Two weeks after my return from Paris my brain is back, slightly battered but in better shape than my soul.
I don’t think it is anything more than a simple observation of fact to point out that advertising for When You’re Strange has been pretty much non-existent. The other night I ran into a friend on the street right in front of the Angelika theater here in New York. When I mentioned the film he said he didn’t even know it was playing. I’ll never forget the astonishment on his face when I turned him around and pointed across the street to where the film’s title was in the marquee.
The manager at the Angelika told me the film was doing well, but could be doing much better if there was more advertising. And this week, because of dwindling attendance, the film leaves the Angelika for a smaller venue.
With a strategy like this the film’s fate could not have been more predictable. Elaine and Renata have written in detailing their heroic efforts to revive the film in Atlanta. They expressed puzzlement, as did many of you, as to why the film played at the theaters it did, and why for such a short amount of time.
I too, was puzzled. So, this is what I learned.
The deal with PBS to televise the film in May was made before a theatrical distribution plan was in place. PBS chose the May 12 date because it allowed them to get the most attention for the film during Sweeps Week. This is great for them because it helps garner higher TV ratings. It’s great for the producers of the film because they made money on the deal.
However, it wasn’t so great for the theatrical release of the film. Since the release date was on April 9, movie theaters wanting to show the film had only a very small window to reach audiences before the film was available for free to millions of people. Therefore, ALL of the first-run theaters passed on the film. They did not want to spend time and money on a film that would only be ‘fresh’ for a little more than a month.
And so, only the smaller, independent theaters took the film, knowing they could show it for a week, or in some cases–a day, and not expend a lot of effort or cash. This is why the film played in a college auditorium in Atlanta and why it will play for only one night in several cities around the country.
The distributor’s strategy appears to have been the classic “No Ad” approach. I’m not an expert so I don’t really know how effective this approach has been in the past. Apparently it saves the distributor the annoyance of spending any money to advertise the film. When I did question them about the ‘minimal’ advertising in newspapers they responded with the reasoning that “nobody reads newspapers anymore.”
So, imagine my surprise as I opened today’s paper and saw a quarter-page ad for a new indie film distributed by the notoriously tight-fisted Sony Pictures Classics. Not only did they run the ad the week before the film opened, they foolishly ran it again in color on opening day. I felt horrible for not calling to tell them to stop wasting their money. What were they thinking running a color ad in a paper that no one reads!?
I know I’m a moron about these things but that idiot part of me keeps wondering what might have happened if When You’re Strange had been given just one quarter page ad, in color.
Of course this leads us inevitably to the Reviews (in the same papers no one reads). Two pissy reviews in NYC and LA almost effectively strangled the film there–especially with no advertising to counter them. I thank you all for your support and suggestions not to take them personally. The truth is, I learned this lesson very early on. Here are two quotes from “major” critics on my first film, Johnny Suede:
A MASTERPIECE IN A MINOR KEY
P.J. Flooring, The Guardian, UK
MUCH HAIRDO ABOUT NOTHING
Everett Klempf, NY Times
Even though I just made the second one up the point is if you believe one you have to believe the other. I discovered quickly that the only thing that matters is how I feel about the film. An honest assessment of what I’ve accomplished (or not accomplished) is the only way I can proceed to the next film. False flattery, especially from myself, leads only to falseness.
The only reason I’m bothered by negative reviews is their potential to prevent people from experiencing the film on their own. And, if no one goes to see the film it directly impacts my ability to make another one. To me, this system is criminally insane.
Is one person really any more capable of determining what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ than anyone else? Based on what I’ve seen over the last 40 years I’m not convinced. I’ve never read a review of one of my films that informed or illuminated something I didn’t already know. In general critics either recount a film and call the filmmaker a genius or they recount a film and call the filmmaker a dumbshit. As far as I can tell, only two people benefit from this; the filmmaker lucky enough to get a ‘good’ review and the critics themselves as they solidify their position as the ‘true’ arbiters of taste; as if their masturbatory scribblings are in some way as important as the films they write about.
I think at the end of every review it should be compulsory for the critic to end with,
This is only my opinion. I really know no more than the guy behind you at Starbucks. I’m just some lucky bastard who gets paid to sit in the dark. I urge each and every one of you to go see the film and make up your own mind.
So, what function do critics really serve? Without them, films would still exist. Without films, they would not. The writer Guy de Maupassant (1840-93) had some thoughts about what a good critic could provide.
Guy de Maupassant
This is from the introduction to his novella Pierre and Jean.
A critic should be without bias, should have no preconceived theories and should not strictly adhere to ideas from any ‘school’ or trend. He must distinguish and explain the most contrasting and diverse artistic aims. Most critics reject anything outside their own aesthetic system. Instead, a critic worthy of the name should have an understanding open to everything, should so exceed his own personality that he can reveal and praise works of art that he personally dislikes but as a judge he is obliged to comprehend. The public is made up of millions of people who cry out, “Console me, amuse me, make me sad, make me shudder, make me weep.” Only a few people ask the artist, “Do something beautiful in the form that suits you best according to your own temperament.”
Or as filmmaker Jean Luc Godard (Breathless, Weekend) said a bit more simply:
A critic is a soldier who fires on his own troops.