09 novembre 2008

Burdeau : film saviour?

In direct continuity with my post on Conflict of Interests, that was inspired by Emmanuel Burdeau's project to buy Cahiers for himself and turn it into a distribution company, here is his speech to the NYFF crowd (9-27-2008), right after Le Monde announced his "business plan" was rejected.

Thanks to Amanda McCormick for posting the videos of the panel discussion at the Film Comment blog. (see part 2 & 3 on YouTube for Burdeau's speech)
Burdeau : "I'm sure it has been more dramatic here [in the USA], we have noticed for the past 3 or 5 years that more and more movies that we love, made by directors that are really important, famous, they are not released. They have more and more difficulties to be released in France. I'm talking about Abel Ferrara, very famous director in France, his last two movies haven't been sold to any French distributor. I'm talking about, probably one of the greatest filmmakers today : Pedro Costa. He had great articles in Film Comment [Mar-Apr 2007], Art Forum [Sept 2006]... When the films are shown in festival or museum there is always a crowd. And the film was selected in competition in Cannes. But when it was released, 500 people went to see it in 3 weeks time. Whereas on the other hand, at festivals there is 3 times more in one screening. So this is an economical and a critical question: Cahiers du cinéma has always been dealing with films released each week and each month. But what happens is that the most important movies (not only ones made by obscure filmmakers) don't have the most important time of their career in public theatres, but elsewhere, in festivals or in museums... Should we change? Not be a monthly anymore? Should we change the way we organise every issue?"
I totally agree there, the situation is real. It's the proposed solution that is wrong.

It's hard for niche auteurs to keep making films that only festival goers are going to watch... it doesn't payback the increasing cost of film production.
I also agree that the Film Press can no longer wait the cue of local distributors to publish an article in their pages (see my earlier post on Abolish Locale). You know the way critics vaguely mention films when they review a festival, and then wait for the national distribution to publish a full review. This is a tacit rule imposed by the MARKET that critics agree to in order to get access to private screenings. I'm not sure Film Criticism can still function that way, controlled by the Industry, in this day and age.
Because, like Burdeau says above, when the Industry decides not to release a film, this acts as an effective censorship, the Press will not talk about these unreleased films. This may serve the interests of Studios and Distributors (who manage the markets to maximize their profits) but it doesn't serve the auteurs (shelved on a waiting line), the audience (deprived of films that people can see in other parts of the world), nor the critics (who can't speak of films they want to address). This is an absurd situation. The content of film discourse shall not be dictated by the Industry.

Another problem is the fact that low revenue films draw more audience at festivals than in public theatres when they are released nationwide... Only in France could this situation survive, thanks to state subsidies funding movies, distributors and arthouses that don't make profits. So this is another aspect to look at : the direct competition of festival screenings on the subsequent public box office of these small audience films. (see my earlier post on Mushroom Festivals)

The point where I disagree is when he argues that the Film Press (in decline, and in the case of Cahiers, close to bankruptcy!) is the most appropriate patron to support these "unloved auteurs left behind" :
Burdeau: "If Ferrara or Shinji Aoyama in Japan, or Pedro Costa have a really hard time to be released, and when they are released it's a nonsense because no regular viewer goes to see it, then Cahiers should play a political role, militant, activist, and release the films themselves. We're going to become distributors for this kind of films. Some people say : "OK there's going to be a conflict of interest. You cannot be both reviewer and distributor". I don't see it that way. We're talking about obscure filmmakers, they won't make us rich."
No go. And it's not just an ethical issue (conflict of interest)...
If you are aware that this distribution branch won't make you rich, why do you add this to your "business plan" to save Cahiers from its debts? Clearly it puts an additional burden on the already financially struggling magazine! More responsibilities, more investments, more time consumed, more marketing costs...
How will the Cahiers team find resource to adequately support these films (and not ruin them), when the redaction already complains they have TOO MANY films to review each week?
Or maybe the point is to turn Cahiers into a multinational media conglomerate, not only publishing its own books and DVDs, but also distributing films and why not producing them. Thus Cahiers becomes its own self-sustainable bubble. Maybe a great "business plan" but a lame conception of artistic liberties... Was the point of all this to rack up for the Press the subsidies originally destined to Film Creation?

