by Spank the Monkey
Here’s a terrifying statistic for you. Last weekend – to be precise, the weekend starting Friday September 30th – eighteen films were released theatrically in the UK. They covered everything from Taylor Lautner’s first attempt at a leading role, via the new Lars von Trier, to a 3D documentary about cane toads. The weekly review pages were positively wheezing trying to fit that lot in. But how many of them are you likely to see at your local multiplex? Certainly not all 18.
So you end up with the scenario that I encountered just one week earlier. A horror comedy flick, Tucker and Dale vs Evil, was released to generally favourable reviews. The buzz piqued my interest, so I scanned the listings for it. Sadly, it looked like it would be close to impossible to see the film in my town.
My town, by the way, is called London. So what’s going on here?
What’s going on is part of a curious trend that’s been developing for a while, but seems to have really taken off in the last twelve months. And it’s all to do with how the way we consume movies – particularly minority interest movies – has changed over the last couple of decades. (‘Minority interest’ isn’t meant to be a euphemism for ‘bad’, but I can understand how people might see it that way.)
Tucker and Dale vs Evil is a perfectly fine little movie. It’s a one-gag reversal of the classic teen slasher plot: a bunch of college kids go for a holiday in the woods, and are slowly picked off one by one by a pair of local rednecks. At least, that’s how they see it. In fact, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are utterly charming chaps, who only really lack certain social graces and the knowledge that beer is not a cure for severed fingers. All the mishaps that befall the teens are entirely due to their own suspicions and prejudices, effectively turning this into a Final Destination sequel where the mythic personification of Death has been replaced by a pair of inbred yokels.
Still, despite those limitations, it’s an enjoyable romp with some amusing visual and verbal gags spread across its running time. It’s sparkily acted by all concerned, making good use of familiar faces from TV: Katrina Bowden is particularly impressive in the Final Girl role, getting more dialogue (and clothes) in a single scene here than she has done in five seasons of playing Cerie in 30 Rock.
But is it a film that deserves a full-size theatrical run? Probably not. So what do we do now?
We’re used to the idea that a big film lives or dies in its opening weekend. Movies operating at the level of Tucker and Dale, however, have historically had more of a long tail. A decade or two ago, it would have quietly snuck out on rental DVD, and slowly built a reputation as audiences saw it glaring at them from the Horror shelf at their local Blockbuster. Nige and Stef would have said something nice about it on Vids. If it gathered enough of a cult following, they might even have imported a print to play on the rep circuit, possibly in a double bill with Deliverance for ironic laffs.
The death of the rental market has put paid to that as a distribution plan. Retail DVD is all well and good, but people don’t browse speculatively through the shelves of HMV in the same way they did at Blockbuster, and are less willing to take a punt on a film that will end up cluttering up their house if they don’t like it. How do film companies let people know about the straight-to-DVD gems in their catalogue?
By not releasing them straight to DVD, that’s how. More accurately, by giving them the shortest, most cursory theatrical release they can. It’s a fiendish idea, because the press are still committed to reviewing every film that opens in a cinema, even if it’s only one cinema. The film gets coverage in all the papers and movie magazines, leading to increased brand recognition when it eventually pops out on DVD.
Does it work as a marketing strategy? Well, have you heard of The Human Centipede? Or A Serbian Film? Or Super? For all the column inches they generated between them, it’s worth noting that all three films played for no more than a week in a single London cinema, plus a few limited engagements across the rest of the country. In each case, the theatrical run was merely a loss leader for the subsequent home video release.
Tucker and Dale is more of the same, but with an added level of shamelessness. In the three examples I listed earlier, there was a gap of at least a few weeks between the cinema run and the video release. T&D, however, came out in a microscopic number of cinemas on September 23rd – the London part of its run bypassing the West End completely, consisting of one-performance-a-day screenings in Brixton and Mile End – and was released on DVD on September 26th, a window of three days. It makes you wonder if Vertigo Films care if anyone sees it in cinemas.
Still, it gives us a whole new game to play.
There are certain cinemas that specialise in these mini-releases of movies prior to a DVD coming out. In central London, there are the Apollo West End, the Prince Charles, and the tinier rooms at the Empire. Out of town, there are provincial screens like the aforementioned Brixton Ritzy and Mile End Genesis. I don’t know why these particular cinemas have become dumping grounds for these sorts of films, but at least now I know which cinema listings to focus on.
Because really, who needs more DVDs on their shelves? I’d rather see a ropey film at the cinema and be able to walk away from it at the end, than have a ropey disc that I’ll just have to dump on Oxfam eventually. So I quite like the idea of actively seeking out movies like this and catching them theatrically, no matter how hard the distributors make it to do so.
I may have given the impression that tacky horror films are the main ones that are treated this way, but that’s not true: Asian genre cinema gets dumped out in limited runs too. Last year, I trekked out to Brixton for one of the seven London screenings of the Donnie Yen vehicle Legend Of The Fist. More recently (and more classily), I watched the restoration of the 1962 Japanese classic Harakiri at the ICA, mere days before its Blu-Ray release. Come to think of it, I suspect they actually used the Blu-Ray for that one. The one time I had to admit defeat was at Chow Yun-Fat’s biopic of Confucius, which despite its national press coverage ran for just one week in a single screen in Newham.
What’s the attraction? Hard to say. There’s something about the experience (to quote Ray Winstone) that makes me much more keen to see a film in these circumstances, knowing that the distributors really don’t care if I’m there or not. I do appreciate that this makes me sound a bit wonky. But Tucker and Dale vs Evil is one of those films that works better with an audience laughing and groaning at it, and I’m glad that I made the effort to go to Mile End and see it that way.
We really do need some sort of alternative to video rental for duff-sounding movies, though. Maybe video on demand is the way to go – it has the same degree of disposability, and you don’t even have to suffer the embarrassment of handing over your crappy choice of film to a human being in order to check it out. If you want proof of that, let’s try a thought experiment using the Z-list selections which make up the FilmFlex catalogue on the Virgin Media on-demand service.
FilmFlex is currently advertising a film called The Dead Undead. Let me quote the synopsis for you. “A group of vampires has been infected by a mystery virus. The infection has turned them into blood-thirsty zombies who kill anyone in their way. A platoon of vampire commandos are the only ones who can stop the zombies. With Luke Goss.” Would I pay money to permanently own a copy of that film? Hell, no. Would I pay money to be in the same room as that film, on the one condition that nobody else saw me do it? Now you’re talking…