Every now and then one of the big exhibition chains decides it wants to get into the art film business.
The truth is that they really don’t want to — it’s way too much work for too little money — but they insist on doing so, anyway.
And usually botch the job.
In Kansas City it’s typical for an artsy title to debut at one of our long-established indy theaters — the Tivoli or one of the Fine Arts or Screenland outlets — and if it draws a huge crowd on opening weekend, then the big chains will take notice and demand a run on one of their screens for the second or third week.
Otherwise the exhibition gorillas really don’t have much use for cinema esoterica. They’re selling Big Macs, not handcrafted chocolates.
Still, they continue to make halfhearted stabs. Maybe they’re afraid of being thought of as mercenary cinema philistines and want to be able to say, “Look, we’re showing a classy movie here.”
Recently KC-based AMC, the exhibition giant, announced the launch of its AMC Independent series of offbeat titles.
The releases being featured this summer — “A Better Life,” “Another Earth,” “Beats Rhymes & Life,” “The Devil’s Double,” “One Day” and “Kevin Hart: Laugh at My Pain” — are art films in only the broadest sense. They’re light on subtitles and hard-hitting docs.
But they do fall into the audience-friendly mainstream/art niche that in recent years has been a godsend for the independent art theaters.
(Thirty years ago “The King’s Speech” would never have been considered an “art film,” but today anything even remotely articulate is viewed with suspicion by mainstream audiences and becomes an art film by default.)
Anyway, last weekend AMC opened the critically acclaimed “A Better Life,” Chris Weitz’s film about an illegal immigrant in Los Angeles and his thoroughly Americanized teenage son.
I use the term “opened” advisedly. Basically the chain dumped the film without fanfare on a screen in its Studio 30 complex in Olathe.
To show just how out of touch AMC is with the art film crowd, they didn’t even show the movie for local critics or make DVD screeners available. The Kansas City Star, my former employer, found out about the booking at the last minute and had to make do with a wire review.
Why does this matter? Ask any of the people running an art house here. The local fine arts audience takes its cue not from TV ads but from reviews. And not wire reviews…reviews written by local critics they know and more or less trust.
No review, no business. It’s not rocket science.
Apparently AMC doesn’t care if these films do business or not. But why book such titles if you’re going to doom them to failure through indifference?
And not just indifference, but contempt. Not contempt for the critics (hey, everybody’s in contempt of critics) but of its own customers.
The chain doesn’t think enough of the potential audience for “A Better Life” to take the minimum steps necessary to attract the moviegoers most likely to respond to it.
Then, when the numbers stink, the bean counters can say that there’s no market for artsy-schmartzy movies in a megaplex and the whole AMC Independent idea will be forgotten.
Just wait and see.
| Robert W. Butler