December 8, 2011

Starting Friday, moviegoers in New York and Los Angeles get to white-knuckle it through the Cold War thriller “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth. Washingtonians, however, have to wait an extra week. The movie isn’t slated for release in the nation’s capital until Dec. 16.

Doesn’t make sense, does it? After all, this is where Jackie told Jack that she did not want to evacuate when Fidel and Nikita had us on the brink, where spooks haunted suburban parks and Chinese restaurants and embassy parties. We’re on a first-name basis with the Cold War here. Why not open the film in Washington instead, or at least simultaneously with L.A. and the Big Apple?

It’s a sad fate that our region’s moviegoers know too well: Washington gets films (especially the really good ones) after New York and Los Angeles, sometimes even after Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. Back in the day, when there were only so many prints available and film distributors invented a pecking order, we were deemed second-rate. Washingtonians were supposed to have other things on their minds (pressing global concerns, perhaps?), and marketers devised a mysterious and self-serving metric for how long it took the cultural conversation to reach us.

In the 1980s, it was four weeks. Now, with their formula adjusted, the gurus say it’s more like two weeks — which is how long we’ll have to wait in January, when the Meryl-as-Maggie biopic “The Iron Lady” comes our way. Apparently, we’re still far behind the times.

Except we’re not, and there’s no good reason for Washington to take a back seat to New York or Los Angeles anymore. This is a city that starts conversations, and its citizens are fluent in cinema — and not just movies about pressing global concerns.

On top of that, Washingtonians exhibit two behaviors that marketers value most: We make money, and we spend money. We’re buying all sorts of cognoscenti things — e-books and tagliatelle pasta, Mercedes Benz and Michael Kors — but movies still come to us via a creaking cultural conveyor belt that studios are too entrenched to modernize.

As moviemaking got more radical in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hollywood got more conservative with its marketing money, deciding that adventurous films needed time to entice adventurous audiences. “If you go all the way back . . . to movies like ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ ‘Easy Rider’ . . . all of the great movies of that era, they were platform-released,” explained Tom Bernard, a Sony Pictures Classics executive.

“Platforms” were imaginary tiers that started with cineaste audiences in the most populous cities — New York and Los Angeles — and descended to the hinterlands, with hype orchestrated region by region. “It took awhile for people to learn about the film,” Bernard recalled. “There was only the telephone and the newspaper.”

But why persist with this system now? “We have this argument almost weekly,” lamented Jamie Shor, a film publicist who recently opened D.C.’s West End Cinema and who has encouraged distributors to think anew about the region. Washington readers consume all the coverage — premiere shots on E!, interviews on Vulture.com, reviews in Variety — but can’t act on it, she said. Before the movie ambles into town, “the national campaign dies off,” Shor explained. “Many times, you lost the window to capitalize on a really engaged audience.”

But there is good news: Some box office numbers have D.C. inching ahead of other markets. “At this point, Washington, D.C., can be seen as a higher-performing market for us than Los Angeles, Boston and Philadelphia. But not New York,” said Neal Block, head of distribution at Magnolia Pictures. “Your audience is a mix between keyed-in and politically inclined and also ready for standard art house,” said Block, who noted that Tilda Swinton’s florid “I Am Love” drew crowds here last year. “I believe in D.C. as a market,” he continued, calling those who don’t “dinosaurs.”

Sony’s Bernard similarly saw big ticket sales for “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen’s time-travel adventure. The film was popular nationwide and remained so in Washington for months, morphing from a literati romance for the older crowd to a date movie for younger couples. “You can open Washington, D.C., now with five or six screens with competitive grosses,” said Bernard — by which he means we have more places to see movies, and they’re packed.

This season, Washington is showing what it can do: “Margin Call’s” critique of Wall Street is well-timed, and local audiences are buying lots of tickets, just as they did with topical documentaries such as “Food, Inc.” and “Page One.” And the Nov. 9 release of Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” marked a rare occasion — the film opened in Washington at the same time as in New York and Los Angeles, before being blasted to other markets two days later.

Yes, “J. Edgar” depicted the federal bureaucracy ably and condensed a ­half-century of complicated history, but here’s the bad news: “J. Edgar” depicted the federal bureaucracy ably and condensed a half-century of complicated history. So will the movie industry look at regional box office results for “J. Edgar” and decide that Washington didn’t do its part to sanctify an Important Film? Or was the nearly $35 million in ticket sales in four weeks nationwide a success that started here in Washington? The studios refuse to share their analysis.

Film execs haven’t realized that wonky movies are not all that plays well here. D.C. moviegoers have a knack for finding films that speak to them — and to others like them. Take 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” which opened first in New York and Los Angeles but became so popular in Washington that its long run at Landmark’s E Street Cinemawas the most lucrative of any booking in the country, according to Stephanie Kagan, who manages bookings at Landmark’s theaters at E Street and Bethesda Row.

