Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. And thanks to the year-end push for critical favorites, there's a good chance a film as smart and funny as Up in the Air can be found on multiple screens in your neighborhood, at least for a couple more weeks.
But for those wondering why awful flicks like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Watchmen and G.I. Joe and The Ugly Truth so frequently squeeze worthwhile movies out of the multiplexes, here's a stat I just came across, from NY Times critic Manohla Dargis's round-up of the 2009 movie year.
"The question of consumer choice becomes all but moot when the Top 5 box office movies are playing on more than one-quarter of all the screens in America, as was the case during the first weekend of May, when “Star Trek” opened. That weekend 10 movies dominated 67 percent of the country’s screens. Three of those titles were released by Paramount. Warner Brothers and Disney had two movies each; 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures and the independent company Summit Entertainment each had one."
As Dargis points out, when the mega-budget, over-promoted movies are released, they hog practically all of the space available for movies: Revenge of the Fallen opened simultaneously on 4,000 screens in the U.S., and Angels & Demons opened simultaneously on 3,500 screens.
So, the upshot: More big screens for fewer movies made by fewer companies. That's the wrong kind of math, I think.
One obvious benefit to movie companies and distributors of so quickly spreading bad movies so far and so wide is that it makes those films even less immune to the slings and arrows of film critics, a group whose size and power seems to be diminishing by the day.
There are alternatives, of course, like tuning in to the Independent Film Channel (IFC) or the Sundance Channel, and pay-per-view, if you have cable; and keeping up with Netflix and pay-per-view offerings. I could always upgrade from my 32-inch flat screen to something gargantuan (if/when I have the funds).
But it's hardly the same thing as having access to first-rate films on a big screen, with good sound, in a theater, surrounded by other filmgoers.
Bonus overtime comment from Dargis, on Paramount Pictures' very good 2009: "Two of the year’s biggest hits, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” have helped the studio climb out of its financial hole with a combined domestic take of more than $500 million. Both movies are deeply stupid, often incoherent and hinged on the principle that the spectacle of violence is its own pleasurable end. “Transformers” is also casually racist. But hey, that’s entertainment."