Debatable, one of our newest series piloted earlier this year with a discussion on video-on-the-go, pins CyniCritics contributors together to tackle big picture movie-related topics through back-and-forth dialogue. The latest prompt asks editors if general movie audiences dislike art movies and if so, why.
Matt: I don’t think the “general public” is opposed to art movies in general. It’s mostly about distribution and marketing. The biggest marketing tool for successful art movies is the Academy Awards. However, the taste of Oscar voters leaves out many films that don’t fit into a specific mold or go too far away from narrative convention. That taste then translates to the public, who has limited choice and is more likely to look for stars or be influenced by a memorable trailer.
Luke: I think you bring up an interesting point with the Academy Awards as a marketing tool. There are countless art movies released in the year that find little commercial success until the holiday and awards season. Once the Academy, critics and marketing push a handful of “must-see” films, they start making a lot of money at the theaters because audiences feel these are good films they shouldn’t miss out on. No one would have seen Slumdog Millionaire without the buzz. Nominations and such also translate into good DVD rentals, which explains why Netflix’s top 10 rented movies are mostly Best Picture nominated films. Before then, people just don’t know what is good or don’t know how to find what is good and are too afraid to take a chance. This might explain why it’s easier to go see Mission: Impossible over Hugo.
Matt: Yeah, Mission: Impossible is dominating the recent box office, and the only independent venture in the top 10 is the George Clooney-driven The Descendants. While I gave Mission: Impossible 4 and ‘Descendants‘ the same rating, there is a plethora of garbage in between them in the top ten, including the abysmal second installment of Sherlock Holmes. It is a prime example of a studio allowing a filmmaker to rest on financial and marketing laurels instead of actually producing quality work. The art films that do break through, like Slumdog or The King’s Speech (both Best Picture winners), are also both mediocre crowd-pleasers. The point I’m making is that quality and crap will emerge from both studios and independent ventures. What all of these have in common, (‘MI4’, ‘Slumdog’, ‘King’s Speech’) is that they are crowd-pleasers. Take your Girl With the Dragon Tattoos or your J. Edgars, both quality studio movies about dismal subjects, and they do well the first few weekends with marketing and then begin to trail off when people realize they aren’t delivering the feel-goods.
Luke: Which does a great job explaining why The Blind Side ends up as Netflix’s top rented movie of all-time. You have to go down that list really far to find a depressing film.
Matt: General audiences shouldn’t be faulted, though, for not wanting to spend time drowning in the depressing life of J. Edgar Hoover. The movies that succeed say a lot about the culture as a whole, and people now want to be thrilled into submission or pummeled with obnoxious humor. If they don’t study movies closely, technique isn’t something they are conscious of, even though it is hard at work entertaining them while Tom Cruise scales the tallest building in the world in Dubai.
Luke: But in a way, they should be faulted, for not appreciating the process as much as the final product. My conversations with people about movies find that their opinions of the film are largely based on pacing and length. People get easily bored; maybe it’s largely our attention spans. MI4’s action sequences were brilliantly planned and zipped by, but when stripped apart, lacked any substance. J. Edgar lagged on but hit hard. Somewhere in between was ‘Dragon Tattoo’. It’s obvious which one was the most successful: the one that was the easiest to watch.
Matt: It’s easy to blame audiences for the endless droves of sequels, the rehashed plot-lines and making Kate Hudson famous, but in truth it partially comes down to availability as well. Movies like The Descendants do “well” for an indie because Clooney sells and lands the movie in more theaters. Vera Farmiga almost stole Up in the Air from him with her talent and charm two years ago, but try telling that to the thousands of theaters where her Higher Ground didn’t show. Ultimately there is a huge gap between what sells and what’s good. Familiarity is a factor because ticket prices rise, and people would rather have mediocrity flash before their eyes in dazzling 3D than risk being disappointed by something they’ve never heard of.
Luke: It’s also really hard to take that risk when those movies aren’t accessible. Though I understand a lot of it is marketing strategy for awards season, but even early in the year it’s nearly impossible to find theaters playing great art movies like Beginners, Meloncholia, Shame, The Artist or Margin Call. In a way, studios have the same fear audiences do.
Matt: Although “great” is an objective term, it can be applied to movies both big and small. Choice is something movie-goers could benefit from, and On-Demand outlets made that possible for Melancholia and Margin Call. Studios are concerned with the bottom line more than the human condition, though, and audiences will attend mediocre movies until those rare big studio gems make it through.