From Small Screen to Big Screen

Mon, Aug 18, 2008

We typically don't show new releases if they have already aired on television or have been released on DVD but we are making rare exceptions for two upcoming documentaries: Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (screening this Saturday, August 23) and The Gates (screening September 17 and introduced by the film's co-director Antonio Ferrera). Both films were picked up by HBO and had their non-festival premieres on the cable channel earlier this year but were then pulled from the schedule so each film could enjoy a brief theatrical life before eventually reappearing on the channel and on DVD. (HBO is actually a great supporter of documentary film production not unlike a number of European television companies.)

Traditionally, films such as these (and independent and foreign films) would play the festival circuit, open theatrically in major markets such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, trickle out to secondary markets and then hope to be picked up by a cable channel or public television and then appear on home video. This model is undergoing a great shift, however, to the consternation of independent producers, small film distributors, and independent theater owners everywhere.

Many might be familiar with the “experimental” release of Steven Soderbergh's Bubble in 2005 which appeared in theaters, on DVD, and on Mark Cuban's HDNet channel on the same day. IFC Films, currently acquiring and releasing blue chip international films in an astonishing volume, often puts films on its on-demand channel before they have had a traditional length of time in theaters. Many small distributors acquire films for their potential on cable and DVD, giving them only a perfunctory theatrical release and often allowing them to play at venues like the Wexner Center even before the traditional launching points in New York. Even for some Hollywood films, the theatrical release often serves as nothing more than an expensive commercial for the DVD release.

There are many reasons for this evolution but the main culprits are the evaporation of the type of serious, mainstream film criticism that used to drive people to more challenging films and the rise of DVD and cable (and now downloadable cinema) as viable and lucrative means of distributing all films. Both have led to a general decline in “arthouse” attendance. (The rise of cable and VHS similarly doomed 16mm-based college film societies in the 1980s.) All of this leads companies that specialize in independent and foreign films to scramble to recoup their investment whether it comes from theaters, cable, or DVD (it's all green). This shift is frightening on the surface but the ever-growing methods for watching films online are promising if the only concern is “seeing” a film. But those of us involved in theatrical exhibition still cling to the belief that people want to see most films on a big screen in a communal setting as opposed to on a two-inch screen, with headphones, while sitting in an airport.

So, take advantage of your chance to see these great new docs on the big screen. The wonderful spectacle of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Gates project in Central Park is especially suited to a theatrical setting.
- David Filipi, Curator, Film/Video