, older theatres, far away, poor sound quality, poor print quality (due to their scarcity)
  • Longer theatrical run if successful
    (most numbers of shows per day and per week and per year) Take-the-money-and-run carpet bombing that outshines everything else around
  • Expeditive, fragile theatrical run if survives the 1st weekend (1 or 2 weeks without special aids, or a dedicated commitment of non-profit oriented exhibitors)
  • Quick DVD release (to benefit from the theatrical buzz and marketing investments), marketing as big for DVD than for theatrical release (junket, TV, advertising)
  • Direct-to-video (skipping the public theatrical screenings) or DVD imports only (not distributed locally) or DVD release incognito (only mentioned in few specialised press, blogs)

At the very least, the standard ticket price, equal for every show and every film, is one of the most fundamental basis for the democratisation of film culture. It's not because they are rare that we pay more to see them. It's not because their budget is bigger than they charge us more. Unfortunately this equal footing at the box office is changing, with the 3D shows, the Imax shows, the gala screenings...

This alternative market isn't marginal because only unpopular or unsuccessful films are herded there. The commercial circuit is full of flops! And commercial flops get the same fair distribution scope as blockbusters.
The artfilm market is marginal because it is marginalised in its very conception, before the films get a chance to seduce an audience and become popular and successful and profitable. There are great art films, mass-appeal gems, that are buried in this second class distribution route just because they were not endorsed by the "commercial system".

All this contributes to make an originally small potential audience even smaller, by discouraging the expecting fans, by killing the buzz, by tiring out the anticipation, by denying visibility, by outshining its publicity, by giving a worse experience to the few who eventually make it to a screening.

The mainstream fans have it easy, everything comes directly to them without any effort.
The artfilm fans need a lot of efforts and patience and attention to catch the rare screenings available... when the films are available at all.
This is not fair.

Of course, film critics don't care about that, cause they have their private press screenings, junket invitations, gala screenings, they go to festivals, or more generally live in an active cinéphile city... these are privileges that the widest majority of their readers don't enjoy!

In a society supporting the development of culture and protecting its easy access, we should never let money become a factor in the visibility of work of art! Either because it costs more to make for the smaller filmmakers, or because its underdog distribution is treated unfairly, or because it costs more (in time and money and effort) to the audience to pick one film over another one. These conditions leave the market decide what type of culture gets a chance to touch and influence the population. Big studios choose what popular culture will be, and they choose to dumb it down. The cinephile culture is condemned, under these circumstances, to stay a rarity reserved to the elite and the privileged. It is a minority, but it shouldn't be a ghetto.

7 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

Roger Ebert (1981, Sundance) : about the distribution system and the audience's taste in the USA

"The big studios and the big movies dominate play dates on most of the nation's movie screens, and there are only a handful of houses in most cities that will even consider booking a "specialized" film. Some 45 theater owners, bookers and distributors sat in the bright sunlight in the meadow at Sundance and agreed, almost without discussion, that:

- There are only seven or eight cities in North America in which a "specialized film" can get a decent booking and have any chance of a good run. They are New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco and, surprisingly, Seattle, which is the best city in the country to open a movie that's out of the ordinary.

- College campuses used to supply large audiences for foreign, art and underground movies, but these days the kids go for action blockbust ers like "The Empire Strikes Back," just like everybody else.

- Big chains are completely uninterested in booking offbeat films. Like supermarkets, they're concerned only with the turnstile. Chains with four- or six-screen multiplex the aters don't even consider booking one of the screens with specialized films.

- Unless it's a rare breakthrough like "La Cage Aux Folles," foreign films are up against a wall at the American box office. There are only about 100 theaters in America that will book a serious, subtitled film, even if it's by Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini.

- There is still a market for specialized films among local and campus film societies, but the backbone of that market, rental of movies in 16-mm. prints, is being under-minded by the widespread and illegal practice of videotaping movies and then showing them on video cassettes instead of renting them again. (Almost every campus in the country rips off films that way, it was agreed; even, though they're break ing the law.)

- Exhibitors talked about the "strong want -to-see" factor that fuels blockbuster hits like "Superman II," contrasting it with the curious "desire not to see" that handicaps specialized films. The average moviegoer is under 25. Ten or fifteen years ago, young moviegoers were more enthusiastic about offbeat, anti-establishment independent and foreign films. Now they are much more conformist. More sophisticated big- city teen-agers who once attended films by Jean-Luc Godard have now regressed to the level of "Friday the 13th, Part II." Today's young filmgoers have a herd instinct and are reluctant to take a chance. In a sense, they "wear" movies like they wear clothes, attend ing a movie that their fashion-sense suggests will look good on them."

via Scanners

HarryTuttle a dit…

Woody Allen (Cannes 2010 press conference) recognizes that he doesn't like the films distributed domestically in the USA, and that he prefers to watch foreign films, from Mexico, Latin America, Iran... and that he knows that very few are bought by American distributors!

HarryTuttle a dit…

Roger Ebert (19 May 2010), commercial TV critic par excellence, is more concerned about art cinema than the art-cinema magazines like Film comment or Sight & Sound! :

"We should start a Campaign for Real Movies. These also would not be carbonated by CGI or 3D. They would be carefully created by artists, from original recipes, i.e., screenplays. Each movie would be different. There would be no effort to force them into conformity with commercial formulas. [..]

