Fast Times at Carver High
In Variety, where industry rumors congeal into analysis and analysis hardens to consensus, the news is bad for filmmakers like Alexander Payne. "Small Pix Perplex Big Studios," reads a headline in the May 31 issue. The pix in question are the few recent films that were made relatively cheaply (for less than $10 million) and then released by studios more habituated to handling $50 million products. According to Variety, the result has been disappointment: for Buena Vista over Rushmore, for Sony over Go and for Paramount over Payne's Election, all of which "grossed less than $18 million at the box office--well below expectations."
As a Nation reader, you will refuse to pity anyone who trifles with such sums. But then, as a self-interested moviegoer, you might take seriously the studios' disappointment. Imagine yourself responsible for a production budget of, say, $8 million. Add the costs of advertising and promotion, and you might spend $15 million to release a clever little picture--with your cut of an $18 million box office amounting to some $9 million. That's why, as much as you might love Election, you probably would avoid the next project that reminded you of it.
So how are clever little pictures to reach an audience, if big studios shy away? Variety's writer, Andrew Hindes, speaks for the consensus when he says the answer lies with "minimajors" such as Miramax (a division of Buena Vista/Disney). These companies market films more economically than do the studios; they also "are more oriented toward painstaking publicity-driven campaigns." But this is precisely where I begin to fear for Alexander Payne, knowing that his previous film, Citizen Ruth, was a Miramax release.
Miramax does well with uplifting fare, such as Life Is Beautiful (feel good about the Holocaust!), Shakespeare in Love (feel good about Shakespeare!) or Kids (feel good that you're not one of those rotten kids!). The company seems less comfortable when it sets about marketing something like Citizen Ruth. That film is a nails-on-blackboard comedy about one of the undeserving poor who does not hesitate to sell her body to the highest bidder. Even worse: The part of her body that interests the bidders is her fetus. The protagonist, having stumbled into the midst of pro-choice and antiabortion activists, discovers she can play them off against one another for money--which is, in Alexander Payne's shocking view, the commodity of most use to a poor person.
I saw Citizen Ruth during the first week of its New York run and can recall being accosted at the multiplex door by a Miramax representative who was handing out audience survey forms. "We know this film is controversial," she told us as we entered. "Please give us your opinion, so we can know how to tell other people about Citizen Ruth." Such was the puzzle that Miramax had posed for itself; and I don't believe it ever figured out the answer.
I dredge up this history not to berate the company but to suggest that, mounds of publicity to the contrary, "Miramax" is not the equivalent of "Abracadabra." It's merely the name of a business, run by people with particular tastes and talents. Yet when this one firm is made into the paragon of the "independent" distributor (as it tends to be, in the New York Times as much as the trade papers), its preference for the cheerful, the sentimental, the just-slightly-daring begins to turn into an industry standard, to be emulated by the former October, Fine Line, Fox Searchlight and Screen Gems (divisions, respectively, of Universal, Time Warner, Twentieth Century Fox and Sony).
Citizen Ruth did not fit that mini-major standard. Now, it seems, Payne's new film, Election, has failed to fit the standard for big studio releases. It has received some excellent reviews and is becoming fodder for Op-Ed writers; but Variety says the picture is a disappointment, and so (to the industry) it must be.