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Racking Focus: The Distribution Paradox

Manohla Dargis's treatise on the state of film distribution merits reflection.

Manohla Dargis's recent article about the buying climate in independent cinema - in which she admonishes distributors to be a bit more discerning at the forthcoming Sundance Film Festival, and about buying in general - has been the talk of the independent film world as of late, and rightfully so. With the New York Times (which has a policy of reviewing every film released theatrically in New York) having reviewed over 900 films in 2013, Dargis pointed out that the specialty film market is becoming glutted to the point where indies that deserve more attention can suffer due to too much unworthy competition. In essence, she's arguing that the highest-quality indies (she specifically references Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess, which grossed a little over $100K in theaters) are having their thunder stolen from the sheer mass of independent releases crowding theaters nowadays.

Dargis makes a lot of excellent points, as have those who have provided retorts. The key reason many independent filmmakers "four-wall" (rent out) indie theaters for a week in New York is so that they may receive the aforementioned review in the Times, which, if positive, can be a career-changer, or at least make financing the next movie a lot easier. It's true that plenty of films doing this kind of self-distribution are lacking in merit compared to higher-profile indies, but it's also true that there are plenty of diamonds in the rough, films and filmmakers who have come to the attention of the film world due to the greater volume of film distribution, that might not have in a more conservative climate.

It's a bit of a paradox: more indie films getting distribution means a greater chance that worthy films will be overshadowed by unworthy competition, as Dargis argues. However, fewer films in distribution means there's a greater chance that a worthy film will go overlooked. What's the answer?

The legitimacy being sought by filmmakers here is that of a positive review conferred by the Times. Indie filmmakers highly value something from such a venerated cultural source that validates their artistry. As many have already petitioned for, the answer may be having institutions like the Times review films that receive VOD-only releases; in this situation, the filmmakers still have a shot at earning greater legitimacy as artists, while the marketplace isn't so overwhelmed with options competing for slots in various art house theaters. This would mean a lot more critics would need to be hired, but seeing as how film criticism has become an increasingly endangered job as of late, this can't be considered a bad thing.


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