In the arthouse film American Splendor, Toby, a mentally challenged film lover, tells his friend (and the film’s protagonist), the cartoonist Harvey Pekar, that he is driving from Cleveland to Toledo to see his favorite film. Pekar asks skeptically, “What kind of movie is worth driving 140 miles to see?”
Good question, made all the more intriguing by the fact that I had driven 153 miles to specifically see American Splendor, which wasn’t coming anywhere near where I live. Clearly Toby and I had a lot in common.
Are you like me? Are you tired of reading movie reviews in USA Today, The New York Times on the Internet, or in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, only to learn that the film is in limited release? Even worse, they discuss the film in a very matter-of-fact way, as if everyone has access to it. Scarlet Johansen who? Sofia Coppola? You mean the daughter of the guy who made The Godfather? It’s a film supposedly inspired by her marriage to Spike Jonze? Wasn’t he the satirical bandleader? Didn’t he die about a hundred years ago?
These days many critically praised films are getting Lost in Translation with middle-American crowds.
I am a movie lover. In fact, that is an understatement. I am a movieaholic. For me movies are my passion, my touchstone, my mirror. They are my way of viewing the world. If faced with a situation that I’ve never confronted before, I simply refer to the library of movie scenes I keep in my mind or ask the spiritual question “What would Martin Scorsese do?”
But these days it isn’t easy being a movie lover because the film industry—like the television and music industries—has splintered. Long before the blockbusters ruined everything, human dramas and smart comedies were commonplace at the movies.
There used to be a day when radical films like The Graduate or Midnight Cowboy played alongside innocent Disney fare. But can you imagine anything resembling A Clockwork Orange playing in the theater next to Finding Nemo today? Just when did movies about human situations or risqué subject matter get relegated to the status of persona non grata at the multiplex? Was it when someone created the designation of a haughty-sounding category of film known as “arthouse?” Today any movie which doesn’t feature 3D animation, or at least two explosions, or one bathroom gag (and I use “gag” in every possible connotation) then it is relegated to that rarefied territory known as arthouse movies.
This breakdown among films has happened only in the past decade while I was living in Philadelphia, which had many lovely movie theaters devoted to arthouse and foreign films. I enjoyed seeing the likes of Leaving Las Vegas or Dead Man Walking at theatres called the Ritz, the Bryn Mawr, the Bala Cynwyd or the Arden, and I never gave it much thought. That is until I moved to the hinterlands. It was only then that I realized that if I want to see some of the best movies of the year, I will have to make a trip to a nearby major city, because many of those movies aren’t coming here or, if they do, they last only one week.
This problem is never more glaringly obvious than that time of year when the Oscar nominations are announced. People outside the twenty largest cities and a few cultural enclaves are left wondering why they’ve never heard of half the films nominated.
And this year was no exception. Just look at these nominations: Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro for 21 Grams; Samantha Morton and Djimon Hounsou for In America; Keisha Castle-Hughes for The Whale Rider; Alec Baldwin for The Cooler; Patricia Clarkson for Pieces of April; Holly Hunter for Thirteen; Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo in House of Sand and Fog; screenplay nominations for City of God, The Barbarian Invasions, Dirty Pretty Things and American Splendor; a best song nomination for The Triplets of Belleville; and Lost in Translation’s superfecta of nominations for best picture, screenplay, director and actor.
If Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Cold Mountain and Mystic River hadn’t been so celebrated, one wonders if people in communities without arthouse theaters would even have understood the Oscar nominations this year. Only those people in major cities or bohemian college towns have the luxury of knowing 21 Grams is not a drug reference, Pieces of April is not a slasher flick, and American Splendor is an ironic title. And the list doesn’t include just Oscar nominated films. Last year many Americans missed other celebrated films like Shattered Glass, The Secret Lives of Dentists or countless documentaries.
Going to other cities and seeing these movies can be part of the fun of traveling, but sometimes I can’t make it out of town to see something and I have to wait for the faint experience of seeing it on DVD or HBO. It would be nice to save the five hour round trip for some of these films, especially the ones that don’t live up to their hype.
What I find most perturbing, though, is the pure dreck that plays in mainstream theaters most of the time. Wasn’t it part of the multiplex deal, which blossomed back in the late 70s, that we would get a better variety of films? Mom and Dad could drop off the kids for light-hearted fare, while they themselves enjoyed films of a more sophisticated nature in a separate theater. It was a good idea in the beginning, so who knew the blockbuster era would destroy it? And who knew the multiplexes would destroy the traditional theaters which made their homes in downtowns and commercial districts in cities everywhere? And why must five screens be devoted to the latest action flick, three screens devoted to the latest Pixar film, and two screens are given uncannily to anything starring Adam Sandler? Can’t the upcoming biopic The Motorcycle Diaries play on at least one of those screens?
