Raiders of the Lost Art

Has the artsyplex boom housebroken the independent film? A partisan's manifesto.

The odd fact is that the indie "revolution" may have made it harder, not easier, for worthy films to get out: As the number of players in the field has increased, so has the competition. Even the Sony empire's art-film division ranks as a smaller distributor in the mini-major pecking order topped by Miramax. This is because Sony Pictures Classics releases a higher percentage of foreign features and other films that, compared to the likes of The English Patient, appear to have low commercial potential. Locally, the release of SPC's widely acclaimed Thieves (Les Voleurs) was held up for five months in the Twin Cities, stemming from the abrupt decision of Landmark Theaters to cancel a mid-February opening at Lagoon. This news was made known to local critics just after the announcement that Thieves had failed to earn an Oscar nomination.

Directed by Andre Téchiné (Ma Saison Préferée), Thieves is a fascinating melodrama that doubles as a crime film--even though the only action occurs when an unfortunate car thief makes the mistake of peeking around a corner. Otherwise, the movie digs deep into the rotten relationship between two brothers, a hard-boiled Lyon cop (Daniel Auteuil) and a gangster (Didier Bezace), who share an elusive woman without knowing it. Complicating matters further, Téchiné brilliantly alternates narrators, arranges a series of flash-backs and -forwards around one character's death, and teases his audience with the notion that everyone who crosses the frame is a voleur of one sort or another. Thieves' only crime was not being nominated for Best Foreign Film.

Now, I'm not suggesting conspiracy here: Thieves probably does constitute a hard sell in the current climate. Yet it's hardly an unmarketable film. Like the hallowed Shine, Thieves earned raves at 1996 festival screenings before its release on the coasts late last year. As a crime drama, it had the advantage of genre, along with distribution by Sony, an award at the Cannes Film Festival, a well-known star (Catherine Deneuve), and a director (Téchiné) whose much-admired Ma Saison Préferée had recently played at no fewer than three local venues.

Still, judging from the lineup at Uptown and Lagoon during the week Thieves was supposed to open (Hamlet, Marvin's Room, Kolya, Prisoner of the Mountains, Shine, and The English Patient), we can surmise that there wasn't room for even one non-Oscar-nominated film--even though Shine and The English Patient could each be seen at no fewer than 10 other area theaters. For months afterward, Thieves still wasn't worth the risk of a week-long run on one of Landmark's six local screens. Nor was it picked up by another exhibitor in town, as the theater chain waffled over whether to exercise its customary privilege of first dibs. The independent Oak Street Cinema was finally allowed to premiere the film in mid-July, just before its release to home video and long after the theater could have hoped to capitalize on the wave of national press.

Before going any further, I should mention that I'm not unaware of the basic laws of capitalism, nor do I mean to rip unduly on the Landmark chain and its friends in high places. I understand that the primary motivating force is greed--pardon me, good business. But I don't believe that chains which made a fortune on their audience's hunger for non-Hollywood fare should mock those audiences by screening predominantly safe selections. They might do well to remember that the fine art of movie love is founded equally on generosity and surprise, plus a pinch each of personal involvement and affirmative action.

In those terms, I'd make the following modest proposal: that Landmark devote one of its six screens to foreign and indie esoterica on a regular basis. This year's release dates being equal, for example, Lagoon/Uptown could have passed on Smilla's Sense of Snow, Love Serenade, Kicked in the Head, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Going All the Way, and Paradise Road (none of which stood to be huge box-office hits or critical faves--and weren't) in favor of, say, Soderbergh's Schizopolis, Eye of God with Martha Plimpton, the French Nenette Et Boni by director Claire Denis (I Can't Sleep), the basketball doc Soul in the Hole, the Jim Thompson adaptation This World, Then the Fireworks, and the Japanimist Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, to name a few. None of the latter are without distributors or commercial potential, and none of them have played elsewhere in town or been actively pursued by our indie exhibitors.

I recently put this one-in-six idea to a Landmark vice president, Bert Manzari--a smart, funny, and honest gentleman with whom I've maintained a friendly debate about the politics of distribution over the last two years. Speaking from his L.A. office, where he makes booking decisions for Lagoon/Uptown as well as Landmark's 150 other screens across the country, Manzari summarized his position as "a delicate balancing act." He emphasized Landmark's refusal to book "commercial" films like Titanic and As Good As It Gets. Later, apropos of the chain's long runs of commercial films like Shine and The English Patient--the latter 19 weeks past its release to suburbia--he explained that it's hard to tell a distributor with whom he's trying to keep "the best possible relationship" that a movie should close when it's still doing big business. He noted that Shine and Patient grossed twice as much at Uptown/Lagoon than elsewhere, and that he was "under a tremendous amount of pressure" to keep Marvin's Room open.

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