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Buzz Begins At The Burns

Jacob Burns Film Center 

Wednesday, October 17---------In this busy theatrical film season, as many as a dozen films premiere every Friday at local multiplexes. Many films that would benefit from a slow build up and the essential qualities of  "word of mouth" fail to ignite fire on their intial weekend openings and often disappear without a trace in a scant week or two. In the ferocious environment of theatrical distribution, if one's opening weekend is below expectations, the results can be disasterous. Distributors pull back on advertising dollars, exhibitors start shopping around for new product, and the public can often miss out on films of quality that need an audience base to sustain them.

So, thank goodness for the Jacob Burns Film Center, the premiere arthouse complex located in Westchester, north of New York City. As a not-for-profit film society with a growing list of members, the Center has taken to offering its loyal audiences advanced sneak previews of films that will be opening soon at more commercial theaters (or at the Burns Film Center itself). These previews often come with a personal appearance by the director, producer or actors, giving the screening events a great deal of cocktail party cache (film buffs certainly like to be in the know about new films before they actually open). By staging these previews, not only is the Burns Center providing an invaluable service to filmmakers and film distributors, but they are helping to create the necessary buzz that specialty films need in order to survive that crucial Opening Weekend. In the last 2 weeks, the Burns featured four such previews, helping create that critical buzz.

Two weeks ago, audiences were treated to an advanced screening of WE OWN THE NIGHT, the new urban thriller from writer/director James Gray, featuring an all-star cast including Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes and Robert Duvall. The film is a polished policier that also has Shakesperian overtones. Phoenix and Wahlberg play brothers who have each embarked on a very different path. Phoenix is a high-flying nightclub manager who pals with the Russian mob, while Wahlberg has followed in father Robert Duvall's footsteps as a police detective at war with the very same Russian mafia. Writer/director James Gray, who directed the Russian mob-themed LITTLE ODESSA (a winner at the Venice Film Festival that year), appeared for a post-screening question and answer, hosted by Burns Film Center Chairperson (and New York Times critic) Janet Maslin. Audience members (myself included) not only could hear from the writer/director about his motivations, struggles in getting the film made, but could ask questions after the screening.....an increasingly rare opportunity for the audience and filmmaker to bond.

Later that same week, we Burns bretheren were treated to an advanced screening of one of the quirkiest films of the year, direct from its smash showing at the Toronto Film Festival. LARS AND THE REAL GIRL is a Capraesque tale of love, longing and family directed by newcomer Craig Gillespie, and featuring another boffo performance from Ryan Gosling, one of his generation's most accomplished actors. In this quirky tale, Gosling plays a virutal shut in who orders a sex doll off the Internet and treats the plastic toy as the recipient of his concentration and affection. In order to help him, Gosling's brother and sister-in-law pretend that the object of his affection is, in fact, his real girlfriend. Friends and neighbors in the small Midwestern town also are in on the plan, awaiting the time when Gosling will come to his senses and realize that his paramour is plastic. While the plot may sound a bit salacious, it is, in fact, a sweet and affectionate tale with winning performances all around. As a special treat, director Craig Gillespie and the film's star Ryan Gosling made a joint appearance on stage. What happened next was a virtual love in, with audience members mostly moved and taken with the odd film, giving the film's distributor a confident boost that the film has major audience appeal.

Last week, Burns loyalists had the chance to view advanced screenings of two fascinating films hitting the theatrical circuit. ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES, the long delayed film from actor/director John Turturro, is a musical pastiche starring Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet and James Gandolfini. The film, which was finished over two years ago, has become an orphan when its original distributor was bought out. I caught the film at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2005, when it was being touted by then film distributor United Artists as one of their big releases of the awards season. When the film fell between the cracks and threatned to go directly to dvd before hitting film screens, Turturro decided to release the film on his own, with a smash three week run last month at New York's Film Forum now being followed by a national release. Turturro appeared on stage after the screening to answer questions about he film and talk about his travails in the worlds of film distribution and marketing. What emerged was a defiant study of personal commitment and persistance, a never-say-die spirit from a gifted artist with his own unique vision.

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is an intense humanistic drama, directed by Danish auteur Susanne Bier (BROTHERS), making her English-language directorial debut. The film stars Oscar winners Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro in a highly emotional tale of a recent widow who invites her husband's troubled best friend to live with her and her two children. As he gradually turns his life around, he helps the family cope and confront their loss. The film is being hailed as Berry's return to the calibre of her performance in MONSTER'S BALL after a series of career missteps. The audience was treated to a rare appearance by the director Susanne Bier, who talked about the film, her experience in working in Hollywood and the differences of developing projects in the supportive environment of Danish cinema.

All of the above films, despite their differences in origin and genre, have one thing in common......they are serious works of art that do not play by the same rules as Hollywood blockbuster titles. They require hand-held marketing and special attention in order to reach their target audiences. That is why the distributors see the value in presenting their films to the loyal and supportive members of the Jacob Burns Film Center, and why the Center sees it as a value to encourage their audiences to discover and support these unique films. In that sense, the buzz really does begin at the Burns (and similar film societies around the country).....another reason why they deserve our support. To learn more about the Jacob Burns Film Center and its innovative programming, log on to their website: www.burnsfilmcenter.org

Sandy Mandelberger, Coming Attractions Editor

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About Coming Attractions

Sandy Mandelberger
(International Media Resources)

Previews of Upcoming Films, Videos and New Media Coming To Theaters, Festivals, DVD and the Internet.


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