Niche market reliant on critical support

Sophie Barthes’ “Cold Souls” was one of the talked-about movies at Sundance. Nationally recognized film critics such as the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis and Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum singled it out as one of the fest’s “high points.” But when it came time for the film’s actual release this August, distrib Samuel Goldwyn Films encountered a more gloomy press environment. Indeed, the loss of regional movie reviewers and diminishing newspaper space increasingly has impacted indies.

The Los Angeles Times, for example, ran a small capsule review of “Cold Souls,” positioned third on the page after the Venezuelan drama “El tinte de la fama” and Shane Meadows’ “Somers Town.” “I definitely feel that it was reflected in the grosses,” says Landmark Theaters CEO Ted Mundorff.

“The placement was not significant, the review was cut in half, and it wasn’t from a critic that the readership is necessarily familiar with,” says Goldwyn distribution head Michael Silberman, who concedes that films succeed or fail based on several factors.

“But I do know that when we get a bad review or poor placement in a paper,” he continues, “it can send a message to our core audience that we may or may not be able to overcome.”

Indie film, of course, is especially reliant on critical supporters, who can help drive positive word of mouth and nudge arthouse moviegoers into seats without a big marketing spend.

But in the last year, as has been widely reported, dozens of veteran film critics have been axed, including such notables as Michael Wilmington, Andrew Sarris, Dennis Lim, Ella Taylor and David Ansen — 58 and counting nationwide, according to the Salt Lake City Tribune’s Movie Cricket blog, which has been tracking “the departed” since 2006. Some newspapers are, instead, using wire services or cutting down the space they devote to smaller films or reducing the number of films reviewed altogether.

Now distributors are starting to see a trickle-down effect at the box office.

Says Silberman, “It used to be a rave review from Vincent Canby would mean a lot of business. Today’s critics don’t have the type of clout, because those with decades of experience are being replaced by staff writers.”

In Detroit and Atlanta, for example, where Terry Lawson (long-standing critic for the Detroit Free Press) and Eleanor Ringel Gillespie (a 28-year veteran of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) were offered buyouts in 2007, the box office numbers are not as big as they once were, according to IFC Films’ head of marketing, Ryan Werner. “They don’t stack up to similar-sized markets.”

Strand Releasing’s Marcus Hu gripes that pulling reviews from wires takes away from an individual city’s taste. “What applies to a New York market doesn’t apply to a San Francisco market,” he says.

For Strand’s 2008 release “The Edge of Heaven,” Hu says they were specifically hurt by the Village Voice/New Times alternative weekly chain’s recent move to effectively become its own wire service, assigning reviews to a few key critics that run in every market. “Before, at least, you had a new shot in each market,” he says.

Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard blames a new disconnect between younger critics and the older arthouse audience for damaging the sort of traditional arthouse fare that would have succeeded in the past. “I don’t know if ‘Manon of the Spring’ or ‘Indochine’ would work today,” he says. “The 45-year-old couple loses faith in their new critic and they don’t have a barometer.”

It’s not just about critics, of course. Distributors say it’s harder and harder to get feature coverage, and in particular, foreign and art films are getting less press than ever. “For me, the movies become more marginalized,” says Werner. “Market by market, everybody has less space.”

If many observers see the limitless bounds of the Internet as the inevitable answer to the print crunch, distributors say the deep relationship between old-guard print critics and the arthouse audience was a special one, not so easily supplanted by entertainment bloggers and online film sites. “I don’t think the Internet is at a point that it can replace the local papers,” says Werner, echoing many in the industry.

While there are exceptions — Werner cites the coverage of political comedy “In the Loop” on websites such as the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast — he adds that Web coverage alone would not have been enough. “When you see it on the Web and in your local paper,” he says, “that drives it home.”

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