If you are like me you make the pilgrimage to the Drexel theaters in Columbus, the Mariemont in Cincinnati, or the Manor in Pittsburgh; theaters devoted almost exclusively to arthouse movies. I plan a weekend in one of the cities and start on Friday night, seeing as many films as I possibly can. On a trip to visit family in Philadelphia a few years ago, I walked out of American History X and bought a ticket for Velvet Goldmine, which was starting at that very moment. It’s a bit difficult to shift gears from one movie to the next like that, but a movie lover does what he has to do.
Still, after making these trips, I am weeks behind my friends in New York and Los Angeles, who see the films when they are released. Like Entertainment Weekly’s casual reference to the latest arthouse hit, an email from a California friend usually requires me to visit a movie review website just to maintain the appearance of being in the know.
What is the reason for this segregation of films, I wondered. Why are these quality films about smaller stories coming nowhere near where I live?
I posed many of these questions to Derek Hyman, whose family owns the Greater Huntington Theater Corporation (GHTC), owners and operators of the Camelot, Cinema and Keith-Albee theaters in Huntington, and Park Place cinemas in Charleston. These are storied, old theaters that played all of the greats like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Dr. Strangelove and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, all films that—if made today—would be considered too small, intimate or arty for Hollywood studios, and that would only play a few cities before finding a niche on DVD.
“The main culprits are the big studios,” Hyman said. “They have a lot of investment in their bigger films, not only in production but in promotion, so they want their films in the theaters for as long as possible, and that squeezes out these smaller films which are made by much smaller studios.”
“A company like Focus Features, which released Lost in Translation, has difficulty competing with the likes of Disney or MGM,” Hyman said. “Also, they know that it won’t bode well for a film to be viewed as a flop because it doesn’t fill the house in even one of a multiplexes theaters."
With movies like The Pianist, Far From Heaven and Monsoon Wedding, it is in the arthouse that Focus Features has become the little studio that could. For the past few years Focus has offered quality films that have placed them in the deservedly heady company of “year’s best” lists. Yet these arthouse favorites have helped the company to parlay its success into mainstream releases, which are both critical and box office hits, such as Traffic and Gosford Park. This year moviegoers everywhere are highly anticipating the release of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind starring audience favorite Jim Carrey in a film written by Charlie Kaufman, whose cerebral (quite literally) Being John Malkovich was an arthouse favorite for the small (but growing) studio.
Hyman also explained the esoteric way movies make their money for both their distributors/production companies and theaters.
“When a film is first released, about 70% of the gross goes to the distributing company and the remainder goes to the theater,” Hyman explained. “In the following weeks, the percentage of the theater’s take increases as the distributor’s take decreases.”
This explains why an extremely popular film such as Lord of the Rings might stay at a theatre for three months or more. Hyman insists GHTC—or any theater or chain for that matter—will sometimes keep a film beyond a point at which it is barely profitable.
Dismaying as it all may seem, this behind-the-scenes information about theaters makes sense from a business point of view. We’ve all heard about show business but never show charity. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t satiate a movie lover’s taste for the more human films. Sadly, but not too surprisingly, there isn’t a large market of arthouse movie lovers outside the major metros. At least not enough to create theaters devoted exclusively to such films.
Hyman sees such an evolution as being possible for his theaters in downtown Huntington. With the advent of a new 14-screen multiplex at Pullman Square, a shopping and entertainment complex being developed on Third Avenue, he feels there is very little chance the GHTC theaters on Fourth Avenue can survive. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, the magnificent Keith-Albee could be transformed permanently into a performing arts center. Meanwhile the Cinema would likely transform into a second-run discount theater, which could also show arthouse films because they can’t do it alone in markets like these.
“The combination may work for Huntington’s demographics,” Hyman said. “Arthouse films merged with low prices may help improve the audience for such movies.”
Most likely, by the time you read this, the films mentioned in this article will be out on DVD, affording you the chance to enjoy them for the first time. Meanwhile new arthouse films will be stirring up more buzz, which means more trips to theaters in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia, just to partake of the latest arthouse hit. The conundrum of seeing these quality films will continue and I will continue being the star of The Man Who Cried. And if you get that reference, then I’ll be seeing you at the arthouse.