“Art” films

This is not a rant about high and low cuture. It is a question about quality. I just went to see a film I thought was very good: Dirty Pretty Things. I don’t put a lot of credence in movie reviews, but it seems other people think it’s pretty darn good as well. So far, it’s made a bit over a million dollars in revenues, after being in theaters in the US for several weeks.

In less time, Gigli has made over five million. Once international rights and DVD sales are brought together, the film will bring in a substantial slice of money, especially in comparison.

And so, my question is why? The biggest reason seems to be the advertising. It was hard to turn on a TV without seeing a trailer for Gigli in the weeks before it opened. They are selling anticipation. Don’t get me wrong: I love a good preview. I don’t mind at all that they now show five or more previews before the features. But there is something basically wrong with the way the system works when a great film (or at least a very good film) like Dirty Pretty Things goes basically unnoticed, while formulaic disasters like Gigli and Uptown Girls dominate the attention of the public. (To be fair, I haven’t seen either of the latter, and have avoided them only due to word of mouth.)

Of course, there are always the breakaways; films like The Full Monty or Princess Mononoke. But by and large, American audiences are not exposed to good films that they would probably enjoy, because they are seen as “art house” or foreign films. I have a feeling that if the cycle of advertising could be broken, people would choose the good stuff.

I’ll return to the high/low thing. I’m not saying everyone should listen to opera rather than rap. This isn’t a question of “fine cinema” versus “popcorn flicks.” Many of these films are simply well acted, beautifully shot, and compelling. Why is it that Kill Bill will open to a multi-million dollar weekend, but no one is even screening the Princess Blade anywhere between the coasts? Why? Because one has the backing of a huge advertising budget. It has that backing before it is ever shot, because movie executives know that a big enough advertising campaign can make people see a movie, even if it is no better than mediocre.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 8/17/2003 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    Whale rider is good too. Far beyond my expectation. Though I could only understand, like, 40% of New Zealand English.
    I guess the art movies you named, together with this one, have too many cross-cultural elements and they are so un-American (both style and story), and that seems the reason they are shunned out of the market.

  2. Posted 8/17/2003 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    It’s good to hear another positive reaction to ‘Dirty Pretty Things’. It was indeed a great film from any perspective as you’ve mentioned, from acting ( especially Audrey Tautou’s character ) to a compelling story.

    I understand your frustration about good films like this one not being advertised as much as commercial ones, but in a way i am glad things are like that. Do you honestly believe an average American would value such a film? Good taste is the privilege of a few, and i don’t mean only afluent Americans but most of all educated, open-minded Americans.

    There must be a distinction between what pleases the masses, and what pleases an independent mind, and that’s what ‘indie’, ‘artsy’ films do.

  3. Posted 8/17/2003 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Jia: Good to hear. I’ll try to go see it if I have the chance. Of course, this is my last week of relative freedom :).

    Seyd: I agree with you in part. I think there is a place for niche media, and I think many of the films that appear in more restricted venues appeal to those with certain sensibilities. I don’t necessarily mean just that those audiences are more familiar with the medium or have a more educated eye (although that may be part of it)–in some cases the subject matter or genre may define a limited audience.

    But I think Dirty Pretty Things would appeal to a fairly broad audience. High Fidelity certainly did, and I think the only reason it made it into so many large theaters is because of the star power (and thus the advertising). Being based on a super-best seller (e.g., the Shipping News) sometimes helps as well.

    In other words, I will agree that there are those films that are created in such a way that they may not be appealing to a mass audience. But there are also some very good movies that really do hold mass appeal, I think, if only you could get people to see them. I wonder if this shows in the ratio of theater to rentals. Probably not, since everyone will probably rent Gigli before they rent DPT.

  4. Posted 8/17/2003 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Just noticed that Eszter also has a review of the film.

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