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An Intriguing Trend in Contemporary Film Distribution

This past Monday afternoon I went to the AMC River East theater in downtown Chicago to catch a matinee screening of A Simple Life, the latest film from veteran Hong Kong director Ann Hui. This low-key, naturalistic drama features Chinese superstar Andy Lau in an impressively de-glammed and un-showy turn as a movie producer who takes care of his elderly maid after she’s had a stroke. Hui, a terrific director of actors, has a long track record of taking charismatic actors known for flashy performances and guiding them into subtler and more nuanced territory. (See for instance the brilliant performances of Anthony Wong as a kindly priest in Ordinary Heroes or Jackie Cheung as a high school teacher going through a mid-life crisis in July Rhapsody.) But A Simple Life ultimately belongs to Deannie Yip who plays the maid, a performance for which she deservedly won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival last fall. Unfortunately, I do not have time to write a proper review (I’m in the middle of finals for all seven classes I’m teaching and the other posts that will appear here in the next couple weeks have already been written in advance) but I can heartily recommend the film, especially to lovers of Chinese cinema; it is a movie about compassion made with compassion, qualities that are always refreshingly welcome. I would however like to note a few things about the movie’s incredibly odd theatrical distribution, which I think are emblematic of our times but which should also be oddly encouraging for cinephiles.

A Simple Life‘s distributor, an outfit named “China Lion,” booked the film at the River East, one of the Loop’s most popular multiplex theaters, without bothering to place print advertisements nor hold press screenings (call it the “anti-Avengers“). It appears they didn’t even have any movie posters created for the engagement. There certainly weren’t any on display inside or outside of the theater when I was there. The only advertising the film has received that I am aware of is through China Lion’s facebook page. Further, the film was projected digitally, probably from a blu-ray disc, which means the company was also spared the expense of striking prints. In other words, virtually no money was spent to distribute and promote A Simple Life in Chicago. This strikes me as an unprecedented instance of movie exhibition where the traditional duties of a “distributor” have essentially been eliminated from the process. China Lion’s thinking appears to be that they will simply book the movie in North American cities with “large Asian populations” and then rely solely on social media and word of mouth to draw in audiences. I myself would have never become aware of the release had it not been for Ben Sachs’ recent blog post about it at the website of the Chicago Reader. This entire phenomenon fascinates me because it could have only occurred in the 21st century, after the rise in popularity of both social media and digital projection.

What I find most intriguing about the unusual distribution of A Simple Life in Chicago however isn’t so much the lack of traditional promotion but the fact that it’s playing at the River East (China Lion apparently has an exclusive deal with the AMC chain.) I feel this speaks to the by-now familiar notion that we are living in a world where “mass culture” is rapidly being replaced, for better or for worse, by countless niche markets. Instead of having to go to a “niche theater” to see a “niche movie” (as was always the case in the past), it now looks like the option of seeing a deeply obscure movie in a state-of-the-art multiplex may be the wave of the future. Several of my students at suburban colleges have informed me that it is common for new Bollywood and South Korean films to play suburban mutliplexes in areas where the immigrant populations from those countries is high. I’m assuming that film reviews and paid advertisements for those movies is likewise absent from the mainstream suburban press.

I hasten to add that if China Lion were to distribute certain movies in this under-the-radar fashion (like, say, Wong Kar-Wai’s highly anticipated The Grandmasters), I would feel outraged because I would know that those films deserve a higher-profile release. But A Simple Life is the kind of quiet, small movie that was never going to get picked up for U.S. distribution otherwise and therefore I’m exceedingly grateful to China Lion for allowing me the chance to see it on the big screen. By contrast, keep in mind that Johnnie To’s masterpiece Life Without Principle, a film ostensibly more accessible than A Simple Life, was picked up by a U.S. distributor last September who still have no plans to release it and will probably end up dumping it straight to DVD. The moral to all of this is that if you consider yourself an adventurous filmgoer (and if you’re reading this blog post then you probably are), it may no longer be enough to rely on reviews or advertisements if you want to know what good cinema fare might be playing at a theater near you. You may want to closely scan the titles of the films playing at your local theater and then be prepared to do a little research to figure out exactly what the hell they are. And, of course, you should keep reading this blog.

You can visit the English-language version of China Lion’s website here: www.chinalionentertainment.com

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

22 responses to “An Intriguing Trend in Contemporary Film Distribution

  • Digital Cell

    I believe THE MAN FROM NOWHERE (S. Korea) was shown at the AMC Barrington 30 theatre last year without any advertising at all. I couldn’t make it so I caught it on DVD a few months later. Apparently, the film make some good money during it un-publicized release here in the states.

    -Miguel

    • michaelgloversmith

      Miguel, I’ve been hearing more and more about these under-the-radar screenings and I’m absolutely fascinated by the concept. I’m going to make it a priority to try and find out about them. Let me know if you hear about any in more in the Chicago-area.

  • How China Lion Plopped A New Ann Hui Movie Into A Chicago AMC Multiplex With No Distribution Activities « Movie City News

    […] How China Lion Plopped A New Ann Hui Movie Into A Chicago AMC Multiplex With No Distribution Activit… […]

  • david

    Brilliant post,Mike.It’s professional,current,relevant,thoughtful,might be my fave piece on your blog,and I really don’t expect to see this kind of stuff on others’ blogs.

    First thing first,yeah,A Simple Life is brilliant,I did not see her early films,but it is definitely the best from what I’ve seen so far.

