15 mars 2012

Assumed obscurity in "art cinema" (USA)

Art house and repertory titles contribute very little to the $9 billion in ticket sales of the domestic theatrical market. Of the 100 top-grossing US theatrical releases in 2011, only six were art-house fare: The King’s Speech, Black Swan, Midnight in Paris, Hanna, The Descendants, and Drive. Taken together, they yielded about $309 million, which is $40 million less than Transformers: Dark of the Moon took in all by itself. And these figures represent grosses; only about half of ticket revenues are passed to the distributor.
More strictly art-house items like Take Shelter, Potiche, Bill Cunningham New York, Senna, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Certified Copy, Page One, The Women on the 6th Floor, and Meek’s Cutoff took in only one to two million dollars each. Other “specialty titles” grossed much less. Miranda July’s The Future attracted about half a million dollars, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives grossed $184,000, and Godard’s Film Socialisme took in less than $35,000. For the distributors, art films retrieve their costs in ancillaries, like DVD and home video, but the theatres don’t have that cushion.
David Bordwell; Pandora’s digital box: Art house, smart house (30 January 2012)
When a mainstream commercial American movie comes to France, it is not labelled "artfilm" just to bank on the subsidies and secure an arthouse circuit distribution... if the movie appeals to a large audience (despite being in a foreign language), with a conventional narrative, and famous actors, there is no reason why it couldn't play the multiplex circuit like a grown up. You know, the artfilm circuit is for challenging film that are HARD to sell to the general population, that only appeal to a NICHE audience.

But to American distributors, a blockbuster that is mass-appeal in the UK (a country which used to share the same language as the USA...) like the King's Speech goes straight to the "arthouse" category! And even David Bordwell thinks so too! It opened on 4 screens (you never know, this "kind" of narrative might not connect with the American audience, it's extremely RISKY business, right?) and expended on 2584 screens (which is the threshold between wide release and blockbuster release).

Midnight in Paris gets a wide-release distribution in France (406 screens; reached over 1.6 million 
spectators), where it is a FOREIGN film, you know, playing in multiplexes everywhere! But at home in the USA (OK, it is only an American co-production) it is considered an "art-house" fare? It opened on 6 screens and reached a whooping 652 screens eventually (not even a "wide release" fare). Yeah, it's set in Paris, but this didn't turn off the general American audience when Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli did it... It is in ENGLISH, with HOLLYWOOD stars, no reason not to get home advantage in the USA.

Black Swan opened on 18 screens and then reached 2407 screens. Again a timid distribution that goes near blockbuster level. I imagine how stressed the American distributor must have been when deciding whether this "edgy" love story about ballet with horror elements might repel the core teen demographic... what a tough call to make! 

Hanna opened right away on 2535 screens, it is clearly a "wide release", why would David Bordwell consider it "arthouse fare" when there are only 250 art houses in the USA?

The Descendants (opened last month on 235 screens in France) and Drive (363 screens with nearly 1.5 million spectators in France) are also mainstream narratives with Hollywood stars and a wide potential appeal. No problem.

OK, these might be considered "low budget" at the production level, but they are marketable just like any other MASS APPEAL entertainment movie, because they are genre coded, with funny dialogues and moving moments, familiar faces and sugar-coating music! This is not the type of "art films" that are only targeted at snub cinéphiles because of an acquired taste... Well in the USA they are apparently, because HOLLYWOOD pigeon-holes movies according to their BUDGET, and scholars pursue the marketing rhetoric inherited from the studios. 

Meanwhile Sahara (2005) opened right away on 3154 screens for opening weekend cash-in time, and maximum public awareness. Only to cash half its budget domestically... Because distributors don't know what is a "potentially successful" movie, they just know how much its budget was!
Major studios may play around with exhibition "monopoly" to prevent or minimize flops (even though they shouldn't spend inordinate sums of money in unsound projects to begin with...), but art films with low budgets cannot afford to compensate the lack of appeal with an ubiquitous advertising presence and a global presence in all cities of the world market...

The logic is : huge budget means "take-the-money-and-run" type of carpet-bombing release for the opening weekend to recoup the cost. Low budget means it'll be profitable without a proper distribution, or we don't care if we lose that few money. They don't even consider the potential audience or the artistic value, which each would demand a sufficient number of screens. Supply doesn't adjust to demand, it's more like a FORCED supply that the demand has no choice but to cope with and move on to the next weekly batch (hoping the title they want would be distributed in a theatre near them). It's forced cash-cow milking... even from a business point of view, it's a childish approach to understanding a market's needs. They could cash in so much more efficiently with a distribution that knows more than 2 types of releases : either blockbuster (we put all our money in it) or pity release (if we didn't have to we wouldn't even consider distributing those).