So obviously struggling auteurs won't be saved by a mortgaged magazine (they need solid financial support from a patron of the Arts that will not go down if one film flops), and vice-versa, Cahiers won't be saved by merging with a distribution company (because it would just ruin the reputation of journalism independence, among readers, among auteurs not-supported by Cahiers-distribution, among other distributors-competitors). Even if this new hybrid model was economically viable, which is not, I'm not sure the dubious benefits would overcome the sacrifices in term of ethics and liberties for both parties (the corrupted critics and the auteurs supported).

Why of all people in France or in the world should Cahiers be the only possible saviour of Costa and Ferrara? I know, if there were other options they would have made themselves known by now... since the movies are not released yet to date. But that doesn't mean that Cahiers, or any film magazine company, should stand in for the role of somebody else.
The cinema industry is struggling, fine, let's not jump the gun and turn the industry on its head. If we need a major reform of the cinema circuit, the preferable option isn't to let Cahiers do it all by themselves.

There are people knowing this job better than film critics, people whose job is to distribute films! This is not just a weekend distraction, it's a full time activity, film writers don't have the luxury to give attention to! If you have that much spare time you're probably not covering all the films to review that well.

There are more intelligent/productive propositions to make for a sustainable market welcoming all sorts of films :
We need to convince more investors (who know how to balance a freaking budget!), we need to help them take more risks (with more incentive regulations), we need to update the system of distribution (currently sold out to blockbuster interests), we need to organise a parallel niche market (special for low-revenue films, small crowds, slow turnout because the take-the-money-and-run weekends only work for blockbusters)

Burdeau : "The positive aspect for the crisis, to me, is that we need to understand that the separation between the critical world and the cinema world is not what it used to be 50 years ago when Cahiers was founded. On one hand we have a monthly magazine and on the other hand we have the film shown in the theatre. And to me the internet is really the place that shows that these things have to go together whether we want it or not. When you're writing on a blog, you can have on the same page an article and a piece of the movie or the whole movie. At the same time you can be a magazine and a theatre."
Well, maybe a blog can be a magazine and a theatre, because it grows outside legality and does not abide to journalistic ethics... but the equation is not reversible. This is taking the reality of the Press a little lightly to think that a magazine could just "do like the blogs" ("since they steal all our readers anyway").
To turn Cahiers towards the internet is a mature decision, progressive, inevitable... to embrace Web 2.0, to update more frequently, to engage with your readers, to go international, to be bilingual (or multilingual). Yes, that is great. Everybody wants that.
But the internet is not the excuse to turn a Critic into an imperialistic Movie Tycoon extending its hand on all branches of the industry they are supposed to watch and criticize from the OUTSIDE. If Cahiers goes executive, fine, I'll watch your Costa films, but I'll stop reading your magazine-catalogue, sorry. I don't care for more self-complacent publicity. Maybe that's what you want. You want to give up on Film Discourse, and just champion films by signing them up or not.
Cahiers films Inc. vs. the rest of the world!

3 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

Well, I'm not saying that the Press cannot "do like the blogs". I think that it's great if paper critics include video clips to their reviews that they go "multimedia" and all.

But Burdeau is talking about something else. He's talking about distributing unpublished films, so it's exceeds the territory of "fair use citation for critical purpose".
There are pirate copies of a film that was already released and already had a chance to make money through commercial outputs (Theatre, DVD, TV...). And there are unreleased films that didn't get access to any form of market to reach an audience and make money.
So Burdeau's conflation would require a little more thought than this facile association between YouTube piracy and an institutional distribution.

HarryTuttle a dit…

I like to keep Burdeau on his toes, but I have to admit that his Costa defence is unquestionable and admirable. Colossal Youth suffered from bad managing, due to weird legal issues and TV distribution priority (I'm still not sure what happened) that kept on postponing its public release in France (and pretty much anywhere in the world) after a great critical reception in Cannes 2006! It was originally scheduled for Sept 2006, then cancelled, re-scheduled for January 2007, re-cancelled. Cahiers still reviewed it in their January 2007 issue (thus breaking the rule of the official distribution imposed by the industry on the press, which is what I argue about in Abolish Locale), Jean-Michel Frodon also mentions the problem in his edito.
And I couldn't see this film in the following months after Cannes, like I usually do in Paris with all competition films, and it wasn't screened by any Parisian festival-event when I can also catch up with Cannes movies. So I had to wait until Cahiers organised a special screening in Paris, with Pedro Costa and Jean-Marie Straub (although on the smaller screen of this venue, which pissed off Straub!), it was around December 2006 I believe. And the public release had to wait February 2008, after a prior mandatory TV screening on Arte.

