Movie Label Fanboys

CA drafthouse-75If you like one Drafthouse Films release, you’ll probably like all of them.



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You know how a lot of music fans, particularly indie music fans, will find a record label they like and swear by it? This tendency may have gotten less common in recent years (i.e., the iTunes era). Personally, I went through Sub Pop, Merge, Matador, Touch & Go, and Kranky phases, and to this day I’m more likely to take a chance on something released by Drag City than I am any other record label: They’ve rarely steered me wrong in the past, and introduced me to all kinds of artists I now love. (It doesn’t hurt that sometimes DC dabbles in other mediums—they released Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers on DVD, and put his book of short stories, A Crackup at the Race Riots, back in print after it being unattainable for years.) But how come people don’t do this with movie distributors? I’ve always been much more deeply involved with film than I have been with music, and yet I can’t recall ever meeting one person who is something of a fanboy for one or more particular movie studios.

This is a shame because, like my above-mentioned Drag City scenario, once you come to trust a movie distributor, you become more open to take chances on their releases, and are often exposed to stuff you like but may not have seen otherwise. Now, in fairness, I do know people who do this with certain DVD and blu-ray labels—good luck finding a hardcore film nerd who doesn’t have a big boner for the Criterion Collection—and any studies of the rise of the studio system circa the 1930s will include the type of film each studio was most known to produce. High-production values and the most recognizable stars in MGM flicks, artier and more European-inflected films from Paramount, etc. And yes, there are always people who seek out the new Pixar movie because it’s the new Pixar movie, or who have seen every hand-drawn Disney feature ever made, and on like that.

The types of people I seem not to encounter, though, are the ones who swear by a smaller studio that doesn’t make in-house productions, but only buys the American distribution rights for pre-existing independent or foreign movies at film festivals and such. I first started paying attention to this type of studio in the late ’90s, when Artisan was releasing stuff such as Pi, The Limey, and The Blair Witch Project, and the now-huge Lionsgate was distributing Dogma, Mr. Death, and Buffalo ’66. (You might also recall that around this time people were flocking toward what Miramax was up to, if only to see who that year’s Oscar contenders were going to be.) But what about current independent movie distributors? IFC often releases good stuff—in recent years I was a big fan of both Frances Ha and Cave of Forgotten Dreams—but after they made a bajillion dollars on 2002 release My Big Fat Greek Wedding, they’ve been releasing a whole bunch of movies per year. While a great many of them are good, IFC’s releases overall lack the curated nature recognized in some other studios. (The same goes for the heavyweight, studio-affiliated specialty distributors, like Sony Pictures Classics.)

While I often like theatrical releases from Magnolia (The Hunt, Compliance), Cinedigm (The Invisible War, Short Term 12), Kino Lorber (Computer Chess, A Touch of Sin), and Strand (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Post Tenebras Lux), the two studios most holding my fascination at the moment are A24 and Drafthouse Films. One has to assume that at least part of the reason why is that neither has really released all that many films so far—A24 has fewer than 20 films under their belt, and Drafthouse has about 30—so they’ve had fewer opportunities to fail; all of the studios mentioned so far in this column have upward of 100 theatrical releases, barring only Artisan and Cinedigm.

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Despite the small number of films A24 has released so far (at the time of this writing they have eight movies that have already opened and five more on the docket—and this is total, not just in 2014), their standard of quality is awfully high. Last year’s Spring Breakers landed at the #3 spot on my list of the top 10 films of the year, and Under the Skin, one of their releases so far will surely claim a spot on my 2014 list, with another film, Enemy, not far behind. That’s not a bad average. I have so far seen seven of A24’s releases ever, and wouldn’t hesitate to say I loved two of them—with another couple being very strong—and there hasn’t been one stinker in the bunch.

I’ve written in Celluloid Atrocities before about how much I love the Austin, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse theater chain (who opened a location in Kansas City two years ago—come on, St. Louis!), so it probably comes as no surprise that I also love their distribution arm, Drafthouse Films, which they began in 2010 with their release of the very funny Four Lions. Unlike most of the studios listed above, a great deal of Drafthouse’s releases never seem to open theatrically in St. Louis, even if they do in other, bigger cities. To my knowledge, the only one of their films to so far get a semi-regular release here was last year’s The Act of Killing, which I ranked as the #2 best film of 2013. Elsewhere, Late Nite Grindhouse has run a handful of its films at midnight at the Hi-Pointe, which I always make a point to run to, and both Klown and Bullhead showed at SLIFF in 2012; unfortunately, that’s about it for Drafthouse and St. Louis. That’s a shame, as, like A24, they have so far not released a bad film. What’s more, and fitting with the theme of this article, most Drafthouse releases fit a type than, say, A24’s releases or Cinedigm’s or Kino Lorber’s: If you like one Drafthouse release, you’ll probably like all of them. So far, they have been focusing on three predominant types: cult films (The Miami Connection, The Visitor, Cheap Thrills—films Late Nite Grindhouse tends to run), documentaries (the aforementioned The Act of Killing, A Band Called Death), and repertory releases (Wake in Fright, Ms. 45), which are often cult-like in nature. Think of Drafthouse as a somewhat more respectable Troma, and you’re on the right track (except that they don’t make any in-house productions—or so far, at least).

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Every Drafthouse film mentioned above is absolutely worth seeing, and some of them are even great (The Act of Killing, Wake in Fright), but even the lesser Drafthouse releases deserve tracking down. My least favorite movie they’ve distributed so far is Pieta, which is a lesser film from South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk, whom I sometimes like. One of their least financially successful releases so far is last year’s I Declare War, a riff on a war movie that exclusively stars children and centers on a game of Capture the Flag that they’re playing in the woods. It’s mysterious that more people don’t seem to care about that film, as it does a whole lot of hard things very right.

2014 is looking to be a good year for Drafthouse, too. Their upcoming release slate is strong. I have already seen and can vouch for 20,000 Days on Earth (a documentary on Nick Cave, set to be released this September) and The Overnighters (a documentary about a priest who lets homeless itinerant workers sleep in his church, much to his small town’s dismay, set to be released in November). Apart from those are new ones from Michel Gondry (Mood Indigo, July), Sion Sono (Why Don’t You Play in Hell, October), and Hitoshi Matsumoto (R100, December), all of which I am excited to see. So maybe this will be the year that we can begin to more reliably get Drafthouse releases in St. Louis theaters.

Even if you never paid attention before (which seems to be the case for just about everyone in the world), now is a good time to start piecing together the studios that you trust. Apart from it being a good way to open yourself up to new movies you may otherwise not have heard about, it is also a handy solution to a modern problem: Here in St. Louis, there are few to no good options to buy DVDs and blu-rays from places other than big box retailers and fucking Amazon. Scarecrow Video is always a good alternative, but barring them, you can generally buy this stuff directly from the studio, thereby cutting out the middleman. Some studios even offer exclusive sets—for example, the “Total Package” edition of Drafthouse’s release of The Final Member comes with a real, preserved bull penis. Tell me you’re not interested in Drafthouse Films now. | Pete Timmermann

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