film reporter

These days, some indies just can't read all about it

Alex Gibney's "Taxi to the Dark Side" won the best documentary Oscar. But when it opened Jan. 18 in New York, it didn't even get a one-paragraph review in the New York Post or New York Daily News.

It wasn't alone. An increasing number of smaller indie films aren't getting reviewed in key U.S. outlets, damaging their slim chances at boxoffice. If the trend continues, it could make it even more difficult for them to secure a release.

Reviews from established media outlets are the only reason many low-budget films make it to theaters because reviews trigger word-of-mouth and DVD-ready quotes vital to the indies' true profit source: home video.

But as more and more indie films have flooded the market, they are overwhelming critics.

"The number of films opening in New York City has exploded in the last three years — 14, 16, 18 titles some weeks, many of them shot on video and playing for a single week in one theater on the way to video," New York Post chief film critic Lou Lumenick says. "We simply don't have the space or the staff (three reviewers, all of whom have other responsibilities) to review them all, so we make tough decisions on a case-by-case, week-by-week basis."

At the same time, newspaper film departments have been hit by cutbacks. Critics have recently been laid off, bought out of their contracts or have left and not been replaced at the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, New York Newsday and more than 15 papers nationwide.

In their place, papers have begun running wire service reviews or relying on stringers. That, however, diminishes the impact of the reviews because "you don't know enough about a person's voice and what they like for their review to count," publicist Fredell Pogodin says.

To some extent, the Internet has taken up the slack, though the flood of online opinions don't necessarily carry the same weight as an established print critic. "We're not at a point where Internet writers have the credibility of established media with proven records and editors," ThinkFilm's Mark Urman says.

Movie City News blogger David Poland partly agrees. "For indie releases in New York, this is mostly true because they are the only arena of theatrical release still driven by newspaper quotes. It has nothing to do with Web critics' credibility or proven records. It has a lot to do with a market that tends to be older and comforted by the familiar."

Fellow blogger Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere begs to differ. "People who support indie movies tend to be more Internet-fluent, and there are maybe eight or 10 online critics who genuinely matter and are, in the parlance of the trade, 'conversation starters.' Due respect, but insisting that review quotes are still about print critics is generational hubris."

Meanwhile, the line between print and Web is blurring. Although it didn't cover them in print, the Daily News offered online-only reviews of "Taxi," the Oscar-shortlisted docu "Lake of Fire" and the award-winning "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."

Joe Neumaier, who began as a Daily News critic after those reviews were relegated to the Web site, admits "smaller movies run the risk of getting short shrift due to space restrictions and higher-profile films taking those places. It's sad, and it's Darwinian, but hopefully we'll evolve to a point where there'll be room for everyone."

Or perhaps Darwinian principles will win out and the indie world will have to learn to live without the print attention it's relied on. "The only complaints we've gotten (about not running some reviews) are from publicists and distributors," Lumenick says. "Not a single one from readers."
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