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When bad things happen to good films

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's happened again. In its infinite wisdom, another Hollywood studio has decided to take one of its better movies and keep it from quality-starved movie audiences.

The film in question is "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her," written and directed by newcomer Rodrigo Garcia. Readers of Sun movie columns will recognize the name: Two years ago Garcia won a fellowship from the Maryland Producers Club that allowed him to complete the movie, which stars Glenn Close, Calista Flockhart, Cameron Diaz, Holly Hunter, Amy Brenneman and Kathy Baker.

The ensemble drama had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It was chosen to open one of the programs at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the GAN Foundation Award.

After both those outings, critics were warm to rapturous about the movie, which features breakout performances from Flockhart and Diaz. Just days after he returned from Cannes, the courtly, eloquent, soft-spoken Garcia presented "Things You Can Tell" at a private screening in Baltimore, at the Charles Theatre.

I left the theater looking forward to telling Baltimore filmgoers about a film I could actually recommend, a lovely little movie that not only showcases some wonderfully nuanced performances but is also one of the best-written films I've seen all year. A series of bittersweet vignettes about women of a certain age grappling with love, loneliness and loss, "Things You Can Tell" is a bit too soapy and contrived to be called a great movie. But it's certainly a very good one, and it's without a doubt better than most of the dreck we've been subjected to this summer.

All year, MGM, the studio in charge of distributing "Things You Can Tell," has been announcing opening dates, only to keep pushing them back. As of May, the opening date was some time in August. But then in July, the studio - whose specialty division, United Artists, bought "Things You Can Tell" a year ago, when it was still in post-production - perfunctorily announced that it had sold Garcia's movie to the Showtime cable network. What could have been a small art-house gem will now be seen by Showtime subscribers some time next spring.

A familiar story

In the course of writing about film for almost a decade, I've written this story too often. The first time I wrote it, I was celebrating a narrow victory snatched from the jaws of studio idiocy: The neo-noir thriller "Red Rock West," which had been sold by Columbia Pictures to HBO, received a theatrical reprieve when the visionary San Francisco theater owner Bill Banning took it on the road.

"The War at Home" wasn't so lucky. I wrote about that movie, a well-made Vietnam War drama directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Estevez and Martin Sheen, in 1997, when Disney decided that releasing it wasn't worth the trouble. Most recently, I told Sun readers about the best film they never saw in 1998, "Without Limits," Robert Towne's terrific biographical picture about the Olympian runner Steve Prefontaine. (The movie opened in just a few cities.)

Why do good movies get buried by the very studios that are supposed to champion them? We'll never get a straight answer. As far as "Things You Can Tell" is concerned, MGM will go on the record only with a diplomatic nonanswer. "It will be seen by a tremendously wide audience for Showtime," said Amanda Lundberg, senior vice president of worldwide publicity for MGM, who added that the network is expert at mounting campaigns for Emmy and Golden Globe awards. "They'll make it into a huge event, which we think is a wonderful opportunity for the movie."

Lundberg declined to explain why MGM is letting "Things You Can Tell" go. But generally in these situations, executives point to the huge cost of marketing films - which is now estimated to be around $50 million - as the culprit. Although "Things You Can Tell," which cost less than $2 million to make, surely wouldn't cost that much to market, it's still a challenging sell. The film doesn't fit into a generic niche. It's about relationships rather than action-adventure or romance; it's about the things that happen in the interstices of human events rather than heroics.

But even though Garcia's movie doesn't lend itself to explosive trailers and catchy tag lines, it has a lot of marketing potential. Members of the cast - who did the movie for far, far less than they usually make because they believed so strongly in Garcia's lyrical and observant script - have said repeatedly that they would do publicity for the movie, and that includes the of-the-moment Diaz and Flockhart. What's more, if early reviews are any indication, a fair number of critics, including this one, would have championed it in their communities.

With a well-proportioned release pattern - in, say, five to 10 choice cities - and a smart marketing campaign, "Things You Can Tell" would be perfectly poised to make at least a modest profit for MGM.

The studio's executives have insisted that an early test screening went poorly, that the verbal response from critics and filmgoers at Sundance and Cannes was not strong enough to justify a theatrical release, that for every critic who has gotten behind "Things You Can Tell," there's one who felt lukewarm to hostile toward it.

Some observers have suggested that the studio paid too much for the film, making it cost-effective to cut its losses and sell it to TV. Some have speculated that MGM lost interest in the movie - which it purchased on the strength of its script, its cast and 20 minutes of filmed footage - even before it made its debut at Sundance, that it never had any intention of releasing it in theaters, that it was a sweetheart deal between MGM's head Chris McGurk and his old friend Jon Avnet, who produced "Things You Can Tell."

No excuses

Whatever the scenario, shame on them. If "Things You Can Tell" was a marketing challenge, well, that's why the geniuses in the marketing department are paid the big bucks. If MGM thought it was "too risky" - a phrase that comes up more than once in conversation - to release such a small, specialized movie in a sea of blockbusters, then why did it buy it in the first place? If the studio screened the film for a targeted demographic group that didn't get it - "Ally McBeal" fans, for example - and left it at that, then it's simply not trying. If it paid too much for the movie at the outset, then it's derelict in its fiduciary responsibility. If it bought a pig in a poke, then its greed overcame its good sense (and surely not for the first or last time).

Meanwhile, by waffling on the release date, MGM squandered positive reviews in the national press, as well as momentum from Sundance and Cannes.

Jed Dietz, who first read Garcia's script when the filmmaker was at the Sundance Institute's Filmmakers and Screenwriters Lab and whose Producers Club of Maryland gave Garcia $10,000 toward finishing the film, said that the group was "stupefied" that "Things You Could Tell" isn't getting a shot in theaters. For Dietz, what happened to the movie is just a microcosm of a greater and grimmer reality of today's movie business.

Although cable television and the Internet represent a positive trend in terms of getting movies to viewers, he says, "the negative of that is that it takes distributors off the hook from a marketing standpoint. In the old days, they had to figure out ways to maximize the theatrical distribution, not only because the money was important but because the PR bounce was so important to them. ... Now a high-quality piece of work like Rodrigo's film doesn't get released. They just quit ... because they can quit with money in their pockets."

So MGM cuts its losses, Showtime gets an event movie relatively cheap and Garcia - fortunately - moves on with a promising career. At least "Things You Can Tell" will have a safe and supportive home at Showtime, where it will no doubt be treated with a strong publicity campaign.

The big losers here are filmgoers, who in the increasingly cutthroat world of the entertainment business, are usually the ones who are most quickly sacrificed.

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