State of the Art (House)

Art-house cinema tries to adapt to a changing marketplace

Aug 27, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Film is the toughest of all art forms. The amount of money and people necessary to create a feature-length movie inevitably leads to compromise, often at the expense of a filmmaker's original vision. And that's if an idea even gets off the ground.

Anyone who's been to film school knows the mantra: "The odds that you will make a film that actually reaches the marketplace are very remote."

That's despite a busier marketplace than ever. As marketing and production costs continued to soar, more films competed for fewer screens again in 2007. According to Film Comment's annual box-office grosses chart, 145 different distribution entities released one or more of the 631 films that saw theaters in some fashion last year. About half of those reached Cincinnati.

"But 115 truly tiny companies shared less than $100 million in domestic box-office receipts while the 30 or so companies we've covered in our chart took care of the other $9.6 billion," the article states. "Is there an upper limit to America's tolerance for art(sy) cinema?"

Yes, even the supposedly less commercially risky art-house market has had to adapt in recent years. Foreign films flourished throughout the 1960s and '70s, fueled by such talented, groundbreaking filmmakers as Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa and a host of others.

Independent American cinema, influenced by the foreign explosion and a burgeoning domestic underground scene, picked up steam in the 1980s, cresting in 1994 with the unprecedented success of Quentin Tarantino's quasi-indie Pulp Fiction.

Miramax's success with the Tarantino juggernaut was a mixed blessing — high expectations became the norm, resulting in bigger marketing budgets and the creation of various studio boutique divisions. Contrary to logic, art-house cinema was now big business, which resulted in a tougher marketplace for smaller, less commercially viable films. And it's even worse for foreign films.

A little more than a decade later, changes are afoot again. Warner Brothers recently announced that it's shutting down its specialty division labels Warner Independent and Picturehouse, adventurous indie Thinkfilm is having financial troubles and Paramount has decided to fold Paramount Vantage. This quartet released the likes of Good Night, and Good Luck, Half Nelson, An Inconvenient Truth, Last Days, A Scanner Darkly, Shortbus and There Will Be Blood.

Add to that the fazing out of several longtime film critics, which means there are fewer voices to champion small movies that depend on reviews as their lifeblood, and serious film culture is going through a tumultuous period. (Like many daily newspapers across the country, The Enquirer now uses wire service reviews.)

Film producer Ira Deutchman is a 26-year veteran of the independent scene, working in one fashion or another on more than 130 films, including Francois Truffaut's The Last Metro, John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, Steven Soderburgh's sex, lies and videotape, Mike Leigh's Naked, Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho and Steve James' Hoop Dreams. Deutchman, who is currently president and CEO of Emerging Pictures, a New York-based digital film production and exhibition company, doesn't necessarily see the recent studio boutique woes as a bad thing.

"The divisions of the major studios who have released 'art-house-type product' have poisoned the market by spending so much money to advertise those movies," Deutchman says by phone from his office in New York City. "It's become impossible for people with smaller movies to compete, and that's just thrown the whole market out of whack.

"One of the things, frankly, that makes me slightly optimistic is that the studios seem to be retrenching a little bit right now. The fact that Picturehouse and Warner Independent have been put out of their misery and the fact that Paramount Vantage has been folded into Paramount, if it reduces the amount of companies that are actually spending that kind of money, it might actually reopen the market a little bit."

It's hard to discern how the recent developments will impact Cincinnati's commercial art-house theaters, the Esquire and Mariemont, both of which are run by locally based Theater Management Corporation — a company that already has curious booking tendencies.

Take the case of Andrew Wagner's stellar Starting Out in the Evening, which was distributed by tiny Roadside Attractions to nearly every art-house theater in the country — including The Neon in Dayton — in February 2008 yet didn't play here until May 16, nearly a month after it was available on DVD.

"There are thousands of different reasons why pictures come and go, and that one specific film I'm not sure I can recall," says Danny Heilbrunn, who books movies for the Esquire and Mariemont.

When asked about the decision to supplement their art-house offerings with more mainstream studio fare like Get Smart or Mamma Mia!, Heilbrunn answers the question with a question.

"Mamma Mia! couldn't have been more of an upscale movie, and the Mariemont was one of the better runs in the city," he says. "A more appropriate question may have been, 'Why did Mamma Mia! play the commercial theaters?' "

Do these high-profile studio releases appear at the expense of smaller films? Heilbrunn doesn't think so.

Yet unlike some art houses — including The Neon — he doesn't book films from IFC Entertainment, one of the more creatively vital distributors at the moment. IFC simultaneously makes its films available on pay-per-view TV, which, according to Heilbrunn, disqualifies its offerings from theatrical release at the Esquire or Mariemont.

That means films like Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park and Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon will likely never see the immersive confines of a local movie house.

Quibbles like these aside, the Esquire and Mariemont seem committed to quality art-house films despite the recent climate.

"I think this market is treated like all other markets this size," Heilbrunn says. "We get specialized film here as quickly as other cities our size. I think the art market is vibrant and has been very lucrative, and I don't see any reason in the future that it shouldn't remain healthy."