Why can't we see "The Pianist" (pee-a-nist, it's OK to say it) in Jackson? For that matter, why can't we see "Bowling for Columbine" or "The Quiet American"? Why are our choices limited to the same 10 or 15 mind-numbing films at all three of our local multiplexes? Don't get me wrong, sometimes I'm all for a little cheap thrill of a movie or a quick belly laugh. But, on the other hand, when was the last time you saw a movie, on a big screen in Jackson, er, "the Metro," that made you think or challenged your sensibilities?
Naively, until I started researching this article, I blamed the aforementioned local theaters. Then, I got the straight story: It's the old chicken-egg conundrum: We don't get enough indie pictures because we don't go see them enough.
"It's all about the distributor," says Ward Emling, director of the Mississippi Film Office. Distributors like Universal, New Line and Miramax decide how many prints to make of each film and then send them to the theaters where they believe it will be the most lucrative.
But we-the-victims get blamed, too—for not creating that lucrative market. "Money talks, to a distributor," says Terrell Falk of Cinemark, a Dallas-based company that owns Tinseltown in Pearl. "Smaller films are not made available to smaller markets."
"Chicago," which just won the Best Picture Oscar this year first, opened in only 25 theaters in the entire country. The release strategy of the distributor was to gradually widen the market according to perceived need by making more and more prints of the movie available to more cities. You can imagine what a truly independent film like "Bowling for Columbine" has to prove to get wider distribution (which it may well be proving lately, especially after winning an Oscar.). The distributor of "Spiderman," on the other hand, made a strikingly different market strategy. "Something like 4,000 prints were made and put into every theater available," Falk says.
With 37,000 screens in the country and prints costing somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000 each, distributors of smaller films have to pick and choose—and Jackson seldom makes the cut. "Since opening a movie on 3,000 screens could cost $6 million for the prints alone, the distributor must be sure that the movie can draw enough people to make the costs worthwhile," reports the Web site HowStuffWorks.com.
Jackson is not considered a "small market," but a "mid-sized" one. That's why we do occasionally get to see movies such as "Chasing Amy" and "Amelie." Other cities our size do receive many more independent, foreign or art house films. Austin, Texas, for example, is home to the University of Texas, giving it a proven market of young, upwardly mobile, educated and progressive-minded citizens nine months out of the year who demand access to good independent filmmaking. Jackson, on the other hand, although home to three colleges in the city limits and many others nearby—an estimated 36,000 college students—is not considered a "college town." And, let's just say, the distributors don't think Mississippians crawl very close to the edge, artistically speaking, very often.
Distributors are trying to appeal to "very specific demographic," Emling says. He may be putting it kindly. The truth is, they don't see Jackson as home to enough of the kinds of movie-goers who want challenging, controversial, experimental and daring small films.
We do, but truthfully we don't always make the effort. These days, our local cinemas are firmly ensconced in suburbs and strip malls many of us prefer not to drive to, and their owners are based in faraway towns like Knoxville and Dallas. And the distributors, who are in the business of making money (they get the bulk of the revenue from movies), either don't know or don't care that there is a market in Jackson for challenging, intelligent films.
"It's a rock and a hard place," says Karen Gilder, head of the Crossroads Film Festival, which will screen more than 60 independent films April 3-6. Movies won't come to Jackson because it's believed we won't support them. We can't support them because they won't come. "The reason film festival is so successful is because there's a need for films that do challenge the audience," Gilder says, adding that we must show the distributors that "we're willing to spend money; we want to be challenged."
And the festival is our chance to get the word out that we want the films, especially if we pack the theaters. (Hint, hint.)
Distributors and cinema owners be damned, but like with any other community-building, the first step has to be made from home. Jacksonians must leave the comfort of our remote controls and DVD players and venture out into the world on a regular basis, even at night. City dwellers must swallow hard and drive to the 'burbs to see indie films, at least until we get some theaters back in town. An audience has to be made; the desire has to be known.
The effort is well worth it. "Movies weren't made to be seen on small screens," Emling says.
Makin' An Art-Film Stink
Short of protesting Tinseltown, Jacksonians can take a number of actions to help build a strong audience here for independent film.
1. Join Crossroads Film Society ($35 for a single membership and up). Let the
society be a united voice. "If Crossroads had a big enough membership, they could rent a screen at a theater," Emling says—say, once a month for one week. He says just such a society helped to create a thriving film community in Taos, N.M.
2. Attend the Crossroads Film Festival; talk about the films.
3. Local theaters could take a pro-active stance by asking theater-goers what type of films they would like to see, conducting surveys and promoting smaller films
"For One Week Only" in the media.
4. Supporting the Capri (Pix? Whatever?) Theater in Fondren when and if it reopens (as a theater, we hope).
5. Start a phone campaign of local multiplexes asking when a certain film is coming. "When is "Bowling For Columbine" playing there?" "When can we expect to see 'The Quiet American'?" Ask why one screen can't be reserved for old hits and
smaller films year round.
6. Make a commitment. Decide to be a supporter of film. Stick to your resolve.
7. Ask theaters (the Arts Alliance? Crossroads?) to create a subscription service for movies, like season tickets. That way theaters will know what their base income will be for certain movies, and you won't have to see all the films to support them.
8. Keep up with indie films, even if they don't come here. Read about them; know what you're missing. Then you'll know what to ask for.
9. Petition local media for help in the matter. Write letters to the editor, call the radio and TV stations. Make a stink.