I try not to publicly argue with film legends, even those who are no longer alive. But when Mae West famously said that “too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” she clearly was not considering a film critic’s lot in December.
While it’s true that during the long fallow months earlier in the year, when so little of what’s on movie screens seems worth even seeing, let alone writing about at any length, critics daydream about December the way desperate folks in the desert fantasize about a beckoning oasis. Just hang on, we tell ourselves, the good stuff is coming.
The reality, however, turns out to be somewhat different. And when December rolls around, it’s not that there are no worthy films to see, it’s that there are too many. And that turns out to have problematic consequences not just for critics but also for audiences and even the health of the film industry itself.
Several linked factors drive good films to December release dates, including the notion that adults on holiday break have both the leisure and inclination to take in the serious cinema.
Also key is the proximity to when the film academy and other industry groups announce their nominations for the year. Fearful that academy voters have the attention span of fleas, studios open their awards contenders in December to lessen the possibility that folks will simply forget to vote for something that opened way earlier in the year.
Also not to be discounted is that risk-averse Hollywood feels safest and most comfortable doing what it has always done. No matter if the occasional film that plays earlier in the year does well — best picture winner “The Silence of the Lambs,” for instance, which opened in darkest February — doing things the way things have always been done is the best way to avoid responsibility if things go wrong. Which, frankly, is what often happens.
As I looked at the calendar for films coming in December, I wanted to weep as much in frustration as in joy. While many weeks earlier in the year were barren of interest, a recent week featured no fewer than eight films I would have been delighted to write about, more than even the most energetic of critics could find time to deal with.
Although studio films sometimes open only for one week for awards consideration and then reopen (albeit without reviews) in the new year, smaller pictures often don’t get any more than that one shot. If they don’t catch on in that December week — and in that hyper-crowded field, the chances are not strong — they are gone from theaters for good.
For what is true of critics is even more true of audiences. No matter how zealous a movie fan you are, you are not going to make time for that many films, and in today’s competitive theatrical market, some of them — the fine Norwegian drama “Pioneer” or Brazil’s sensual “Once Upon a Time Veronica,” for instance — are not going to last on screens for more than that initial week.
What that means is that audiences are getting cheated out of the opportunity to see good films, and those good films are getting cheated out of the opportunity to find an audience. And when quality films die at the box office, everyone thinks the movie business is in even worse shape than it really is, which can be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The interesting thing about this situation is that everyone in the movie business is aware of it. Everyone knows that good films that open during this hyper-busy month will fall through the cracks and disappear without a trace. But producers, being optimistic by nature, feel that that will be the fate of other films: their opuses are too special to be swept away by the tide. Unfortunately for all concerned, that is not always the case.