Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

28 December, 2012

It's Not Just Downtown Film Culture That Ails

Last month James Kreul asked in the pages of Isthmus "Why is downtown Madison film culture disappearing?". I didn't know that Kreul had returned to Madison (has he eschewed the scholarly casual look of blazer & tie for his grey hoodies once again?) so I was delightfully surprised to see the article.

With the Orpheum, Majestic, and University Square 4 out of the cinematic picture, Kreul ponders "Outside of the [Wisconsin Film] festival, does a downtown film culture exist without commercial theaters? And do downtown audiences value alternative film programming like they value the Capitol area's music and arts scenes?" He lauds the UW Cinematheque, the UW's WUD Film, and the Spotlight Cinema series at MMoCA but laments the fact that most of the films they show are here in town for but a single night, with the much-ballyhooed Holy Motors and David Cronenberg's latest Cosmopolis being the highest profile examples.

Before concluding he notes:

I point out the successes and shortcomings of nontheatrical venues to emphasize the vital role they play in Madison's film culture, for the most part against the odds. Another way to read the tea leaves is to conclude that Madison needs subsidized nontheatrical venues to bring in films like Holy Motors because it's not as good of a film town as it thinks it is.

Considering the relative affluence and level of education of Madison's population, you wouldn't think that Kreul's tasseomantic conclusion would hold water but it's the one I subscribe to. If Madison were a good film town, so to speak, we'd have a commercial art house. Instead we have Sundance Cinemas.

Sundance is apparently the fulcrum upon which much of Madison's alternative film programming balances. As the article points out, the Spotlight Cinema programmers get to show films that Sundance doesn't. "Distributors are reluctant to do a one-off screening because they're waiting for a full run at Sundance, which doesn't always happen," says one of them. "It pains me sometimes when a film doesn't get a Sundance run but our calendar is already set, so we can't jump in and get it. I was shocked that we got Take This Waltz [starring Hollywood heavy hitters Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen] because Sundance didn't end up running it." It pains me to hear that so much rides on whether Sundance, a theatre that somehow failed to book Lincoln, shows a film or not.

77 Square's Rob Thomas threw in his two cents about Kreul's piece last week. Thomas seems to have missed much of what he was saying. Kreul talks about a film culture involving challenging cinema, 35mm prints, having filmmakers visit Madison, events such as Yid Vicious doing a live soundtrack for a screening of The Golem, and community. Thomas, on the other hand, ignores most of that and sticks to the idea of whether and individual will be able to see a given movie or not. He's "upbeat" about "non-traditional" trends such as movies never reaching the cinemas and going directly to DVD and watching them via Hulu Plus or iTunes. He and Kreul are ultimately writing about different things.

Another instance which differentiates their views.

Kreul: "Not having weeklong runs can also diminish local press coverage and word-of-mouth promotion."

Thomas: "And, if one of those [smaller, independent] films do [sic] make it to a theater, they don't have the marketing budget to compete with the big boys."

What disappointed me most about Thomas' article was this:

Would it be better for the films to get a weeklong run at Sundance or Point? Maybe better for the distributor.

But for the audience? If only 200 people are going to come out to see “Holy Motors” anyway, isn’t it a better moviegoing experience for all 200 to see it in the same theater on the same night, rather than in audiences of a dozen at a time over the course of a week?

How incredibly asinine. If a movie gets a single screening, not everyone who wants to see it can be there. People have other commitments in life. Things come up. As Kreul wrote, "Technically speaking, Take This Waltz played in Madison, but there are several reasons you probably didn't see it. It was only shown once, and it played the evening of President Obama's first visit to Madison this fall. And that's just one of many misfortunes one-off screenings can have. (I missed Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse at Cinematheque due to a blizzard.)" On what basis does he conclude that Holy Motors has a terminal Madison audience of only a mere 200 people? Going back to Kreul's comment, a week-long run would have generated word of mouth. More tweets, more Facebook posts – surely more than 200 people would have gone to see it.

I think it's fair to ask why Madison is a pretty lousy film town that needs the UW and MMoCA to subsidize alternative fare. Is it the audiences or the programmers? Probably both.

Madison is a small metro area and has an even smaller foreign-born population which means that movies that don't get a certain stamp of approval at a film festival probably won't make it here nor will most foreign pictures who find a base audience in larger cities with populations whose native tongue isn't English.

