The Light in the Tunnel
By Roger Ebert
July 22, 2009
This is the best of times and the worst of times for the kinds of films we here in this blog find ourselves seeking. I'm talking about good independent films--which usually means films financed, released and marketed outside the big distribution channels. That's a vague category which might also include foreign films, documentaries and classic revivals. These are the films where the future of film as an art form resides.
I have nothing to say against mainstream movies, the kinds that open on thousands of screens and are the only movies most people ever hear about. I like a lot of them--too many some of my readers say. They fend nicely for themselves. Sometimes they can be genuine art. Good for them. I speak instead of films that make their own way in the world, inhabiting those few theaters that are booked with taste and independence. Or films available only on DVD. Or films finding their largest audiences at festivals. Or playing in video in demand. Or rediscovered after some years. Or lost.
It is my job to see such films, as many as I can. This week I saw one titled "Munyurangabo," filmed in Rwanda by a Korean-American director named Lee Isaac Chung, who was raised on a farm in Arkansas. Read your own mind. The title "Munyurangabo" was discouraging. Such a title linked with "Korean," "Rwanda" and "Arkansas" perhaps didn't compute. I can't say I blame you. Yet such words have nothing to do with whether we admire a film or not, and since "Munyurangabo" is not only the hero's name but a word meaning "warrior," it's in some ways a perfect title.
Never mind. You will be lucky if you ever get the opportunity to see it, and I'm not here today to discuss it. My review is online. All I'm serving is that the best film I saw this week is opening in one theater at a time, none of them probably near you.
That, in a way, is why we may be entering the best of times for such films. The answer is digital distribution, and this is a good time for me to declare a cease-fire in my long war against digital projection. For years I said it was not as good as light through celluloid, and for years I was correct. I still believe that in principle. But digital projection has become very good indeed, to the point that most people aren't aware if they're watching it. In fact, the other day a 35mm print wasn't delivered to a Chicago screening room, and we watched a DVD screener of the same film, on the same screen, and it looked just fine.
Much more to the point, 35mm prints are expensive to manufacture and ship, and if you want to open in 100 theaters on the same day you need 100 prints. A digital version can be distributed by internet or disc at a fraction of the cost, and that represents the future of the kinds of films we're looking for.
Some indie distributors have been experimenting with "cross-platform" releases, even films released the same day in theaters and on digital, which was once unthinkable. IFC Films now offers the same titles simultaneously via video on demand (VOD) and in more traditional ways. "Munyurangabo" is a release by Film Movement, which opened it June 12 in San Francisco, June 21 in New York, June 26 in Seattle and now at Facets Cinematheque in Chicago. That possibly required only two prints.
More than a month earlier, however, a DVD of the film shipped to Film Movement subscribers, who pay $11 a month for their DVD of the Month Club. At around the cost of a single ticket, they got more than their money's worth, especially if they live in the countless cities where the film will never play. They got to keep the DVD. Why do customers know they can trust Film Movement? The company has been in business for seven years and distributed more than 100 films that way. And let's face it, you're unlikely seek out "Munyurangabo" on your own. Someone has to send it to you.
So one way or another, Lee Isaac Chung will probably end up with more viewers than he could otherwise hope for, more positive reviews (currently 100% on the Tomatometer), a good reputation, and, having just turned 30, he will live to fight again another day. In a desperate world for indie writer-directors, there are now lights in the tunnel--and not just at the end.
Let's say you live in Lincoln, Arkansas, near the farm where Lee Isaac Chung was raised. You persist in loving what your friends call "those art films." Cable TV has made them easier to find, but you think the best way to see a film is with an audience of sympathetic fellow moviegoers. That doesn't mean they'll like everything. They can boo just as loudly as the killjoys at Cannes, but it's nice to have them there. You can go out after the movie and argue about it.
Alas, Lincoln lacks its own art theater. Well, of course it does. Woody Allen once told me most of his films never play south of the Mason-Dixon line. He might have been joking, but not entirely. Anyway, here's what you do. You decide to open your own little art theater. This doesn't require a substantial capital investment. Maybe you can use the Lincoln school library. The school board doesn't want you to show dirty movies? Okay, don't show any. Show "Munyurangabo," by a local boy who first went to Africa as a Christian volunteer worker. That'll make them happy.
You acquire the rights to exhibit films in a legal way, and pay the director and distributor royalties. You build an audience. You have taken your film-going into your own hands. You attract only a dozen audience members at first, but you grow slowly, making climbing all the way to 50. People drive in from as far away as West Fork and Goshen .