So in these conditions, I fully support the role of the critics to go out of their ways to champion unseen films and even organise a "ciné-club" screening with debate and meeting with the auteur. This was always part of the job of a critic.

At this level (a small audience for a one-time screening here and there) it doesn't create an unfair competition with the subsequent public release on the commercial market. There should be regulations in place for these sorts of criticism-based activity. I say "regulation" because it should make sure critics and the Press don't over-exploit this privilege to the extend that this unofficial tour would suck up all the potential audience for small niche films, leaving the commercial distributor with a negligible audience, since almost every cinephiles who anticipated the film would have had a chance to see it already at a festival, in a museum, an art gallery, or cine-club screenings... (which is the situation Burdeau denounces above)

But the regulation should also force right holders (producers, auteurs, I don't know who gives authorisations before a film is picked up for local distribution) to allow these kind of "special screening", within a limited amount. Because for certain films, I feel there must be a bureaucratic resistance somewhere to prevent any screenings prior to the official release. There was a case when La Cinémathèque Française had to cancel a screening because the film was too recent and it would have been unfair competition to the commercial exploitation of the same film.
Or also an open air screening event, threatened to be shut down because they selected recent movies and didn't charge the public! The industry is putting pressure on FREE events, which helps get people enthused about cinema as a whole, because they prefer to drag the audience in their paying seats... This is ridiculous.

But to let critics play in the playground as the commercial distributors is a lot more complicated than what he suggests it is.

If Burdeau feels under-represented films should benefit from his help and support and marketing skills, fine, go all-in and be coherent with yourself, quit your job as a critic, which prevents being on both sides of the fence. If he things it is more important to distribute films than to champion them in the Press, let him pick a side.
But journalists can't let auteurs review their own films, or distributors do their own marketing within the magazine of the critical branch. Mixing, merging journalism and publicity, criticism and selling arguments, information and entertainment is precisely what has been killing the Press lately!

And your answer is to bring more dilution, more confusion in the minds of readers, to sell out your standards, to turn film criticism into a profit-based industry.
The reason serious critics are laid off, replaced by populist entertainers is precisely to blur the bounderies between what the industry controls and what the industry can't control, in order to grasp a total monopoly on the media and be able to brainwash readers/audience into LIKING any film, condition them to consume, because there will be no more independent mind left in the news business to cry foul.

I'm sorry I can't see that as an improvement.

If unemployed critics don't know what to do of their free time, well, follow Burdeau's advice and sign in for the distribution business that needs badly enlightened cinephiles, who care for movies, who seek out for underdogs to be championed.

And here I would like to mention Andrew Grant and Aaron Hillis, New York film critics (who do not run a MAJOR film magazine of the institutional press on the side!) went ahead, like Burdeau says, and founded a new distribution company, Benten, because they thought they had a role to play to support the slow and weak distribution of non-Hollywood productions in America. I wouldn't find this endeavour as exemplary if either of them was the editor in chief of Film Comment, Cineaste, Film Quarterly or Premiere.

HarryTuttle a dit…

In Sight&Sound (Oct 2008), Mark Cousins "On Critics: The case for the defence"

"I'm not a reviewer - I haven't written a review in over a year. Nor, to be honest, do I feel like I am a professional evaluator, like an employee of a cinematic auction house, though I do judge.
It's closer to say that films are like people to me. They have rights like people have rights (and responsibilities, too). Critics are people who can see that films can be wronged or taken for granted, or ignored. [..]
How should the critic conduct his or her advocacy?
They should fight for the film in every way they can. They should appeal to the unwritten laws of cultural fairness and internationalism but combine this objectivity with a wholly subjective engagement with the film. [..]
Lawyers usually wait to be approached by their clients but critic-lawyers must do the approaching. They should seek out the injustices which their potential clients are undergoing, then offer their services. This process is seldom one-on-one."

And he explains how he is showing films by Ozu, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Mohammad-Ali Talebi, Wong Kar(wai, Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf... in a festival in Scotland or on a TV program.
Obviously these are films already released commercially. But that's where the job of the advocate-critic stands.

The job of talent scout, funding, producing, marketing, selling for an unknown director, or an auteur without help is a part of the industry itself. The critic, or at least the critic I respect, comes afterwards, to accompany the film's public career, for its artistic posterity.

And if the industry does a bad job, the critic is also there to point that out and ask for a reform.