As I said above, Madison has no commercial art house cinema. Sundance dabbles in that area but it's really just a multiplex for the well-heeled. The promise of a theatre connected to Robert Redford, a major film festival, and a mission statement about bringing "the finest selection of art, independent, foreign and documentary film programming" to Madison was all for naught. It ghettoizes smaller, independent, and foreign films by consigning them to the Screening Room which comes and goes. (As of now the SR has been absent for about two months and, if memory serves, was absent the first quarter of this year.) Instead the majority of movies on offer can be had at any of the other multiplexes in town. Madison has been excluded two years running for the Sundance Film Festival U.S.A. Screens are often given over to broadcasts of opera instead of movies.

Perhaps worst of all, Sundance Madison, given its pedigree, just doesn't seem to be interested in film culture that much. The theatre seems to be more excited about patrons drinking on their rooftop than getting people excited about cinema. I am hoping to see one of my favorite movies of all-time there next week - 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I am glad that it's going to be shown, it's sort of a letdown to know that Sundance didn't do much in the way of curating for Madison audiences - Cinemark did all the work here. Contrast Sundance Madison's Twitter feed with that of Sundance Kabuki. Here in Madison, someone logs in once a week and notes what movies are opening on Friday. In San Francisco, however, there is much more. Sure, there are plenty retweets of gushing praise, but also things like links to trailers and behind the scenes looks at movies that are playing there.

They can tell you months in advance when they will be showing an opera from New York but can't tell you when the Screening Room is to return. Where's 3D and HFR? And how could they not have gotten Lincoln? Sundance specializes in Oscar bait yet couldn't even land a Steven Spielberg movie. Very odd.

As I was pondering all of this, I wondered why Tai Chi Zero, a Chinese martial arts steampunk extravaganza, was never shown in Madison. There was a time when wuxia films were shown here – think Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. What happened? Are commercial theatres now more reluctant to show foreign language films? Madison is home to TeslaCon, a steampunk convention that is growing by leaps and bounds. While not huge by numbers alone, we have 1,600 or so Chinese students at the UW making them the largest group of international students. Why did no one take a chance on Tai Chi Zero? Did Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame fare poorly here?

At the end of the day, I can't say why a particular movie doesn't make it to Madison (where were Branded - it played in Eau Claire for fuck's sake!, Beyond the Black Rainbow, and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?). The Wisconsin Film Festival does well but I have no idea if audiences stay away from more challenging films and foreign movies the rest of the year. Kreul implies this but I don't know the numbers.

As my rant about Sundance indicates, I think that Madison has a film culture problem, not just downtown. Remember when we got an IMAX and the owner of Star Cinemas said, "Our goal is to try to have a Hollywood picture on the screen as much as possible and also have available one of the traditional Imax films"? Where are the traditional IMAX films? While there are some bright spots, Madison's commercial cinemascape is, sadly, very homogenous with its Oscar bait and blockbusters. Documentaries and shorts virtually unknown. Madison screens are also lilywhite with films about and made by people of color being as rare as a nun in a bikini. The UW and Spotlight Cinema don't just subsidize the downtown film culture, they do it for the whole city.

Hopefully at some point Madison cinemas will offer more challenging films and viewers will pick up the gauntlet.
|| Palmer, 10:32 AM


I admit I haven't been a very good film-goer lately, but I have noticed a lot of what you talk about here, at least in passing. Thanks for writing thoughtfully on the subject.

I also wish Madison saw more frequent, and longer runs, of screenings of indies and docs and foreign films. It seemed like there as more of that on offer at Sundance when they first opened, but it's tapered way off since then. Sundance was also fairly supportive of local cinema back in the day when we sometimes held Wis-Kino screenings there, but after a changing of the guard in management that sort of went out the window.

I honestly feel like Madison has room to grow into a more film-supportive city - maybe never at the level of bigger and more diverse metropolitan areas, but we could certainly do better than we are now. I think audiences would support it. But, like you pointed out, we need a commercial art house to help make that happen. As much as I love Cinemateque and WUD, etc. they are somewhat limited by being heavily associated with the UW. Folks who don't live on the isthmus seem highly reluctant to go to films on campus except during the festival.
Blogger Emily, at 1:47 PM  
I had no idea Sundance underwent a management change. When was this?

I agree that Madison can become a better film town. Cinematheque, WUD, etc. can only do so much given their funding, association with the UW, and structure.

It is odd to think that Madison used to have Hilldale, Westgate, Majestic, and Orpheum screening "alternative" fare.
Blogger Palmer, at 3:44 PM  

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