Yes, I know—it’s only barely spring, but that’s becoming less and less related to the somewhat peculiar way in which the motion picture industry views the world. The winter (post-Christmas) is still the major repository of the worst the movies have to offer—with audiences finding relief only in films from the previous year that are only filtering into the provinces in the dead winter time. That looked a little different this year with the February release of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and the early March opening of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
It’s a little more rarefied, but the limited release of Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer in February also qualifies as something other than the usual winter rubbish. While Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone and Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman were both critical and commercial disappointments, they’re still not the kind of releases we think of in terms of the winter dumping grounds. It should come as no big surprise then that spring is already giving way to movies that we might more readily associate with summer. This week we have How to Train Your Dragon and next week the remake of Clash of the Titans.
Come the first week in May we get what’s being viewed by studios and exhibitors as the first of the big summer pictures with Iron Man 2, trailed by the Ridley Scott-Russell Crowe teaming of Robin Hood the next week. Before that month is out you can add Shrek Forever After, Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Michael Patrick King’s Sex and the City 2. No, this isn’t that new—Spider-Man 3 opened the first week May in 2007—but Hollywood is clearly making the push to narrow the window between the big Christmas season and the summer blockbusters.
Theoretically, this is good news for moviegoers. I’m certainly not complaining about a winter slate that gave us Shutter Island, Alice in Wonderland and The Ghost Writer. It made the usual fare more bearable. But is there a catch to all this? Apart from the obvious pitfall of a movie glut—not everyone can see everything that comes out—and the equally obvious problem of sensory overload, I have questions about corner-cutting in some cases. That issue is raised by the impending release of Clash of the Titans.
It’s not uncommon for films to be remonkeyed for 3D after being shot in 2D, which is the case here. It’s all part of the mania to cash in on the popularity of 3D and that very lucrative three to five dollar surcharge. (It’s not, they insist, for the glasses, but to offset the cost of refitting the theaters for 3D—even if viewers will be paying that long after the cost has been recouped.) And make no mistake—however you may feel about the process—it’s popular. When Alice in Wonderland took over all the local 3D screens but the ones at the Carmike 10, the attendance there for Avatar—as the only venue in town with it in 3D— jumped dramatically. All in all, the process is the prefered choice at this point in time. But Clash of the Titans in 3D tests the limits of the availability of digital 3D screens.
Alice in Wonderland hasn’t run out of steam, but it’s being jostled off local 3D screens to make way for How to Train Your Dragon—except for those at the Beaucatcher where Dragon isn’t opening and one screen at the Regal Biltmore Grande. Now comes the catch. Dragon is expected to take the weekend box office (clipping the 3D wings on Alice will help ensure that). Theaters do not drop number one films after a single week—and I doubt Paramount would stand for it. According to Roger Ebert, Paramount insisted that theaters book Dragon in 3D if they had the capability of using that format. (The 2D version would be available for other screens at those theaters and for theaters without 3D houses.)
That means that Clash of the Titans ought to be running smack into a wall as concerns screens on April 2. But it isn’t and the answer in part is 35mm 3D—which is somewhat removed from the digital version, though probably not as much as our digital-obsessed movie industry would like us to believe. Now, in at least one instance, this will be accomplished with a polarized 3D system, requiring a special lens and a silver screen much like digital 3D does.
The results should be fine, but all in all this isn’t appreciably different from the 3D enjoyed by viewers of House of Wax back in 1953 or Flesh for Frankenstein in 1974. (I doubt, however, that Clash will feature either a guy with a flyback paddle, or a liver on the end of spear dangling over the audience.) It remains to be seen whether anyone is showing the film in the anaglyphic process (the red and blue glasses), but it seems unlikely. Spy Kids 3D (2003) and The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl (2005) got away with that bargain basement system (to tepid box office), but that was before the current 3D explosion in polarized 3D. My guess is that any theater that hasn’t room for it in digital 3D or doesn’t have the 35mm polarized system (which I’m told is exclusive to the Carolina in Asheville) will run Clash in 2D.
