Arts Desk

Opening Now in Washington? Yeah, Right.

Ned Martel is pissed he's waiting an extra week to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

In Sunday's Washington Post Outlook section, the former editor of Style and occasional Washington City Paper punching bag took a deep dive on a frequent complaint of local filmgoers—that New York and Los Angeles get all the good movies first.

Back in the day, when there were only so many prints available and film distributors invented a pecking order, we were deemed second-rate. Washingtonians were supposed to have other things on their minds (pressing global concerns, perhaps?), and marketers devised a mysterious and self-serving metric for how long it took the cultural conversation to reach us.

In the 1980s, it was four weeks. Now, with their formula adjusted, the gurus say it’s more like two weeks — which is how long we’ll have to wait in January, when the Meryl-as-Maggie biopic “The Iron Lady” comes our way. Apparently, we’re still far behind the times.

I can't argue with Martel's rallying cry: Seeing limited release films the week I read about them in The New York Times and national magazines would be great. Maybe not above-the-fold-on-a-Sunday great, but I'm sure it'd make my cultural life at least a little richer.

It's also pretty unlikely to happen, though Martel's argument doesn't really address why. "Some box office numbers have D.C. inching ahead of other markets," Martel writes, and then quotes the head of distribution at indie Magnolia Pictures. ("At this point, Washington, D.C., can be seen as a higher-performing market for us than Los Angeles, Boston and Philadelphia.")

Although Martel spoke with seven box-office analysts, he tells me in a phone interview that city-by-city box office data is impossible to come by. "The studios are very guarded about the information," Martel says, later adding, "I did not analyze complete data for our region. It was not available to me. I spoke to a lot of people in the industry, many of whom could not be quoted, and they said this argument has merit."

So are Martel and his sources right? I called Peter Knegt, a box-office analyst and associate editor at Indiewire, who says that generally speaking, D.C., Chicago, Boston, and Austin have the highest indie-flick box office following the Big Two. He's sympathetic to the local cinema owners quoted in Martel's piece, who complained about losing out on press buzz and national campaigns. He points out that some limited release films, like The Descendants recently, do open in cities besides New York and L.A. But Knegt mentions a few reasons why most indie movie distributors aren't about to ditch their tiered release system.

Opening only in New York and L.A. is a way for distributors (particularly smaller ones) to limit their risk, especially if they're worried a film might not have legs. "It’s risky to put a film in 10 or 20 theaters in its first weekend," Knegt says. "If it sort of tanks, you’re screwed." Good box office in New York and L.A. can help prove a film is viable. "Some people might want to see Shame right now, but there are people at bigger theaters who want to see" how the film sells out of the gate, Knegt says.

Lots of prestige films that come out at the end of the year open in New York City and L.A., because the Academy Awards' eligibility rules essentially require it. Those runs can take place in an extremely small number of theaters; if the films get an Oscar nod, that can generate bigger sales around the country. (Or at least Oscar-driven marketing campaigns.)

Finally, distributors want to be able to show off a high per-screen sales average the first week, which they can do by opening in a small number of large houses in reliably film-friendly cities. So even a sold-out E Street Cinema could lower the average sales if the film is also opening in Hollywood's massive ArcLight. (This doesn't always hold true, of course: Take Precious, Knegt said, which had a remarkable per-screen average opening in New York, L.A., Chicago, and Atlanta.)

But yes, sure, it makes sense that some indie films could benefit from a simultaneous D.C./New York/L.A. opening, hard data or not. I'm not sure Martel makes the case.

His argument hinges on a few points: First, that D.C. audiences, who are affluent and sophisticated, have bought lots of tickets to films like Margin Call, Food, Inc., and Page One. Numbers, though? They're not on offer. And it's hard to know, empirically, how a moved-up release date would impact box office.

Second, Martel says niche films are able to find a robust group of supporters in D.C. "Washington is emerging as a megaphone city, a place where citizens often organize around a movie and amplify its values," he writes.

Hip-hop lovers came in large numbers to see the documentary “Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.” Pacific Islander audiences turned out for “Amigo,” the John Sayles narrative feature about the Philippine-American War. Hispanic viewers showed up for “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez making a religious pilgrimage in Spain. Gay men thronged to see a one-night stand flower into love in “Weekend.” And “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu” lured former intel types, Iron Curtain emigres and practitioners of word-and-image polemics who are making Washington an international capital of documentary film.

