When bad things happen to good films

Once again, a major studio has refused to release a good film for all the wrong reasons.


September 10, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

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.

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