    Second,the basic thing about the distribution issue is – there are no audiences,admit it.It’s just like The Readers and 127 hours never had the chance to be shown in a Chinese cinema.Simply because no one would go to see it!!

    I think China is definitely much worse when you talking about arthouse cinema,as far as I know,there is only 3 in Beijing,let alone other cities.The taste of mass audiences are just… I don’t want to complain about it,but this is the fact.

    Another thing I want to say is that for most people,movies are just for entertainment,there is no way going back from office,exhausted,and watch a Bergman film,it’s just impossible for most people!!

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the kind words, David. Interestingly, the most positive feedback I tend to receive about this blog is when I write posts concerning film culture in general (such as this one or the earlier post about “Cinephilia in the Internet Age”) rather than just straight film reviews. I’ll try to do more like this in the future.

      I know what you’re saying about people wanting to be entertained after a long hard day at work. Hell, I just watched Anchorman for the first time, an experience where I basically turned off my brain and thoroughly enjoyed myself. However, I think you should be careful when talking about the “taste of the mass audience.” The taste of the mass audience is ultimately determined more by distributors and exhibitors than by the audience. I mean, when a movie opens on 4000 screens in America, of course it’s going to do well! But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily what people want to see. People tend to see whatever happens to be playing at their local theater and distributors and exhibitors seem to be becoming more and more risk-averse, which I find disturbing. The world would be better off if there were more diversity in terms of the kinds of films being distributed.

      • david

        I love this kind of post,Mike,It’s what makes your blog so unique,just like the Chinese films on my blog if you allow me brag a little bit.

        I don’t think there are no attempts from the distributors showing arthouse films.Jia’s 24 Cities was shown in Chinese cinemas in big cities,but what a loss it suffered,they have to withdraw it very early.

        For me,the issue is,big cinemas only show big films.If you expect to see more Arthouse films in cinema,the only hope is the rise of local Arthouse cinemas Maybe when you or me become a millionaire,we would try something like this,haha.

      • michaelgloversmith

        Ha! Well, you’re certainly doing your part with your blog. After all, people first have to become aware of movies, often by reading about them, before they decide they want to see them.

  • Bherz

    Really interesting Mike. Encouraging too — it’s nice to learn of a movie by passing it by in the theater and not necessarily online. I can’t remember the last time I’ve gone to see a movie without first checking the showtime, and mostly, learning of the movie without seeing it online first.

  • Bherz

    By the way, I’ve got Some Like It Hot in the DVD player now — it’s hilarious.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Some Like It Hot was the highest rated movie in the Intro to Film class I just finished teaching at Oakton Community College. A group of 26 students gave it an average rating of 9.0 on a scale from 1 to 10. That is an incredibly high average.

      • Bherz

        That is high. I liked it; why did you put it in your top 35 of your best films (was it that high)? No argument, just it didn’t strike me on one view as AMAZING, or something.

        I just saw the Avengers. It was AMAZING. Just kidding, but it had enough self-consciousness in the fact that it had assembled a huge cast of massively paid actors to make it good, I thought. I kept waiting for someone “really ridiculous” to make an entrance, like Keifer Sutherland as the agent from 24, or the guy from the Geico commercials. I actually thought it made some kind of insightful points about people being obsessed with / watching superheros. For instance, there’s a scene where they’re all arguing and pointing out each other’s flaws, like “Hey Ironman, you just have a really technological suit on, that’s kind of lame”; and “Hey Captain America, you have on tights; is that supposed to impress people?” Ie, IS that supposed to be impressive? Anyway, it did a pretty good job of carrying through the task of “here are the bad guys, they’re rully bad; here are the good guys, they’re rully good.”

      • michaelgloversmith

        Some Like It Hot is, for my money, the laugh-out-loud funniest movie ever. As with any comedy though, it must be seen on a big screen with an audience to be fully appreciated.

      • Bherz

        You are right – Im watching it again – it is so over the top. I think my favorite scene is the tango scene with the rich sea captain where he and Jerry are marching past each other and exchanging the flower stem with their teeth, and doing it with TOTAL determination on their faces.

      • michaelgloversmith

        Ben, have you felt a strange urge to listen to Nicki Minaj lately?

  • michaelgloversmith

    Somehow my SPAM filter flagged both of your Katy Perry commercials for the U.S. Marine Corps as SPAM. I had to click my rarely used “This is Not Spam” button to get them to appear.

  • silver price

    Though it is Ms. Ip’s first film in a decade, she has continued to work in television and music. It’s also the 10th movie that Ms. Ip and Mr. Lau have made together, in a professional collaboration that dates back more than 25 years.

  • CinemaCap ( Apr 26 – May 9 ) : A Collection of Great Reviews and Posts | Taste of Cinema

    […] films you must see from the early sound era to Nouvelle Vague,and his professional piece about the film distribution in the US is probably the best thing I’ve read on his […]

  • Top 10 Films of 2012 | White City Cinema

    […] USA) – CIFF. More here. 27. A Simple Life (Hui, Hong Kong) – AMC River East. More here. 28. The Last Sentence (Troell, Sweden/Norway) – CIFF. More here. Filmmaker interview here. […]

  • My Blog is Three-Years-Old | White City Cinema

    […] (Blazevski, Macedonia, 2011) – 7.7 The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (Thompson, USA, 2012) – 7.7 A Simple Life (Hui, Hong Kong, 2011) – 7.7 Lebanon (Maoz, Israel, 2009) – 7.7 A Love (Hernandez, […]

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