Before I went to bed last night, I headed over to Moviefone to have a look at Friday's midday schedule. I have a busy weekend ahead of me, you see, and the only opportunity I would have to make it to the theater would be the first showings of the day. To say that I was excited to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would be an understatement. The prospect of Gary Oldman in a rare leading role, and one that promised to provide serious award consideration, has been bounding around in my mind grapes and I've been looking forward to this film for the better part of the year. I based my work schedule around seeing this film, for goodness sake, and if that seems sad, well...so be it. But to my surprise, Moviefone (and really the entire movie industry) let me down. TTSS wasn't showing at any of the theaters I frequent, nor was it available at the arthouse theaters in Dallas. What the what?!, I thought to myself. I Googled the subject and found a release schedule from Focus Features, the studio behind TTSS, and discovered that the film was only opening on four US screens this weekend, all of which are, of course, in Los Angeles or New York. To make this injustice even worse, the release schedule informed me that TTSS would not be available near me until the 23rd and even then, only at a single arthouse theater 45 miles away. Considering the advertising campaign TTSS has received for the last six months, this move is unbelievably short sited and goes to prove a deeper issue within the movie industry as a whole.
Let's rewind a few months, back to the September release of Drive. Nothing about Drive suggested that it should receive a wide release, at least as far as the typical distributor rules go. It's a hyper-violent, artsy-action mix backed by a synth-pop soundtrack, made by a foreign director (Nicolas Winding Refn) who has no mainstream credits to his name, and starring an actor (Ryan Gosling) who is certainly well-respected but hardly the type of guy who draws the average moviegoer. It also happens to be a near-masterpiece and the best movie of the year in my book (thus far, anyway). And remarkably, Drive was given a nation-wide release that didn't require interested viewers to make a trek to an out-of-the-way arthouse theater or wait until it came to DVD (or steal it off the Internet). And guess what: people went to see it. Despite it's challenging subject matter, Drive pulled in a hearty $34 million domestically (and another $30 million overseas). While that number may not seem like a huge breakthrough, remember that this film cost $15 million to make and was shown on only 2,900 screens (compare that to 4,375 screens for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2). That's a wildly successful release. Likewise, 50/50, another indie film that I absolutely loved and that received a wide-release, pulled in $34 million domestically while showing on 2,479 screens and working from a budget of only $8 million. So in summary: both of these movies were independent films, both received a reasonable release, both made a considerable amount of money, and both were available in a theater three miles from my office, allowing me to see them in the middle of a slow day.
Now compare those numbers to those of Take Shelter. If you haven't heard of Take Shelter, don't worry, it's not your fault. Starring Michael Shannon (one of the kings of obscure, challenging roles), Take Shelter focuses on a family man who has hallucinations about an apocalyptic world event and begins building a shelter to protect his family, though it is unclear whether he wishes to protect them from the coming events or from himself. Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly (more on him in a moment) said of Michael Shannon's performance, "...the more people see this movie, the more votes he gets. It's that simple." That's a powerful statement coming from a leader in the critical community. The problem is, no one is going to see this movie. To date, it has earned $1.5 million (against a $5 million budget) through its release on a whopping 91 screens. Right now, the most important time for an independent film like this, it is available on 55 screens. No one has seen this movie and when it comes time for "educated voters" to make their lists of nominees for Best Actor, you can bet most of them will not have seen Michael Shannon's portrayal. And maybe more importantly, even if they have been given the opportunity to see Take Shelter, I haven't and neither have you. So even if Shannon or the film itself gets nominated for an Oscar, why would any average moviegoer care to root for it when most have never heard of it, let alone been given the chance to see it?
In a recent column for Grantland, Harris listed out the likely candidates for a Best Picture nomination (a list that includes a couple of independent films but is, overall, dominated by bigger features) and asked his readers to Tweet in their picks for which other films deserved to be included on the list. Today he released the results and unsurprisingly, the list was topped by Drive, a film that, by traditional Hollywood standards, should never have been given a wide-release. Moreover, every other film on the list (including 50/50 and Take Shelter) was an independent film.
I highlight this because it illustrates two trends. 1.) In spite of what Hollywood big wigs would have us believe, viewers are willing to see smaller films; and 2.) Hollywood is doing a crappy job of giving their viewers what they want. This industry is fixated, even obsessed, with online piracy as well as preserving the box office and DVD rental/sales returns. To make this happen, the studios have gone to extremes to limit the viability of On Demand and streaming services while consistently raising ticket prices, effectively pricing-out a number of would-be customers. (Side note: I recently held a Family Movie Night event for the participants of my youth sports program. You would be SHOCKED at the number of kids/parents who came up to me afterward and informed me that they'd never been to a movie before because they couldn't afford it.) At the same time, studios have dictated what the average moviegoer can and cannot see, and have thereby cut out a fairly significant profit margin based solely on a single assumption: that viewers are too stupid, too unsophisticated, to buy into indie films.
That's exactly what is playing out with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Universal/Focus Features is telling you and I that because this is a slow-burn of a film that will feature far more dense dialogue than it will action sequences, we won't get it and therefore, won't like it. In doing so, Universal has not only ensured that their film will not turn a profit on these shores (a $31 million budget can't possibly be recovered with a 40 screen release), they've also relegated moviegoers to the host of horrible, stupid selections that await us at the local theater. I do not want to see New Year's Eve because I'm not a moron and I do not want to see The Sitter because I'm not stoned but these are my choices in terms of new releases since both TTSS and Young Adult are only being given the "limited release" treatment. Don't get me wrong, I love mainstream, big budget, popcorn films and my record as a proponent of comic book movies and dumb comedies speaks for itself. But I am proof that there are in fact moviegoers out there (and recent box office numbers suggest there are a lot of them) who can thoroughly enjoy both Drive and Captain America, both 50/50 and Super 8, both Tree of Life and X-Men: First Class. Yet despite the trends suggesting that viewers are ready and willing to take on smaller films and despite the fact that I live in the fifth-largest media market in the country (let that sink in for a moment), Hollywood continues to look down upon the average moviegoer and deprive middle America of the opportunity to avoid Twilight or Jack and Jill. It is a crappy, elitist, short-sited mentality that is costing Hollywood money, films cross-country notoriety, and moviegoers themselves a chance to see some outstanding films. Something needs to change and never should that be more obvious than this coming Sunday when we see New Year's Eve top $40 million despite its atrocious reviews. We didn't have a choice, Hollywood, and the blame falls squarely on you.