This is the one time of year when the unthinkable happens: All the movie mavens agree with one another. Yes, there are too many movies in the marketplace, they’ll all tell you. If you’re lucky enough to have a hit, it will instantly be cannibalized by another. Filmgoers are befuddled. Critics are grumpy.Everyone acknowledges that all this is true, but year after year, nothing changes. And all of us are left thinking, “I might have enjoyed that movie in April or October, but it got lost in December.” There are more releases than ever in the holiday corridor this year — some 66 films versus 58 in 2005 — and it’s clear what they’re after: a strong opening, followed by kudo nominations that will fire up the B.O. after-burners. Their distributors have done the math. The worldwide take of “Brokeback Mountain” jumped from $73 million prior to nomination season to $180 million after the Oscars. “Capote” soared from $15 million to $49 million. “Walk the Line” went from $107 million to $163 million. Those are the kind of jumps that warm the hearts of studio heads and motivate execs to try to replicate them. Along the way, of course, they conveniently forget those films that opened before the winter holidays and still cashed in, like “Crash” (a May release) or “Good Night and Good Luck” (November) or “Sideways” (also November). Also forgotten are those movies that have been jammed into the holiday corridor only to disappear. Would the Russell Crowe film, “A Good Year,” have done better with a spring opening? Or “Stranger Than Fiction,” starring Will Ferrell? Or the aptly named “Harsh Times”? The conventional wisdom is that art films thrive in nomination season, yet “Little Miss Sunshine” (which opened in July) has already passed $80 million worldwide with nary a kudo. Meryl Streep may add an award or two on her crowded kudo shelf, but “The Devil Wears Prada” has already hit $290 million worldwide. Studio objectives vary at this time of year, to be sure. Warner Bros. needs attention for “Blood Diamond” and some noms would help. Paramount believes Oscar attention will propel a wider audience to embrace “Dreamgirls.” Warner Bros. believes that the December release of “Letters from Iwo Jima,” Clint Eastwood’s Japanese-language companion to “Flags of Our Fathers,” will bring heat to “Flags.” Certainly Oscar season did wonders for “Million Dollar Baby.” All that is fine, but it doesn’t obscure a basic truth: There are simply too many films battling one another at this time of year. The eyes of filmgoers start to glaze over even as kudo rivalries become feverish. It’s all downright exciting, if you care for bloodsport.
* * *Robert Altman, who passed away last week, was keenly aware of the fact that a filmmaker had to be both a rascal and an artist. I was never part of the Altman posse, but we shared some good times. We tossed back a few in Venice once, while viewing a race of vintage gondolas. I also was around in the dark times in the ’80s, when nothing seemed to go right. During production of a forgettable movie called “O.C. & Stiggs” in 1986, the dailies were god-awful and I decided to visit the set in Arizona. Altman was a serious drinking man in that period and by the end of the day he was not exactly as convivial as he was in Venice. The conversation went something like this: “The movie’s not playing well, Bob,” I offered. “You want to try directing it?” he growled. I ignored that comment. “Your characters have become increasingly dark and obnoxious,” I said. “I started out liking then in the early scenes. Then I learned to hate them.” “That’s because I got to know them better. It’s reality.” “But if you disdain them, so will the audience. It makes for some very tough movies,” I said. “It’s a tough life,” he countered flashing a pained smile. The film did not turn out well, nor did eight other dark comedies or dramedies that he made in that period. But I admired Altman, even in his bad years. He was determined to keep working and tell it like it is. In time, his mood brightened. So did his movies. When he died, he was back on top of the heap.