Middle brow pics seek champion to connect with consumers

Perhaps you’ve heard: There’s an appealing new movie in theaters now, based on a best-selling novel in which a precocious white girl, working against the objections of her parents and neighbors, befriends a beaten-down servant lady and helps to unlock her literary tendencies.

No, it’s not “The Help,” but a delightful arthouse release called “The Hedgehog.”

As luck would have it, both “The Help” and “The Hedgehog” fall into that rare category of movie you could recommend to just about anyone — your mom, your priest, the hipster behind the register at the local Whole Foods market.

But as potential crowdpleasers go, “The Hedgehog” has a major handicap working against it — it’s French — and the conventional thinking goes that foreign pics depend on critical raves to find their audience in this country.

Intelligent but not necessarily intellectual, solid but not terribly sophisticated, the pic was a success when it opened in its native France in July 2009, and has delighted moviegoers nearly everywhere it’s traveled, winning audience prizes at multiple fests, including Seattle, Palm Springs, and the City of Lights City of Angels in Los Angeles. Released Aug. 19 on just six screens, the film has already earned more than $60,000.

Still, “The Hedgehog” is not exactly what you would call a critic’s film — which might explain why it took two years to reach U.S. shores, eventually landing with NeoClassics. With pics like these, distribs want to know in advance that they’ll get raves from Manohla Dargis, Kenneth Turan or other key tastemakers, since that means they won’t have to spend a fortune on advertising to open the film.

“Critics always help a foreign-language film,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-chief Michael Barker. “I think the people who go to foreign films are readers: They read subtitles, so they read critics.”

“The Help,” by contrast, doesn’t need critics any more than “Harry Potter” does. Between the starry cast, well-loved source material and not-insubstantial marketing budget, audiences will see it, be touched and tell their friends.

But when it comes to something like “The Hedgehog” — a film with the broad appeal of another “Amelie” — cash-strapped specialty distribs don’t have the resources to buy that first wave of support.

“That’s why a lot of people wait for films to show in fests, because then they get confirmation of what the critics are going to say,” Barker says.

Notes Ryan Werner, senior VP of marketing for Sundance Selects and IFC Films, “Part of my job at festivals is to really pay attention to the critical response to a film. Like this year at Cannes, the Dardennes’ film (“The Kid With a Bike”) was really tracking well.” That cinched IFC’s decision to snap it up.

Of course, critics are just one factor distribs consider. Foreign-made genre films typically manage to find their audience: From “Kill List” to “The Troll Hunter,” IFC and Magnet routinely acquire such titles.

Some auteurs, like Pedro Almodovar, have a built-in audience. The same goes for stars, such as Catherine Deneuve, whose “Potiche” broke out this year.

According to Barker, identifying a demographic sure to embrace the film also helps: SPC pushed Trappist monk drama “Of Gods and Men” to $4 million by reaching out to Christian groups.

But the cheapest strategy remains free press, whether via positive reviews or publicity generated by director interviews and other opportunities. As a result, Americans’ diet of foreign-language cinema tends toward the critically acclaimed.

That should be a good thing, but isn’t, necessarily. Critics (especially those who haunt the fest circuit) are radically different from the average moviegoer when it comes to taste. They see hundreds of movies a year and quickly burn out on the kind of comfort food most audiences crave. Instead, they seek out and champion increasingly edgy, innovative work at the expense of familiar and classically crafted fare — like “The Hedgehog.”

As if to address this disconnect, Stephen Farber wrote a recent column in the Los Angeles Times imploring his fellow critics to lower their brows. “It is distressing to see intelligent critics trampling on so many good movies,” he chided, suggesting that his fellow pundits embrace the “earnest, simplistic and sentimental” pleasures of the middlebrow movie.

Farber has a point, but he mistakenly reduces the critic to consumer guide, overlooking the more important role as esthetic and cultural judge. Frankly, we should be relieved that critics hold films to a higher standard than the casual moviegoer. But we should also be mindful of the biases and limitations of their taste.

For example, a film like “Dogtooth” impresses critics with its audacity, but isn’t the kind of Friday-night-out experience you would wish on just anybody. The Oscar-nominated drama is actively antagonistic toward its audience and responsible for nearly as many walk-outs as satisfied customers.

Likewise, Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” scored an 87 on Metacritic. Such positive reviews provide the kind of support Strand needed to release the challenging Thai pic, but left many of those who bought tickets unsatisfied.

Meanwhile, countless foreign-language gems lack the effusive critical praise they need to pique audience interest; in turn, distribs won’t bite. Unlike Farber, I don’t see this as the critics’ problem. I can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t appreciate my favorite film of 2011 — low-budget Chilean romancer “The Life of Fish,” a tender, perfectly observed look at 21st-century coupling starring “Heroes” heartthrob Isaac Mendez — but it’s not my job to overhype it.

Nor should critics be scolded for being hard on “The Hedgehog.” Ultimately, it’s up to a keen distributor to figure out how to communicate a film’s broadly appealing qualities on the thinnest of marketing budgets. Every time one of these titles breaks through — be it “Amelie” or “Pan’s Labyrinth” — the discovery convinces people to expand their cinematic horizons.

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