Sunday's article in the New York Times by A.O. Scott (The World is Watching. Not Americans) mirrors many of my concerns about the waning interest in foreign films. As the global village of film viewing gets smaller and the dissemination of information gets more plentiful, the more reticent the US market seems to be. "The movies are out there, more numerous and various than ever before, but the audience - and therefore box-office returns and the willingness of distributors to risk even relatively small sums on North American rights - seems to be dwindling and scattering." Indeed, I see it as a very cyclical effect: the more fickle distributors are, the more film fans who have a true interest or even passion to see these films will seek out other means. (See my previous post.)
But is it all that bad? I would be the first to admit that there seems to be more and more films out there every year, and as a result more and more films that never see the light of a distribution day in the U.S. But I would also bet my large DVD collection that armchair film fans have more power than back in the olden days: not only can I read almost instantaneous report on any given major film festival, but I can also nurture my own film blog (and pretend people are reading) and order DVDs from all over the world thanks to the internet. As a result I think publications have had to respond to this homegrown saviness of film fans. What about Joe and Betty Moviegoer? The people who just look in the local paper for a good film to see on a Friday night? I still think there are good options.
I tend to believe the more screenings you have in a town, the more you will have people leaving their homes, the more press you will have on said screenings, and the more diverse and sophisticated a film community will be. Specifically here in the Twin Cities we are seeing fewer and fewer venues and organizations that have the ability to create this culture. Sure, you can say that this is the market economy at work, weeding out the independent and giving us the chains. But obviously in the divisive nature of our "market economy", it is more complicated than that. Unfortunately, the screen-it-and-they-will-come philosophy simply does not hold water. The much-lauded Death of Mr. Lazarescu did screen here for two weeks at the crumbling Parkway Theater (a perfect setting if you ask me), but the night I attended there were maybe four other people in the theater, and I have no reason to believe that other screenings were not the same. Ditto for Colossal Youth at the Walker: minus the three friends I brought on comps, there was maybe six people in the audience.
I might be frustrated about the films that don't get distribution in the U.S. or don't get screen time in the Twin Cities, but that doesn't mean I make it to every film I want. I pride myself in catching the one-time screenings, or one-week-only runs in this city, but I nonetheless miss films. Case and point is Tom Tykwer's Perfume: it got bad reviews but I was very interested in seeing it, but oops! it's already gone! And I even had a two-week window for that one. What would I do in New York City? Miss a lot of movies, no doubt. I’m thankful that the Walker is brave enough to screen Colossal Youth and that the Parkway thought so highly of Death of Mr. Lazarescu to keep it around for two weeks, but is there a saturation point for this kind of diversity? Obviously it can't be sustained on good samaritanship and bravery alone.
On the other hand, there is Pan's Labyrinth. I am sure it is going to be this year's foreign-language film star-child. Granted it has a huge marketing budget behind it, but it is still a foreign-language film with subtitles! At the Uptown this weekend it drew record crowds. One of the ticket sellers told me that one of the screenings on opening night sold out - something that hasn't happened for three years. As I stood in line for Pan's Labyrinth I had the same quizzical feeling that I sometimes get standing in line at the (dead?) Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival: Who are these people? Why are they coming to see this film? Where are they at the other cool films in town? I don't know. I don't know.
(Read my less opinionated version of this same issue on WAC blog.)