27 June 2008

Selling Art-House Films to Eskimos

In the last few days, articles have appeared (in places where almost no one will read them) rationalizing why nobody's going to art-house movies or making any money on them. There's a much simpler explanation: Going to an art-house theater is a horrible experience that a film's excellence has a great deal of difficulty overcoming.

To begin with, art-house theaters are almost uniformly uncomfortable. As bad as the seating is at the multiplex, it's worse at an art house... especially for those who have back trouble, are particularly tall or short, or need a wheelchair. Sightlines are seldom optimal, particularly on the edges. Then, too, the buildings themselves are often older and less comfortable, particularly in extreme weather. Parking? What parking?

Then there's the basic question of whether a large theater is even appropriate for many of these smaller-scale films. It's one thing to see the wonder of 2001 or Apocalypse Now! in 70mm. Many art-house films, though, are purportedly more "intimate"... which seems rather inconsistent with large-auditorium showings. And, particularly for subtitled films, the ability to pause on screen to read a long speech is rather helpful.

Finally, there's the price. Chambanana has only one art-house-type screen (which seems rather disturbing for a school with almost 30,000 students, but there are a lot of engineers and business-school types who don't seem attracted to art-house film in the first place), and it's relatively cheap... until one factors in parking, extremely limited hours that are not friendly to those who either have kids or are kids, and so on. And that's only "relatively," as it's still 150% of a DVD rental, let alone a DVD borrowed from the library.

And all of those barriers are independent of the films themselves. Too many films shown at art houses are impenetrable apprentice efforts notable for the flashes of potential they display, not independently for their own merit. (It's worse at the multiplex, but that's a different argument.) Why, indeed, should I go to an art-house theater with all of those barriers when I can borrow/rent a copy, or view my own copy, of Berlin Alexanderplatz, or Sichinin no samurai, or Aleksandr Nevskiy, at home, for substantially less money... and not have to put up with the rest of the audience, or the traffic, or anything else? The premium "experience" offered by art-house theaters simply isn't.

Selling iceboxes to Eskimos is all well and good; selling iceboxes to literati, though, is an entirely different thing.