We’re a week into autumn but with 80-degree temperatures in
Chicago, it’s difficult to embrace the notion that the summer is behind us. And
in a Chicago cinephile’s mind, this drastic seasonal imbalance makes it easy to
forget that in a few short weeks some of the lauded festival releases of the
past month are finally reaching our coveted local screens. But whether a film
plays on the many screens of downtown Chicago’s AMC River East or at one of the
two recently renovated auditoriums in Lakeview’s Music Box, the disarming sense
that so much of a film’s success depends on external qualities - box office,
release dates, and studios strategizing awards potential - reaffirms the commoditization of cinema
while slowly stripping away the artistic merit involved.
The conversation swirling around Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, for example, is one that dwells on numbers and box office intake. Everything from calculating the amount of tweets on a film prior to its release to counting early ticket purchases has made film analysis little more than a study of numbers. Even traditional film criticism is boiled down to aggregators, with sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic fueling the box-office analysts’ conversations as little more than intangible factors to a film’s success. It’s a hell of a head scratcher to see an analyst embrace critical response concerning some films while completely dismissing their effect for others.
These calculative barometers wouldn’t bother me as much if they didn’t actually have some palpable effect on the industry itself. With so much emphasis placed on Gravity’s box office intake, concerns of it underperforming would aversely affect its potential as a year-end awards player. So forget art, forget its merits as a film - if the money isn’t there, it’s considered a failure. It is the sort of concern that effects release dates and forces studios to contemplate their competition when entering a crowded fall and winter marketplace. It’s proven that late-release films generate the greatest Academy Awards buzz and the subsequent bump that a film gets from securing a nomination can double, triple, or even quadruple its intake.
Consider why a film like Lee Daniel’s The Butler is The Weinstein Company’s choice film to secure a Best Picture nomination over Fruitvale Station. Or why Sony Pictures Classics favors Blue Jasmine over Before Midnight as their awards contender. It’s certainly not because of the critical reception - both Fruitvale Station and Before Midnight bolster some of the best raves of any film released this year. It all comes down to box office and capturing the national imagination. Neither Fruitvale Station nor Before Midnight were able to break through the box office whereas their studio’s choice films has. Last year was no different, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master failing to land a Best Picture spot in spite of its critical reception - The Weinstein Company was able to position their other films, namely Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook, because they weren’t seen as commercial failures. The stink of commercial failure is a hard one to shake and it’s an uphill battle for films like Fruitvale Station and Before Midnight to overcome.
And then there are those who avoid the punishment all together. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is the season’s greatest loss. Following an incredible teaser trailer, the news that Sony Picture Classics would move the picture to 2014 came as an immediate shock. Pegged as the studio’s big awards prospect, the strains of not wanting to compete with end of the year awards juggernauts are quite clear when faced with certain realities: are people really going to be interested in seeing the story of a demented philanthropist and a wrestling team during the holiday season? The more comically-inclined nature of the aforementioned Django Unchained allowed for some leeway in the terms of dark films released late in the year, but it’s often been difficult for dark works released at the end of the year to garner commercial acclaim. David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being one of the more recent examples of a film that initially failed to generate a large box office right out of the gate. It also failed to garner a Best Picture nod.
As reported by Kris Tapley over at In Contention Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street looks to be following in Foxcatcher’s footsteps. With a runtime rumored to be around three hours and subject matter that apparently broaches on NC-17-subject matter, the decision to move the picture out of the holiday season might be the right one. At least from a commercial standpoint. But is it really all coming down to this - to looking at films through a lens of money-making prospects?