The USA is a big country, with a diverse population, many talents and plenty of money to come by, famous for its entrepreneurial pursuit... so why isn't there anyone, NO ONE, to come up with an ALTERNATIVE PLAN to distribute art films decently???????????????????* There is humongous profits to scrap from! There are enough screens! There are enough festivals! There is an audience for it! There is a press for it! Why countries that don't have such a privileged situation manage to do better than the USA, with less money, less screens, less festivals, less audience, less media... and I'm not talking about France. The UK has a better art-house circuit than the USA! Belgium, Lebanon, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Malaysia too... This isn't normal. The USA should not, must not settle with this status quo. They deserve a better art house circuit! The world deserves the access to the American market too.

(*) Apparently an alternative "one-off on-demand" distribution system was finally inaugurated at SXSW 2012! Tugg.com It's in beta stage. Hopefully its eventual success will change the mentality of American distributors and everyone else depending on them to evaluate how "mainstream" a movie might be... [see following post here : Distribution without Distributors (Tugg)]

The "more-strictly arthouse items" : 
Potiche (542 screens and nearly 2.3 million spectators in France) and Les Femmes du 6e étage (449 screens and 2.2 million spectators in France) are mainstream in France, thus get a wide release. Why are they marketed as "niche" in the USA, apart the fact they are subtitled???

Take Shelter (91 screens in the USA; 103 in France), Meek’s Cutoff (45 screens in the USA; 71 in France) are American "indie", and maybe a bit unconventional in their form, but nothing cryptic or incomprehensible, it's accessible to the general audience (if they make the effort). So maybe not a wide release, but at least a few hundreds screens. If we multiply the numbers in France (where it is a FOREIGN FILM) by 7, to adapt to the American market size, it should correspond to 721 screens for the former and 497 screens for the latter. We are not even close. How do you explain Americans are incapable to market their own indie films to a domestic audience??? Why France could find more spectators for them???

The Future (like Certified Copy) is clearly an indie, with a quirky, unconventional storyline, fine, but if the blockbuster crowd will never be interested in this in a million years, there is still a niche market for original storytelling, for acquired taste, for adventurous cinephiles! Can't it do better than 31 screens nationwide in the USA? 

Uncle Boonmee and Film Socialisme, are definitely into the art territory, because the narrative becomes really challenging, and unlike all the examples above, you can't just follow if you're not prepared culturally, aesthetically to these idiosyncratic universes. So these types of art films truly need the protected environment of an art-house circuit, the educational support of the specialized press and the help of ciné-club introduction/discussions. But given their historical importance and their critical acclaim they do deserve MORE than their potential audience, which is not 1 or 5 screens. If there was a cinéphile community in the USA, Uncle Boonmee should get at least 150-200 screens, for the Palme d'Or alone. Well, these alleged 250 art-houses should ALL book it (maybe not all at the same time)!

I'm sorry but if less than 10 exhibitors book Uncle Boonmee for its opening week-end... THEN THERE ARE LESS THAN 10 ARTHOUSES IN THE USA. Period. I have no idea what the other 240 so-called "arthouses" are doing...

When you release major films such as Uncle BoonmeeThe SunLa Libertad, Le quattro volte, The Turin Horse, A Separation... on single digit screens (out of 250 supposedly art-friendly screens!), you're not trying, you're just sticking your head in the sand. We can't speak of a proper "art-house" circuit... it's not "art-house fare" oriented, and it's not large enough to be a "circuit" for a country of that size...

1 commentaire:

HarryTuttle a dit…

"One of the things I enjoy most about Deadline is that their sourcing is almost always unintentionally transparent. It is the nightmare of entertainment journalism in Los Angeles that it is driven almost completely by agents and unnamed executives. They talk. They seduce those journalists who want desperately to be seduced. And the agents/execs get those journalists – even some very, very bright ones – to sell the spin.
And this is who Mike Fleming talked to the last time he was in town… and what he got was some very bent, historically-challenged thinking."

Mike Fleming Rants… And Is Really Lost (David Poland; 9 March 2012)