“Is this akin to an off-off Broadway community where everyone attends everyone else’s shows?”
This line is the one that has stayed with me the most after three intense days of presentations and discussions at the Moving Image Institute. It was uttered by Matt Zoller Seitz of The House Next Door during a group panel on film websites and blogs, one of the most engaging sessions thus far. Seitz made the statement in reference to the film blog community, where it seems that everyone blogs to an audience of fellow bloggers. But with successive presentations by print critics, distributors and filmmakers, this perception of insularity seems to apply not just to online cinephiles, but to the entire indie and art film industry in the United States. Needless to say, it has left me in search of answers, or at least a better articulation of the questions.
But first, back to Saturday morning’s panel with Seitz, Eugene Hernandez of IndieWire, Michael Koresky of Reverse Shot and S.T. Van Airsdale of The Reeler and Defamer. As one might expect of a panel on bloggers, this session featured the most free-wheeling discussion during the Institute, with Seitz issuing sharp critiques of the print journalism industry (ironic since he was the only member of the panel who writes for a print publication). He launched his blog The House Next Door three years ago simply as a platform for him to make a prolonged argument on behalf of Terrence Malick’s The New World in response to derisive remarks made towards the film on other websites. A small following of young partisans convened on his blog and began offering opinionated and thoughtful pieces on many other movies as well as television shows, and a community was thus formed that by Seitz’ count now receives 4,500 views a day. His site is open to submissions from any writer on content of varying lengths and formats, a flexibility that he considers an advantage of online journalism over print (“Where do you print editors get off with your sense of superiority if you won’t let your writers write as openly as we [bloggers] do?”) He also values the instant interactive element of online writing for “returning human communication to its natural state, ” citing that the large-scale national syndication of the press and corresponding erosion of local media over the past 30 years has taken the sense of community out of print journalism, only to relocate it online. Seitz even asserted that the blogosphere takes media back to a pre-professional era when hardboiled, streetwise reporters (Sam Fuller, anyone?) gave journalism a certain flavor and vitality lost on subsequent generations of white collar graduates.
The enterprising spirit was shared among the other panelists. Hernandez started IndieWire back in the mid-90s as a e-newsletter mass-mailed to 300 recipients; now it’s grown to a site of over a million unique visitors. Van Airsdale started The Reeler blog and, after some nurturing under the IndieWire blog network, launched it as its own site, offering exhaustive coverage of the New York film scene. Koresky started Reverse Shot as an online emulation of leading film criticism magazine Film Comment; like The House Next Door, it has become a nexus for young writers to submit thoughtful pieces on cinema. Of the four sites, only IndieWire has the funds to compensate its contributors, and despite these sites being a source of free publicity for films, some of their writers are shunted from press screenings. When the elephant-in-the-room question was raised about what distinguishes a paid critic from an unpaid critic, the discussion sidestepped into a somewhat related binary between professional vs. amateur criticism, leaving me to conclude that with paid film writing gigs shriveling away, both distinctions are moot.
Our first filmmaker guests, Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy) and Tom Kalin (Swoon and the upcoming Savage Grace) offered their share of war stories from all stages of production and distribution – my favorite being that some conservative viewers disliked Old Joy because they found the very premise that a person like Will Oldham’s character might exist repugnant. Also, overheard by Reichardt after a screening: “I didn’t make the movie, I just invited you to see it!” Their visit was aptly succeeded by the representatives of their respective distributors, Don Krim of Kino (Old Joy) and Ryan Werner of IFC Films (Savage Grace), who continued a running theme of the sessions: that if a specialty market film doesn’t get a glowing front page review on the New York Times, then it basically is a doomed release. This has long been the case, but perhaps moreso than ever with local coverage of films decreasing or focusing only on Hollywood releases (for example, the largest Washington DC newspaper did not review Jacques Rivette’s Duchess of Langeais due to their policy of reviewing only three releases per weekend). Nonetheless Werner shared a few anecdotes of creative marketing, such as “soft opening” a movie on a Wednesday instead of a Friday to minimize anticipated negative press, and extolled the recent success of Digital on Demand, which has delivered new IFC releases to over 50 million households without diluting the theatrical audience. Krim noted the importance of Netflix, which ordered nearly 10,000 copies of Old Joy, in keeping indie films viable in the digital market, and shared some preliminary designs for a slate of Blu-Ray releases.
On day three, cinematographer and director Ellen Kuras exhorted critics to display more appreciation of the non-theatrical elements of a movie by answering two simple questions in the course of a review: what is the “look” of a movie, and how is that look achieved? Kuras screened an excerpt of her upcoming documentary Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), as did director (and longtime film critic) Gerald Peary and producer Amy Geller of their documentary-in-progress on American film criticism, For the Love of Movies.
The latter included a provocative quote by Harry Knowles, uttered in response to the derision towards online and amateur film critics and bloggers: “If everyone can become a critic, that means critical thinking can spread.” While the logic of the statement is specious (the order of the clauses should be reversed), I applaud the democratic, outreaching spirit behind it, the kind of sentiment that I feel is somewhat underrepresented among the proceedings of the Institute thus far. It’s a pity that Bruce Goldstein, partner of Rialto Pictures and director of Film Forum, with his abundant energy and keen sense of community-building through cinema, couldn’t make his session. Each presenter has lent tremendous insight into their respective vocations and unique perspective on the industry as a whole. Still, I feel that a higher-level discussion has not yet taken place, something to the effect of “why are we doing this and what does it matter to others?” Hearing how many colleagues have risen to a common challenge of an industry in decline has been inspirational, even humbling. But there must be more than making the most of a bad situation; dare I say there has to be more than thinking about the problem in industry-defined terms. The distributors who presented all but admitted that, due to the demise of local media film coverage, theatrical markets outside New York City are a losing battle, and they have tailored their publicity efforts accordingly. These are defensive, cost-saving measures, but for the long term health of specialty cinema – not just as an industry, but as a vital part of our culture – more must be done. To this point it would have been great to connect with a film festival programmer, or even a grassroots media activist, someone whose mission is explicitly to make films connect with communities. Critics could learn a lot from such people in devising their own roles as advocates or activists (roles I consider essential for meaningful criticism), or even on the basic level of engaging a readership and getting them to watch (and think about) movies.
In coming up with some provisional answers to these challenges, I think back to two moments from the Institute. One is MOMI founding director Rochelle Slovin‘s opening remarks, challenging us to re-conceive what a museum that truly engages its visitors might look like as we walked through its kinesthetic exhibits. The second is film critic Molly Haskell in dinner conversation with Institute participants as well as her husband, fellow critic Andrew Sarris. (More on their presentation later.) At first she admitted to not following blogs, confessing to feeling overwhelmed by the abundance of online content and not knowing even where to start. Over the course of the dinner she eagerly jotted down each blogger participant’s site address as well as titles of films we recommended to her. It’s that kind of outgoing curiosity and enthusiasm to engage with new audiences that might get more attendees coming to our shows.