Opinion: Why is L.A. an art house film desert?
Among devoted cinephiles, no “best-of” list matters more than the one Cahiers du Cinéma releases each winter. Topping last year’s list were Bruno Dumont’s “Li’l Quinquin” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language,” both of which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The two were picked up for stateside distribution by New York-based Kino Lorber, which had little trouble booking either film locally.
But Dumont’s murder mystery never made it to Los Angeles, and Godard’s experiment in 3-D almost didn’t either. This is embarrassing for a city that’s synonymous with the film industry.
“Goodbye to Language” won the Jury Prize (read: third place) at the most prestigious festival in the world, saw impressive box-office returns in New York and was made by arguably the most revered filmmaker alive. After months of uncertainty and stops in Iowa City and Tucson, L.A.'s the Aero, a revival house, took a break from its customary classic programming to show Godard’s latest. “Li’l Quinquin” wasn’t so lucky, though it did receive weeklong engagements in Denver, Miami Beach and Bloomington, Ind.
It’s long been known that the art house scene in Los Angeles lags behind that of New York, but must we be outdone by Iowa City and Bloomington as well?
Far from outliers, “Goodbye to Language” and “Li’l Quinquin” are emblematic of a larger problem in Los Angeles film culture. Other casualties from just last year include “Maidan,” “Actress” and “What Now? Remind Me.” All arrived in New York theaters with festival pedigrees and near-unanimous critical praise, but that wasn’t enough to ferry them this far west. Autumnal Oscar hopefuls reliably test the waters in both New York and Los Angeles before expanding elsewhere; capital-A art movies, however, start in the Big Apple and may never make it here at all.
Demand is certainly part of the problem. Christian Meoli, whose Arena Cinema practically specializes in under-the-radar offerings, tells me that cultural cachet hardly guarantees financial success. Meoli brings up the example of “Policeman,” an Israeli drama that was voted the year’s best undistributed film in the 2011 Village Voice film poll. When it finally opened at Arena last summer, audiences didn’t exactly come out in droves.
Everyone I’ve spoken to — exhibitors, distributors, filmmakers and fellow critics — agrees on one very mundane stumbling block: traffic. Angelenos who want to see foreign and independent films are spread thin across the city — such is our geography — and even the most passionate moviegoer in Pasadena will hesitate before trekking to Santa Monica for, say, Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Eden” at the Nuart. It’s disheartening that something so simple (and stereotypical) would have such an impact, but there’s no underestimating 405 fatigue.
“If you’re in Manhattan, it’s a heck of a lot easier to hop on a train” than it is to drive from one side of Los Angeles to the other, says Meoli.
Another problem may be that most distributors of foreign-language and independent fare are based in New York. These companies “have no idea about L.A., the scope of how big our city is,” Meoli argues, and thus may have a more difficult time conceptualizing the marketplace.
One exception to the New York-based rule is Cinelicious Pics, headquartered at Melrose and Vine. Dennis Bartok, executive vice president of acquisitions and distribution, points to a more industrial aspect when diagnosing the art house problem: film festivals, of which there are dozens in Los Angeles.
These cinephilic gatherings have “elbowed much of the art house theatrical circuit out of the way,” Bartok explained via email. A significant portion of the potential audience for a film like “10,000 KM” already went to see it at last November’s AFI Fest and probably won’t pay to see it again when it hits theaters in August.
Finally, perhaps the major studios’ backyard isn’t the most hospitable environment for films made outside the system. For industry personnel, seeing a Polish drama in a half-empty theater may feel less like leisure than an extension of the workday. Casual moviegoers, for their part, don’t have much interest in assuming the role of duty-bound patrons; they’d rather be part of something fun.
To stimulate demand and start a virtuous cycle of brisk ticket sales that lead to more interest from distributors, theaters may have to improve their atmosphere. Cinefamily, which averages 14 screenings a week at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax, is trying to do just that. It enhances movies with live music, potlucks and special guests, so that nearly every show feels like an event. That’s not every art house company’s M.O., but it’s one way to make a post-commute trip on the 405 seem worthwhile.
Viewers who care about L.A.'s art house standing, meanwhile, need to reward risk-takers by putting as much effort into attending independent films as exhibitors put into showing them.
Michael Nordine is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.
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