In larger cities, this model works with more formal art theaters, making their economic realities much more manageable. I have here an illuminating message from a reader who calls himself MAJK. I will quote it pretty much intact:
I work for an art house chain that mostly deals with independent and foreign films. We only rely on the films themselves to drive in business. We do not have the luxury to promote IMAX "quality" screens, stadium seating, or digital projection. And for many of the films we show, we don't need to. (I don't think many will be swayed if we advertised "Ma Vie En Rose" or "Food Inc." now on digitally-projected 150ft. screens!) We have continued with the "art house experience" for over 80 years, riding the bipolar economy wave, mainly because people will still come out to see a good film.
But we are still a business and what will change our industry is (and has always been) cost. Digital projection will allow us to use non-union projectionists (we are one of the few theatre chains that still employs professionally trained projectionists), as the projectors are "point and click" and in most cases the digital projectors are so automated and advanced we won't even need projectionists at all. I can use my laptop to "start and stop" a movie, all the while enjoying dinner at home.
Downloading digital prints from studios and filmmakers will remove delivery costs, print costs and any refurbishing costs from old, aged prints. No longer will we need trained professionals to correctly place 35mm trailers before these prints. That's done digitally too, with "drag and drop" from a mouse. We currently have two salaried employees, one of them spending 60% of his time with print delivery to and from theatres. The other spends about half of his time on shipping and gathering trailers to and from theatres. A digital change will eliminate one full-time job between the two of them. Not to say that our main goal is to eliminate employees, which it isn't, but like it or not, we must bow down to the nature of business from time to time.
Besides all that, another reason for a digital change is for the filmmakers. A good percentage of our films are made without studios (or with smaller ones) which have little money to make even a single print. Most of our academy qualifying season is spent moving around borrowed digital projectors at cost to the filmmakers, from theatre to theatre in order to screen live and animated shorts from a broad range of digital media (and sometime even projected DVD! Gasp!). Those indie studios and broke filmmakers will jump at a chance to simply "upload" their film once and be done with it.
But there is a bit of a fight as to who should pay for this digital inevitability. Is it the exhibitors? Or should it be the big studios? The big studios, with their prints in the thousands, stand to gain a huge savings. But usually the exhibitors end up paying upfront costs for these types of changes, as our efficiency and financial needs trump the need for big studios to shave a few million dollars off the next blockbuster.
"We only rely on the films themselves to drive in business." Imagine that. Do you see the business model here? Indie filmmakers do somehow get their films made--finding the cameras, casts, crews, locations and food for lunch. They usually shoot in digital, but not always; concerned about the electricity supply in Rwanda, Lee Isaac Chung, who was his own cinematographer, used a mechanical super 16mm camera, and the result is visually superb.
The challenge is getting those films opened. Although a major indie masterpiece like "The Hurt Locker" can reasonably hope to sell substantial numbers of tickets, especially if Oscar nominations are forthcoming, a filmmaker like Chung only hopes as many people as possible will get a fair chance to see his film, and it looks like he's achieving that.
The ways people access films are changing rapidly. A filmmaker like Nina Paley of "Sita Sings the Blues" has been performing a daring and rather brilliant field experiment by giving her film away. Because of music copyright issues, she didn't feel legally able to sell it, so she posted it on the web and made it available in other ways, and as a result "Sita" and Paley have become fairly famous--in our circles, of course.
People download films (legally, I hope). They view them via streaming video. They buy or rent DVDs. They use VOD. They check the cable schedules. They can make amazing discoveries in places like TCM, with its access to studio archives of long-format films. They go to theaters when and where they can.
Of course purists say the best way to see a film is via light through celluloid, in a theater with great sound and projection and a receptive audience. I'm a purist, and that's what I say. But I don't want to find myself sitting alone in that perfect theater, watching the Last Indie Picture Show. However you see "Munyurangabo," or "Katyñ," or "Julia," or "Il Divo," or "Departures," or "Of Time and the City," or "Tulpan," or "O'Horten," or "Tokyo Sonata," or "Silent Light," or "Medicine for Melancholy," or "Everlasting Moments," you will probably be very pleased. And those are all films that have opened so far this year.
By the way. I'll let you in on a professional secret. All of those 12 films got rated either three and a half stars or four stars from me. And I viewed every one on a DVD screener.
--Roger Ebert/ Chicago Sun-Times - Review