Moving Image Institute

The last few days have been a true whirlwind at the Moving Image Institute in New York City, and I’ve only got a couple of hours before we’ll be seeing Gerald Peary’s new documentary on American film criticism. Rochelle Slovin, David Schwartz, Dennis Lim, and Livia Bloom (who just published an interview with Errol Morris in the latest issue of Cinema Scope) and the entire staff at MoMI have been impeccable hosts, and genuinely care about the dialogue we’re generating about the divide between print critics and online critics, or the shrinking publicity market for smaller, more independent distributors.

Hailing from Los Angeles, it’s hard not to feel like a real outsider in the intensely hermetic world of New York film culture, which increasingly revolves around a few major critics, newspapers, and theaters that will continue (for now) to promote and open films outside of major studio fare. Repeatedly we’ve been told that if the New York Times does not run a large, positive review of a film with a photo–capsule reviews do not count–the box office chances of independent or foreign film X in New York are virtually nill, and distributors like Donald Krim of Kino International have long depended on New York buzz to generate waves across the country.

Part of me feels like this trend has got to change, with the shrinking world of print criticism (not only in New York, but also secondary markets like Detroit, Atlanta, and San Diego) being the funnel that could force it; as information awareness–particularly among cinephiles and movie buffs who might be interested in films showing in repertory or art house theaters–shifts from a few print publications to a global network of online dialogue, the idea that a film’s entire fate might be determined by two or three New York critics or editorial decisions seems absurd. (Consider the recent example of There Will Be Blood‘s premiere at a Harry Knowles event in Austin, Texas, an act that enraged New York film exhibitors.) Yet strong buzz online can be ethereal, and often doesn’t translate to butts in seats when films are released on local screens. But this isn’t necessarily any different from print criticism nowadays, either. Bingham Ray (a kind of American Pierre Rissient-type of movie hustler) waxed nostalgically for the days when Vincent Canby would write about one film several weeks in a row, thus getting behind it and helping to build momentum; isn’t part of the problem the glut of films crowding the marketplace today?

The problem of transforming good reviews into ticket sales reminds me of a round table discussion we had at a Los Angeles film festival a couple years back, with exhibitors like the Laemmle theatre chain telling us that even a full-page rave from the LA Weekly wasn’t enough to ensure a successful theatrical run. I’ve long recognized that Los Angeles has unique problems in this regard (many of which revolve around the serious traffic distances between various suburbs and theaters and the utter lack of widespread, efficient public transit) but it was still a shock to hear Ryan Werner of IFC Films and Krim both tell us yesterday that Los Angeles is by far their most difficult market for opening films. The only kind of film that does well in Los Angeles, Krim told us, is French comedies with big stars, a sobering assessment that left me speechless. Another startling factoid: Netflix alone–who purchased 8-10,000 copies of Old Joy–is at times solely responsible for keeping distributors like Kino afloat. No wonder indie distributors are increasingly looking into video on demand as a viable alternative to theatrical distribution.

But the highlight yesterday was meeting Andrew Sarris (who turns 80 this year) and Molly Haskell, two highly influential but shockingly modest and enthusiastic critics who proved to be a joy to interact with during our session as well as dinner afterward. Sarris envinced a particularly self-deprecating humor, referring to his “crazy arrogance and presumption” behind his desire to import French auterist ideas. Not only does he fully credit Jonas Mekas for establishing his career, but also suggests that he’d otherwise only be teaching English (or trying to teach English, he joked). “I’m truly the sum of all the conversations I’ve had about the movies,” he told us. Sarris does teach at Columbia today, and he was quick to graciously assert that “kids today write much better about film then I did when I first started.” At dinner, those of us sitting directly across from Sarris and Haskell couldn’t have been more thoroughly charmed as we breathlessly discussed film (from Borzage to Juno, Billy Wilder to Sidney Lumet’s resurgent career) and when Kevin Lee mentioned some interesting ’90s films dealing with women characters, Haskell was quick to jot down the titles on a note pad. “All I’ve got to say,” Haskell said, “is that if the critical baton must be passed, I’m glad it’s going to such smart people.” Yet their attention and encouragement never seemed like simple flattery; their earthy humor was always in full swing. “I’ll say one nice thing about Pauline Kael,” said Sarris–who still bangs away on a manual typewriter and couldn’t quite fathom what all this talk of blogging was about. “She gave a licence to all critics, male and female, to say that something turned them on.” Sarris and Haskell’s endearing engagement was all the more encouraging given their delight at breaking the politeness barrier.

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