OK. We can assume that people who went to the hip-hop movie are into hip-hop. But Stephanie Kagan, of Landmark Theatres (the chain that runs E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row), and Jamie Shor (a co-owner of West End Cinema) tell me their theaters don't do any sort of demographic tracking. So while West End did host the Filipino ambassador at the opening of The Way ("I can find a community around every single film," Shor tells me), there's no real way of knowing how many Pacific Islanders turned out to see the film. And while it had a two-week run that sold lots of tickets, we're still just talking about two weeks.

Similarly, there's no way of knowing how many ex-spooks showed up for the Ceaucescu documentary. Martel admits that paragraph is anecdotal. "That was all from the theater owners," he says.

Martel's point is that D.C., being something of an international city, has a remarkable diversity of niches. It's also got power. "If you walk into the Loews in Georgetown on a Saturday night on opening weekend of any given title,” political strategist Mike Feldman tells Martel, “it’s hard to throw your Snickers bar across the room and not hit someone who has an audience, a following, a reach, some influence." Actually, the last time I went to the Loews in Georgetown on a Saturday night, the vast majority of the audience seemed to be under the age of 25. (I'm pretty confident in that particular anecdotal analysis.)

So how is D.C. able to translate its many niches into cultural influence? Feldman, for example, arranged showings of An Inconvenient Truth (his former boss Al Gore's film) for columnists and science writers. Other movies—The Hurt Locker, Inside Job—have been screened privately to local experts. But that's an argument for how Hollywood could benefit from more advance viewings in D.C., not simultaneous openings. “It starts with you seeing the film, and you might tweet about it, you might blog about it, you might talk to a friend who’s a producer of a dayside cable show who might need a segment that is not a live shot from the Capitol or the White House," Feldman tells Martel. But even there, it's not clear D.C. is more deserving of advance screenings than, say, Chicago or San Francisco, where people blog and tweet, too. Six hundred thousand people live in the District. I'm pretty sure most of us don't have buddies who work for Meet the Press.

Martel disagrees.  "I think there are, to use a marketing term, 'thought leaders,' here," he tells me. When there's a discussion of the cultural influence of the D.C. and its media, "people pooh-pooh it. People say it’s not special. But it is special.”

More special than, say, Chicago? I ask Martel if an opinion writer at the Tribune could come up with a similar argument about movie openings. “I encourage them to,” he says. His gist was to look at the local moviegoer's side of the argument, not the overall picture or industry logic. "The main point is that there’s more demand than the mechanisms supply," he says. "I do think [distributors] could be more creative."

I'd rather not overstate D.C.'s mania for smart movies. We clearly like them. But so do other cities that Hollywood considers "second-tier." And please—let's ditch this crap about Washington's cultural life being a significant extension of its political, policy, and diplomatic life. That's the kind of bullshit that makes D.C. movies terrible.

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  • but…

    "And please—let's ditch this crap about Washington's cultural life being a significant extension of its political, policy, and diplomatic life. That's the kind of bullshit that makes D.C. movies terrible."

    D.C. movies may be terrible, but I don't know if it's because they overstate effect that politics have on city life. This is a city where one in 12 employees is an attorney. This is a city filled to the brim with consultants. A metropolitan area driven by government contractors like General Dynamics, Northrup Grumman and Raytheon. A city of 70,000 students, most of whom come to school in Washington specifically because of D.C.'s "political, policy, and diplomatic life." This is a city where the federal government is the biggest employer in town, a city where tourists come to see war memorials and protest government spending or lack thereof. Every summer, the city is flooded with interns from around the country who come to get a taste of working for the Feds and to brag about it loudly at capitol hill and courthouse pubs--many of which bear political names, like "Hawk and Dove" or "Policy."

    What part of the Atlas district do you live in that you don't think D.C. culture is essentially about "politics, policy, and diplomatic life"? I mean, this isn't exactly Brooklyn or Austin.

  • Janet

    I don't understand why it's such a big deal. If you can't wait two more weeks to see a movie, then perhaps your priorities need to be reexamined. Hell, it's gotta look like a really good movie to me, or I wait for it to come out on DVD or cable.

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