|A scene from Disney's John Carter, starring Taylor Kitsch|
Back in the heyday of the big Hollywood studios, when every major company prepared an A picture and a low-budget B picture for each week of the year, no one expected that every movie would be a major event. Movies provided a variety of pleasures, and it wasn’t a big deal if you caught some of them on the fly – a lightweight vehicle tailor-made for a beloved star, a disposal musical showcasing a few terrific dancers or a handful of inventive production numbers, an ingeniously plotted murder mystery or film noir, a romantic comedy or an action picture with a smart, wisecracking screenplay. And though there are far fewer choices now and the vast majority of releases aren’t worth any intelligent viewer’s time or money, movies still provide a spectrum of pleasures. The problem is that the economics of filmmaking has taken many of them off the radar. Studios put the weight of their publicity machines behind only a selected few of the movies they bankroll, theatre owners play along, and, good or bad, a media event like Marvel’s The Avengers literally crowds other, smaller pictures out of the megaplexes. If you don’t live in a big, art-house-friendly city like New York or Boston or Toronto, you don’t get a chance to see anything that isn’t given a wide release, i.e., anything that isn’t groomed to be a hit. The only chance that a terrific little movie like Of Gods and Men or 50/50 or Margaret has of finding an audience is by word of mouth once an adventurous or lucky viewer stumbles across it on DVD. (Margaret, which was cheated of any chance at awards from critics’ groups by a studio that stubbornly refused to send out screeners of it at the end of last year, is finally coming out on DVD in July.)
But even mainstream pictures that might offer audiences some entertainment – movies that moviegoers in most locations can actually get to – often fall by the wayside. When so much emphasis is placed on box office receipts, the stink of failure comes off movies that don’t make an immediate mark. And even movie reviewers, whose job is supposed to be to guide the public around the distractions, to persuade readers of viewers or listeners that the movie with the loudest media coverage or the biggest numbers isn’t necessarily the one worth putting down twelve or fifteen bucks for, aren’t immune to the smell. Critics don’t generally reserve their nastiest barbs for a loathsome hit like The Hunger Games. They save them up for modest programmers like Man on a Ledge or expensive box-office bombs like John Carter.