“Weirdly, last summer’s ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ was a sleeper hit,” Kagan said. “It was based on a true story about a dancer that came over from China for a ballet career here.” Crucial marketing strategy: outreach to local dance companies, big and small, telling them that their kind of movie was coming soon.

“Things that are very, very specialized and look like it would have a tiny, tiny niche audience work well here,” Kagan said. If there’s a movie that looks like it would appeal intensely to two people, those two people will show up and tell everyone they know to do the same. “There’s a movie for everyone here and someone for every movie here,” Kagan said.

Small Washington movie houses have been getting monthly lessons in District demographics: Hip-hop lovers came in large numbers to see the documentary “Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.” Pacific Islander audiences turned out for “Amigo,” the John Sayles narrative feature about the Philippine-American War. Hispanic viewers showed up for “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez making a religious pilgrimage in Spain. Gay men thronged to see a one-night stand flower into love in “Weekend.” And “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu” lured former intel types, Iron Curtain emigres and practitioners of word-and-image polemics who are making Washington an international capital of documentary film.

New York will always be a land of plenty — there are simply more screens and more moviegoers — and Los Angeles is the obvious cinematic company town. But Washington is emerging as a megaphone city, a place where citizens often organize around a movie and amplify its values.

Early access to movies, therefore, would work for both Hollywood, which would benefit from a smart national forum, and Washington, which tends not to discuss movies after the conversation elsewhere has wrapped up. Mike Feldman, who worked for Al Gore, the presidential candidate, got to know this phenomenon when introducing Al Gore, the star of the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” “The former vice president giving a keynote address about global warming — it doesn’t immediately scream ‘box office success,’ ” recalled Feldman, who works at the Glover Park Group, a political strategy firm.

Through a concerted effort, columnists got to see the film early, as did science writers and environmental analysts. “That then gave the broader theater public permission to embrace it as a film,” Feldman said. Insider thumbs-up happened early and often.

Feldman’s firm took an entirely different film, 2009’s “The Hurt Locker,” and made sure the D.C. military community had a chance to chime in early. Absorbing the coverage, moviegoers saw that combat veterans gave the film their approval. “The community of EOD teams — you didn’t know these people existed, right?” Feldman said, referring to the military’s “explosive ordnance disposal” experts. “They looked at it and said, ‘This captured what we went through.’ When it came time for Oscar consideration, there were audiences that had the feeling this was real.”

Sony Picture Classics has taken a similar tack to hype movies, Bernard said, recalling Jimmy Carter’s visits to Washington in support of Jonathan Demme’s documentary about him, “Man From Plains.” Similarly, insiders got to see “Inside Job,” the financial industry post-mortem that aired to what Bernard called “the shadow community” — pundits and lawmakers assembled by Sony’s in-town lobbyist. After these influencers see a movie, “it goes through the government and translates back to where everybody’s from.”

In contrast, “The Ides of March” came and went; Washington can’t be relied on to rescue a film just because it’s political and stars George Clooney. Indeed, Feldman and his colleagues constantly tell potential Hollywood clients that “it doesn’t need to be about campaigns, politics or elections to be relevant to a community that considers issues and ideas,” he says. “It starts with you seeing the film, and you might tweet about it, you might blog about it, you might talk to a friend who’s a producer of a dayside cable show who might need a segment that is not a live shot from the Capitol or the White House.”

Washington has many such players who come out in droves to movies about all sorts of subjects, and their reactions can have all sorts of resonance, in ways that the sacrosanct “per-screen average” in our local Zip codes might never detect. “If you walk into the Loews in Georgetown on a Saturday night on opening weekend of any given title,” Feldman observed, “it’s hard to throw your Snickers bar across the room and not hit someone who has an audience, a following, a reach, some influence.”

Former senator Chris Dodd recently considered the mutual Washington-Hollywood obsession at a dinner honoring his arrival as chief lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America. The Connecticut Democrat said he has seen directors depict Washington intrigue ever since his father was a senator and he was a page, and Otto Preminger was given access to shoot “Advise and Consent” scenes in the Senate subway. He has seen Clooney expound on the Sudan, winning far more attention than the average Capitol Hill orator. But he noted that Hollywood does not necessarily realize how much movies mean to political power players. “It is part of my job to convince the industry that this is an important place to be,” he said.

At the soiree, a piano player banged out movie themes and guests guessed at the titles — with blazing success. “For two or three hours, Iraq never came up, the debt ceiling never came up,” Dodd recalled. “I was surprised how many had such knowledge.”

(A collection of 2012 movies that are likely to appeal to Washington audiences.)

marteln@washpost.com

Ned Martel covers politics and culture for The Washington Post.

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