These aren't all masterpieces, although some are, but they're all Real Movies. None follows a familiar story arc. All involve intense involvement with their characters. All do something that is perhaps the most important thing a movie can do: They take us outside our personal box of time and space, and invite us to empathize with those of other times, places, races, creeds, classes and prospects. I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization."

HarryTuttle a dit…

"Instead what exists is an exhibition system that doesn't pay, or in reality requires the producer/artist to pay. Most festivals require a submission fee and in effect work as a vanity press combined with Lotto. You pay to roll the cultural dice and if you win, your film gets shown at your expense. Those who can play this game - art films are still made, but they are made in the cultures which subsidize these films in the name of making their culture known on a global scale - are those able to pony up the entrance fee, make prints, crank out a bit of promo material, and exhibit at festivals. In general that's it unless the film is basically commercial in quality, and has some effective hook - a star, a star director, a good genre story - that lets it escape the festival zoo and find a broader public. Few and far between.
So festivals have changed from being one step toward an audience to being the audience, and hence they have become a kind of cinematic ghetto, where a certain kind of film obtains a fleeting life - a page or less in a catalog, an audience of twenty or 2000, perhaps a festival circuit shooting-star life of another ten lesser festivals, and then a year later, oblivion. [..]
The blame for this can be attributed to a number of things, the main one being the victory of Market Economy Capitalism (otherwise known as globalism), in which the primary measure of value is money, the more the merrier. According to this system there really are no other values. [..]
Ironically, being one of the few places where one can see serious, non-commercial cinema, festivals are utterly mis-tuned for such work. Festivals are circuses, places of non-stop partying and low attention spans, with a plethora of too many films to be seen [..]. Lots of serious cinema doesn't work that way. And then serious cinema, like any serious art, requires attention, concentration, and time to absorb after the fact. Festivals are the opposite, a massive flush of films, one after the other, simultaneously, each shouting for attention, with no time for reflection."

The Big Circus, Jon Jost, Undercurrent #6, April 2010, FIPRESCI

HarryTuttle a dit…

The Business (30 Aug 2010) podcast MP3

"The documentary The Tillman Story was given a controversial R rating for language by the Motion Picture Association of America. We talk with its filmmaker, Amir Bar Lev, about his failed effort to challenge that rating in an appeal. Then we hear from Joan Graves, head of the MPAA's rating's board, about their reasoning on this and other questionable ratings."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Ted Hope: "I am dismayed at times how sometimes our local indie scene feels so repetitive and lacking creative ambition. We remake successful formulas, and only rarely break new ground. I know I am guilty of this too. I wonder how we can break out of this cycle, and what are the forces that contribute to this sad phenomenon?" (indieWIRE; 17 August 2011)

Karin Chien: "For most of us, Chinese independent cinema is an unknown. A film like Zhang Yimou’s HERO, financed with Chinese state backing, about Chinese empire, and made by a party-line director, is sold here as arthouse fare, distributed by Miramax. Subtitles are enough to qualify a film as “independent cinema” in America. [..]
But here’s where American and Chinese micro-budget cinema diverge. Because we still believe in a one-in-a-Blair-Witch chance, most American indie films willingly play the Hollywood system. The carrot of theatrical distribution and financing motivates even micro-budget films to favor rising stars when casting, adjust scripts for wider audience appeal/product placement/cameos, or tell stories in genres that American and international audiences watch in droves. (As a producer, I’m fully guilty.) In short, commercial considerations influence nearly every aspect of American independent filmmaking, even at the $25,000 budget level. [..]
In the US, where capitalism long ago co-opted the language of independent film (see Warner Independent Pictures), it’s a small miracle that any film is made outside the Hollywood system. [..]
For the last three years, my dGenerate Films partners and I have been distributing Chinese independent cinema around the world, mainly in the US. We send revenue to independent filmmakers in China every fiscal quarter, and that feels good.
But our revenue is small compared to what filmmakers receive from European distributors. The greater international film community has set up shop in Beijing so they can catch these films first. American industry and audiences would do well to pay as much attention. [..]"
What American Indies Can Learn From Their Chinese Counterparts (indieWIRE; 17 Aug 2011)

HarryTuttle a dit…

"Like tens of millions of Americans, I have paid money to see Mission: Impossible, which made $130 million in the last two weeks, and I have not paid any money to see Young Adult, which has made less than $10 million over the same span. Nobody is surprised or impressed by the discrepancy. The real question is: If demand is supposed to move prices, why isn't seeing Young Adult much cheaper than seeing Mission: Impossible?"
Why Do All Movie Tickets Cost the Same? (Dereck Thompson; The Atlantic; 3 JAN 2012)

"Since the early 1970s, movie theaters in the United States have employed a pricing model of uniform prices for differentiated goods. At any given theater, one price is charged for all movies, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This pricing model is puzzling in light of the potential profitability of prices that vary with demand characteristics. Another unique aspect of the motion-picture industry is the legal regime that imposes certain constraints on vertical arrangements between distributors and retailers (exhibitors) and attempts to facilitate competitive bidding for films. We explore the justifications for uniform pricing in the industry and show their limitations.We conclude that exhibitors could increase profits by engaging in variable pricing and that they could do so more easily if the legal constraints on vertical arrangements are lifted."
Uniform Prices for Differentiated Goods: The Case of the Movie-Theater Industry (Barak Y. Orbach, Liran Einav; August 2007) [PDF]