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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

is it The New York Times’ fault so many movies get released?

Sam Adams at Indiewire suspects it may be so:

No one would question that the number of movies has grown out of control, and in New York, the practice of renting out a theater — known as “four-walling” — is a common way for films without distribution to get press coverage. (Take a look at the upcoming listings for the Quad, whose very mention among New York critics is likely to prompt an involuntary eye-roll.) Most outlets long ago cried “uncle,” but the Times sticks to its policy of reviewing every movie that opens in the five boroughs, a good many of which will never open anywhere else.

Running 900 reviews a year isn’t good for anyone. The Times is forced to stretch its resources, tapping unqualified staffers rather than knowledgeable freelancers, and the films get lost in the shuffle anyway. So perhaps the Times should review fewer films. But if that’s the case, everything should be up for reconsideration. Why bother reviewing the latest superhero sequel or studio castoff? The people going to see those movies don’t care what critics think, and the people who read critics aren’t going to see them.

Adams was prompted by a piece in — wait for it — The New York Times in which Manohla Dargis complains about the glut of films:

I have a little favor to ask of the people cutting the checks: Stop buying so many movies. Or at least take a moment and consider whether flooding theaters with titles is good for movies and moviegoers alike. Because no matter how exciting Sundance will be this year, no matter how aesthetically electrifying, innovative and entertaining the selections, it’s hard to see how American independent cinema can sustain itself if it continues to focus on consumption rather than curation. There are, bluntly, too many lackluster, forgettable and just plain bad movies pouring into theaters, distracting the entertainment media and, more important, overwhelming the audience. Dumping “product” into theaters week after week damages an already fragile cinematic ecosystem.

One potential solution: AMPAS could change the rule that requires a film to have a theatrical release in order to be eligible for the Oscars, so that films that debut on demand or on DVD would be eligible; that they’re not is mostly why so many films four-wall in NYC. (Critics’ groups would soon follow suit for their own awards, if they’re currently following AMPAS rules.) Of course, that would not eliminate the problem of there being too many movies for any single publication — never mind any single critic — to cover. Someone needs to be curating the movies, finding the ones that are worth seeing and promoting them to movie lovers. And that’s only going to get harder, with the barriers to making and distributing a feature film getting lower all the time, and the barriers to working as a professional critic able to watch and review, even if only briefly, hundreds of films a year getting higher.

I don’t know what the answer is.

  • LaSargenta

    I don’t know how to argue with this…I need statistics, Yeah, it *feels* like there’s too many films to see. But, I’ve been suspecting that’s because there’s more films from non-US makers that are getting onto screen here than ever before. There’s also more festivals. The Tribeca Film Festival started in ’02. There’s other, smaller, ones that also drag up stuff that’s only going to be played for a day or two. Trying to see all of these feels like sensory overload.

    When I was a kid, I went to a LOT of movies, including old ones playing at revivial houses, new US-made mainstream movies and foreign art house things that got releases in the US. When I started travelling, I’d go to movies in other countries and see things that as far as I know never got released in the US. (Some I desperately wished to see released here ’cause I wanted to see them again so I could make sense of them, like La Sentinelle (1992?).) Also, there was the rise of bigger production in India/Hong Kong/Taiwan/Korea/Mexico/etc., places formerly ‘beneath’ US distributors. In the 70’s, if you saw those flicks, it was because you lived somewhere with a significant ethnic population that could support a VHF channel … and you happened to watch it.

    Checking out films elsewhere while travelling made it really clear that there was a whole lot going on elsewhere that standard middle of the road USA never saw. It feels like there’s more from other countries now in addition to all the stuff that we’d get anyhow.

    Is that a bad thing?

    I do like the idea of removing the requirement of a film having to have been shown in a theater.

  • RogerBW

    Yeah, the theatrical-release constraint is long outdated. Being able to rent a theatre just highlights how silly it is (though probably very nice for people living in New York who like obscure films).

    What I can see a newspaper doing, if they were interested in actual criticism rather than just keeping their jobs until the Corporate Masters turn off the lights, is organising a collective of critics and allocating films between them to keep the load on each of them down. I don’t know if that’s something that would be practicable for individual critics to arrange among themselves.

  • Danielm80

    If you’re a filmmaker who’s releasing a micro-budget indie movie, a guaranteed review in the Times may be the only thing keeping your film from total obscurity. Marketing campaigns–even viral marketing–are difficult to pull off, and they take resources that independent filmmakers may not have.

    Of course, if you’re forcing a New York Times critic to watch and review your movie, you have a responsibility to make it worth reviewing.

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