Single-screen theaters cultivate best and worst of indie film
What can you say about a movie in 200 words?
At the Daily Trojan, the word count for film reviews stands at somewhere around 800. At other papers, that number runs higher or lower depending on the editor and, more frequently these days, the bean counters behind the arts section.
Put all those words together, and it turns out that almost any movie in wide or even limited release has tens of thousands of words written about it by the day of its release.
Lost in that torrent of words are the few locally released independent films that are unable to garner more than a mere 200 words to their name.
LA Weekly, where I intern, possesses probably the most comprehensive film coverage in the city. The editor takes special care that each film, even one opening only for a week on a single screen, receives at least 200 words through a ‚Äúcapsule‚ÄĚ review.
These are films that have fought and struggled for a theatrical release ‚ÄĒ many for years ‚ÄĒ before ending up in a brief residency at one of the smaller theaters around town. They are movies whose names will never even touch the frontal lobes of most Los Angeles filmgoers.
Tragically, the reason why many of them have trouble finding release seems to be because they are terrible. I don‚Äôt mean terrible in the way the average mid-to-high budget Hollywood film is terrible. I am specifically talking about the kind of inept awfulness reserved only for truly independent films, those made by people lacking the experience and money to turn out the kind of product Hollywood has spoiled us to expect.
The worst part is that these films ‚ÄĒ each and every one of them ‚ÄĒ are deeply personal for the filmmakers behind them. The Poker House is a film about actress Lori Petty‚Äôs abusive childhood. Jordon Saffron: Taste This! ‚ÄĒ a limp satire of reality TV chefs and Hollywood celebrity culture in general ‚ÄĒ is clearly the result of the irrepressible spirit of a young filmmaker with a still-unsure hand.
Writing about major films often puts me at a distance from my subject; the amount of money and effort poured into marketing the average Hollywood film makes my 800 words seem almost insignificant. Those 200-word capsules are just about the only time, in my brief experience as a film critic, when the job becomes personal.
While writing up the review for Jordon Saffron, I received an email from the director, Sergio Myers, thanking me for taking the time to review his film. Can you imagine getting such an email from Steven Spielberg or Clint Eastwood?
Critics have been called gatekeepers to culture, but that‚Äôs not exactly accurate. The public is the real controller, with word-of-mouth being the X-factor behind the success of most films. But these capsules, often the only thing written about such seemingly insignificant films, can truly be called the doorway to a film‚Äôs success. After all, if nobody knows about the film and it is only opening for a single week, those 200 words become the essential way to learn about it.
Quite recently, Laemmle ‚ÄĒ a theater chain whose independent programming is brave to the point of self-harming ‚ÄĒ shuttered the Grande 4-plex, a dumpy little movie house in the basement of an office building Downtown.
Pundits were quick to point to the blindingly bright new Regal multiplex at LA Live as one of the reasons for the death of the Grande. None of Laemmle‚Äôs theaters ‚ÄĒ excepting maybe the Monica 4-plex ‚ÄĒ are particularly elegant movie-watching facilities, yet their programming is unique and refreshing. I have a soft spot for theaters like the Grande ‚ÄĒ I spent countless hours selling tickets at a dumpy 4-plex in San Diego that specialized in smaller films ‚ÄĒ and the loss of that dilapidated anti-palace served as a grim reminder of just how few screens remain devoted to independent films.
These 900 words are an exorcism of my guilt over closing the gate on three bad independent films that I‚Äôve reviewed. Really, 200 words are hardly fair to any film ‚ÄĒ good or bad, big or small. Los Angeles is one of the two great American capitals of film, and the number of independent films that find release here rivals the famously indie-minded New York. There are real gems buried at the Sunset 5, the Monica 4-plex and the Downtown Independent ‚ÄĒ you just need to pay attention.
Anyone who calls himself a connoisseur of film owes it to himself to scan the Weekly, the DT and perhaps most importantly laemmle.com, perhaps just as a reminder that Los Angeles film does not begin with A Christmas Carol and end with The Box.
John Wheeler is a senior majoring cinema-television critical studies and East Asian languages and cultures. His column, ‚ÄúThe Multiplex,‚ÄĚ runs Fridays.