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The Cricket: The 'Utahness' of loving art-house movies

Published May 31, 2012 2:03 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Nobody would trust a restaurant critic who only reviewed the cuisine at The Olive Garden, Chili's and Applebee's.

But some readers tell me that's what they want in a movie critic.

Last week I received an email complaint from a Provo reader who took me to task for always reviewing the movies that play at the Broadway Centre Cinemas, downtown Salt Lake City's art-house theater, and reviewing them more favorably than movies playing in the multiplexes.

"You are obsessed with reviewing every single movie that plays [at the Broadway], instead often more of the ones that are wide run and we can choose theaters," the letter writer wrote, adding "you always give those movies better reviews."

The letter concluded: "C'mon, Sean. Let go of your Utahness of trying so hard to be cool with loving 'art' or 'noir' films and give us all a break."

This last comment took me aback. As a transplanted Utahn (albeit more than 20 years ago), my perceived bias toward art-house movies is usually used as evidence that I'm not Utah enough.

Of course, perception and reality aren't always in sync. The perception is that critics love art-house movies, hate anything that smacks of being commercial, and never the twain shall meet.

The reality is a good deal more complicated.

As a moviegoer, I grew up on blockbusters. In 1977, I took a bus halfway across Spokane, transferred onto another bus to take me the across the other half of Spokane, and waited a couple of hours just to see "Star Wars" for the first time. I can hum the "Indiana Jones" theme and once watched "Dune"in a freezing theater when the boiler went out.

As a critic, I've seen great blockbusters ("The Avengers" is the most recent example) that had me cheering. I've also seen gawdawful art-house films that bored me to tears. There's no rhyme or reason to it — and no objective standard that allows me to predict in advance which movies will be wonderful and which will be terrible.

There are a lot more independent movies in the world than multimillion-dollar studio projects. In an average summer weekend, Utahns will see one or two studio films open, and three or four art-house titles. When the same $100 million can make one big movie (or, more likely, half of a big movie) or 100 small movies, the raw numbers favor the little films.

Where the little films aren't favored is in marketing. A studio that has already sunk $200 million into a "tentpole" release will then protect its investment by plunking down an additional $50 million in marketing. That's why you knew everything about "The Avengers" or "Men in Black 3" weeks before they hit theaters, while you may know next to nothing about the indie films that arrive in any given week.

It takes a great many gatekeepers to sort through that mass of low-budget films.

The first line are film festivals — especially, for American independent films, Utah's own Sundance Film Festival, which sifts through thousands of submissions every year for the approximately 120 films it schedules for audiences in Utah.

Then those 120 are seen by movie distributors, by critics and by audiences. The distributors determine which ones they can sell to a bigger audience and which ones the critics and audience reactions tell them might have a shot at greater glory. That's what determines what eventually trickles down to an art-house audience.

That's when they can find an art-house theater, which are getting rarer by the day. (Tori Baker, director of the Salt Lake Film Society — the nonprofit that operates the Broadway and Tower theaters — was distressed this week to learn that the Pleasant Street Theatre in Amherst, Mass., is closing June 8.)

Neither the art-house theaters nor the movies that screen in them have massive marketing budgets. They rely on word-of-mouth — and often the first mouth spreading the word belongs to the critic.

It's a gamble, though, because critics have this annoying habit of telling people what they think. This separates them from marketers, who tell people what their clients pay them to say.

And here's where that restaurant analogy comes into play. The art-house movies are like the mom-and-pop eateries, going up against the marketing might of the national chains.

A tiny Italian restaurant may or may not have better food than, for example, The Olive Garden. But there's a good chance that the family-owned place will take risks that the national chain — with its focus groups and test-marketed desire to be all things to all diners — won't take. And for a small joint to succeed, sometimes all it takes are some appreciative words from an expert who's tasted a lot of food and can describe what's good: A critic.

The last piece of the puzzle isn't the critic, but the audience. Readers ultimately decide whether the critic's work is validated. It's not a restaurant critic who keeps a good eatery open, but the readers who follow the critic's advice and agree that the food there is good. Movie critics don't rescue a hidden gem of a movie; it's the moviegoers who dig out that gem once the critic has spotted it.

Thankfully, Salt Lake City has a discerning group of diggers. Movie audiences here love the blockbusters, but they also have been trained on decades of Sundance Film Festival screenings to appreciate great independent movies that fall outside the Hollywood mainstream.

So maybe cinephilia is a sign of Utahness after all.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at movies@sltrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/themoviecricket.