Monday, May 26, 2014

Indie movies in small(er) towns

...I often complain that Huntsville is not a movie person's town. It's a two hour drive in any direction to the nearest art house or revival theater. This is an engineer's town, a NASA town, so I know the population doesn't get all worked up about Joan Blondell and Buster Keaton the way I do. You would, however, think there would be a strong interest in a movie about physicists discovering the Higgs-Boson particle and a movie about the struggle to adapt one of the most influential science fiction novels of all time into a revolutionary film. Engineers love science, right? Aren't they really into science fiction? 
Living in New York, it is so damn easy to take the accessibility and availability of movies, past and present, Hollywood blockbusters and no-budget indies, for granted. Last week, I put together my schedule of outdoor films to watch this summer, a list that currently includes, among other things, a silent film, a French film, an Italian film and a classic Hollywood musical. These older, somewhat esoteric films are all gonna be shown for free - and if past experience is any indication, I expect each and every one of these films to be well attended.

So when Jennifer put up this piece about the tough time non-Hollywood movies have in her hometown, it reminded me, once again, of the year I spent living in the Midwest, far away from a major market city, and what the audience for indie films was like there.


Wexner Center for the Arts
Columbus, Ohio is a college town - proud home of Ohio State University and the dearly beloved football Buckeyes. As such, it attracts a diverse crowd, one that certainly favors the arts. The monthly Gallery Hop, in which the SoHo-like neighborhood of the Short North opens its galleries late for one Saturday night, attracts huge crowds and is always festive and lively. The Wexner Center for the Arts is one of the Midwest's best multimedia venues and consistently attracts world-class visual and performing arts exhibits.

And one can see independent films in Columbus. The Drexel in suburban Bexley is a classy art-deco theater that brings in top-notch indies. The Wex often presents indie films, sometimes with filmmaker appearances. And the Gateway Film Center usually mixes indies in with mainstream Hollywood stuff.

My experience with indie films in Columbus was mixed in terms of audience size. The Wex tended to consistently attract the bigger, more sophisticated crowds, relatively speaking. I saw the low-budget animated film Sita Sings the Blues there, and that drew a decent crowd for a film that had to rely completely on word of mouth. I also saw Steve McQueen's first film Hunger there; it played at the Wex before it came to New York, in fact. I don't remember the size of that crowd but it wasn't small - and this, of course, was long before McQueen became an Oscar-winning director/producer.


The Drexel
I would often go to the Drexel on Mondays, which is their cheapie day, so crowds tended to be a little bigger on those days. Still, audience sizes varied. I remember seeing the documentary Religulous there with maybe three or four other people, but Milk had a much bigger crowd. As for the Gateway, one of the first films I saw in Columbus was there; Frozen River. That also had a tiny audience, though it was a mid-afternoon show. In addition, there was a tiny one-screen theater on the west side of town (since replaced by a newer one) where I saw the documentary Man on Wire, to another tiny crowd. That theater was on its last legs at the time, though. Plus, Columbus, believe it or not, has the distinction of hosting North America's oldest film festival.

At the time, I felt grateful I could see movies like these, even if I had to wait a little longer for them than I would in NYC. The Drexel was in some financial trouble for awhile when I was there, and I do remember thinking that it wasn't getting the support it deserved. They're still around today, so I can only conclude that people do still want indie films in Columbus. Other than that, though, I don't remember consistently thinking that indies had it rough there. I suspect crowd size depended on stars & subject matter, venue and visibility, among other things. I still follow the Drexel on Facebook, and they still bring in quality indie films, foreign and domestic, so somebody's watching them.

From LA to Little Rock, indie films will always have to compete with big-budget Hollywood films for attention at the box office, and Hollywood will always have the upper hand, especially in the summertime when everyone wants to see superheroes and cartoons and whatnot. I've never been to Huntsville, so I can't speak to what it's like there, obviously, but there are times when I'll see a small crowd for an indie movie at the Kew Gardens here in Queens, and I'll feel the same sense of frustration as Jennifer - "Why aren't more people seeing this?" Still, theaters aren't going away anytime soon, even in this age of online streaming and video-on-demand, and as long as that continues to be true, I figure all we can do is continue to turn out for indie movies, whether it's one person or a hundred... because the theater is still the best way to see a movie. Any movie.

2 comments:

  1. I'd say things are still the same here in Columbus as when you lived here. The Wexner, Gateway and the Drexel continue to show independent and foreign movies, truthfully more than anyone would have time or money to watch. Compared to many midwestern cities, I think Columbus has it pretty good for movies (especially when you add in the Cinevent film convention - which just ended yesterday, its 46th year - the summer film series at the Ohio Theater, the indie movies shown at chain theaters and expanding and numerous film festivals).

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  2. I figured as much, but thanks for the confirmation.

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