Whatever the case in the 3D-ification of film (I’m waiting for the announcement that Letters to Juliette is being converted to 3D), we do appear to be looking at some shifting in the way Hollywood rolls out movies with more big and quality (occasionally, these are the same—very occasionaly) releases being spread over the year. This may, in fact, be related to the ten film Oscar list for Best Picture. In turn, this may be part of the logic behind moving Shutter Island from fall 2009 to winter of 2010—to deliberately have a major film from a major director take some of the onus off the season. Time will tell how this plays out, but it should be interesting, especially since their release dates did no perceptible harm to Shutter Island and Alice in Wonderland.
So are you ready for spring in winter and summer in spring? And if you are, I’d like to end this with reiterating some of basics of moviegoing common sense and good manners I put forth in the very first “Screening Room.” The biggest of these is so simple that it ought not need be said, but it apparemtly does—know what you’re going to see. If you don’t like violence or sex or nudity or what is euphemistically called “language,” find out whether one or more of these elements is present before you go and get yourself offended. The information is readily available. If nothing else, check the rating and the reasons behind that rating.
That brings up another issue—don’t assume you have knowledge you don’t. I’ve seen viewers who were not merely outraged by the fact that someone under 17 had managed to get into an R-rated movie, but insisted that the theater had violated “federal law.” That’s nonsense. The MPAA ratings have nothing to do with the federal government. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The whole idea of ratings—and the earlier self-governing attempts by Hollywood—represent the motion picture industry’s own set of guidelines, set up to specifically avoid a government censorship board. And that’s all the ratings are—guidelines. Some individual states used to have censorship boards and some have adopted the ratings as state law, but that’s as far as it goes.
Similarly, you may not approve of parents with children attending an R-rated film, but complaining to the management about it is a waste of everyone’s time. The theater is not in the job of teaching parenting skills, nor do they have any right to do so. Spare your blood pressure and spare the theater manager’s time on this one.
Consider your venues. Most theaters are part of a corporate chain. The manager has very limited powers. They are told what and how many trailers to put on a film and they are told what ads to run. (They also have no say in setting ticket or concession prices.) If you want to complain about this, complain to corporate headquarters. Also know a theater’s policy. Most corporate theaters run from five to seven trailers before a movie, giving you a window of about 15 to 20 minutes to get into the theater without missing any of the feature. But to take one example, the Fine Arts Theatre runs no ads and they run two or three trailers, so there’s a venue where you can’t expect that window for being late.
Here’s another one—just because a theater has a poster up or runs the trailer for a movie does not guarantee that theater will have that movie. Movies are allocated—especially in the case of theaters close to each other—and those allocations are often not made until long after posters and trailers have been sent out. On some occasions a movie will be advertised that fares so badly in test marketing that it never plays anywhere. (We saw trailers and posters for December Boys in 2007 and for The Boys Are Back in 2009, but the films never opened.) A TV trailer on national TV may claim that the film “starts Friday,” but that doesn’t mean it starts in your town on Friday. If you call a theater’s movieline number and it doesn’t give you the times for a particular movie, that probably means they aren’t playing that movie. Mistakes do occur, yes, but chances are that the movie was booked elsewhere.
Remember that only two local first-run theaters—the Fine Arts and the Carolina—are not part of a large—or semi-large—corporation. What does this mean to you? Well, among other things, it means that these are the only theaters where suggesting movies or anything of that sort is going to have any potential impact. The managers at corporate theaters have something less than no say in what gets booked, so there’s no point in telling them they need to book that new movie from Peter Greenaway or Pedro Almodovar. They might think so, too, but it’s not their call. With the independents that changes. It’s also in your best interests as a moviegoer who wants more than the most mainstream fare to support those theaters that bring it to you.
As far as moviegoing manners are concerned, all I’ll say is talking, cell phones and texting are just plain bad manners. I shouldn’t need to say anything more than that. Now get out there and watch movies.