FROM THE PRESS ROOM
Welcome to January. We all expect the first quarter to be on the quiet side at the box office. The winter burn-off is in full swing, hitting and running with such finesse, you almost forget you were mugged and left for dead. Dirty Grandpa, Ride Along 2, Daddy’s Home, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Norm of the North, The Boy, The Forest, The Fifth Wave – the lurking feeling somebody at Columbia Pictures may justify a “Sixth Wave” (time will tell).
Movie studios are not perfect (perhaps you had that perception, I gladly shed your illusion) and in any given year, green lights are given to projects for what I have to convince myself were well-meant intentions. The injustice of hyper-marketing a film the studio has long ago deemed “a dud” to grab a weekend return, all before Sunday morning brings the cold light of day – the movie is bad. Supposedly, everyone breaks even, a widely accepted means to an end.
But this year is different. The usual Oscar circus that plows through town, distracting from the mess, is less than spectacular. The narrative of the season has barely taken shape with a month left before the ceremony. And it’s not all that captivating – front runners, black horses, surprise nominations, PR masterminds – yeah, the roles are all cast, with the underwhelming consensus that nobody much knows who will win in these wide open races, and nobody much cares. This is disappointing. Moreover, that 2015 will be remembered more for its calamitous diversity riot, rather than the intensity of filmmaking that ultimately makes the rambunctious antics all worthwhile.
So, there was an uplifting moment earlier this week, while filing through the headlines coming out of Sundance Film Festival, when I saw a glimmer of hope from the projects already building momentum. Now, this is of course reliant on whether these pictures can also generate a buyer (not to mention an audience), but with Amazon, Netflix and Fox Searchlight making historic purchases, I am confident. The titles making the most noise are daring, relevant, subtle, and may I say – fun.
Let me counter my earlier list with a new one: Under The Shadow, Manchester by the Sea, Swiss Army Man, Captain Fantastic, Goat, Lovesong, Southside With You, Birth of a Nation. Each film has found its footing either from its acclaim (Birth of a Nation, purchased for a record $17.5 million by Fox Searchlight), performance (Viggo Mortensen captivating as an unorthodox father raising his woodland children after the death of his wife in Captain Fantastic) or just plain old indie weirdness (Swiss Army Man is about a flatulent corpse…).
With a full program of films vying for attention at the festival, more than my brief pick list will make the cut. Prizes will be awarded and more purchases than ever will be made due in large part to the internet players, Amazon and Netflix (according to insiders, traditional players Focus Features and Weinstein Co. are classic window shoppers as of yet).
Sundance films are not sure bets, though. They require nurture, specific release platforms, niche marketing, timing, a blood sacrifice upon the rolled over corpse of D.W. Griffith and a distributor. And even then, these films can fizzle. That is the plague of the industry. Films that excite movie makers do not always entice movie goers.
The films currently carrying the box office will all break even on production budget. That is high praise considering the lack of expectation. That is all was expected, hedging at the core of these time bombs is a decent premise with wide appeal – cheap marketing and a PR blitz will get enough asses in the seats to call it a wash. However, Sundance features are not blessed with low expectations. They are purchased, heavily marketed and released with the expectation of doubling profit based on initial praise and critical hopes (oh, and by the way, the market for these films, to put it nicely, is limited). With such a degree of difficulty, few of these films soar, most end up forgotten, and leave their investors with little to show for their effort (it is almost like the lottery if a ticket cost $17.5 million).
My point at the end of all this talk is I want more from my cinema – always. I am a bit of a tool like that. It is difficult to ensure a film thrives, especially if that film does not automatically sell itself. It is a challenge, but can yield both revenue and reputation, as well as a fervent audience. 2015 let me down, and I hope 2016 is ready to excel where last year went flat. Sure, there were some solid moments. Mad Max: Fury Road fought back against CGI. Ex Machina, Inside Out and It Follows relished in playing with our real-life anxieties. Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain spoke from the grave. And Tangerine was shot entirely on an iPhone. Though, most well-made sex tapes use the same technique.
But at this date in time when we are supposed to reflect and give ourselves a pat on the back, maybe more of a firm hand shake is in order. Most every Top 10, critical darling, box office monster and Oscar nominee from 2015 left no lasting impact on me (with the exception of Room and The Revenant, and that was less impact and more blunt trauma). Imagine the year as a series of dots that when connected form no image. With so many moments, glimpses of genius, it is unfortunate we more broke even then rose to the challenge.
I will call 2015 the year of good intentions. So many good intentions, with so little follow through. Now, as change and ideas shift among the industry elite, Sundance provides the caliber Oscar cannot and films in the pipeline show more than promise, there is real potential to give 2016 a bold statement: we will not break even, we want more.