Tending the garden: Why the unusual release plan for ‘Memoria’ is good for film culture
Neon announced a plan to release the new Apichatpong Weerasethakul film in one city, one theater and one week at a time. We should be happy about who benefits.
This week, Neon announced an unusual distribution plan for Memoria, the new film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director of such mesmeric wonders as Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Rather than follow the traditional route for an arthouse release (a theatrical run in major cities and other select outposts, followed by digital rental/purchase and streaming down the line) or even a more modern variation (in theaters and digital simultaneously), Neon will treat it like a traveling exhibit, stopping in one theater in one city for one week at a time. And as Memoria slooooowly crawls around the country, starting at IFC Center in New York in late December, it won’t be available on DVD or streaming platforms at all.
As a release strategy, the Memoria tour fits Weerasethakul like a tailored suit. His films are a singular hybrid of narrative and experimental forms—not installation pieces by any means, yet also closer than most features to the sort of abstract programming you might find in a modern art museum. (Weerasethakul, in fact, is an alumnus of The Art Institute here in Chicago.) Memoria may be his first feature with a recognizable star, Tilda Swinton, and Neon’s his most prominent distributor to date, but it’s not like Weerasethakul’s work had done world-beating business in theaters before. (His last feature, Cemetery of Splendor, made $51,950 in the United States and never played in more than six theaters.) Touring Memoria city by city is a chance to re-frame his films as not just works of arts but events, with single theaters as their exclusive galleries.
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Those who are furious to hear about Neon’s plans for Memoria, making the tiresome argument that everyone should have access to everything all the time—a notion that is extremely new to cinema yet somehow calcified in the minds of many—should take some comfort from the likelihood that they’re not repeatable. This is a distribution model specific to this film and this director, not unlike how the pay-what-you-want model on the album In Rainbows was specific to Radiohead. (As I used to joke at the time, the model worked thusly: Step 1. Be Radiohead.) It’s worth considering who benefits from the Memoria experiment beyond the people fortunate enough to have the roadshow pass through town. Please spare a thought to the forgotten piece of this puzzle: The independent movie theater.
In my Dialogue piece with Keith last Friday, “What Are Movies Worth?”, I noted how the pandemic-hastened move toward collapsing the window between theatrical and video releases actually began 15 years ago with the extinction-level event of Magnolia Pictures buying the Landmark Theatres arthouse chain. Magnolia wanted to experiment in day-and-date releases—movies that premiered in theaters and on VOD simultaneously— but theaters had been resistant to the plan, for the obvious reason that their business would be severely impacted by booking independent movies that people could watch in their living rooms. By buying the largest chain of arthouses in the country, Magnolia could (and did) change the landscape by weakening theaters and giving distributors more power and flexibility to do as they pleased. We can see how this is playing out on a larger scale now, with major studios using the pandemic as leverage against big nationwide chains like AMC and Regal.
But that’s not even the whole story here. In order to stay in business at all, independent movie theaters had to convert from celluloid to digital projection systems. According to this piece from The Tennessean, it cost $75,000 per screen to make the adjustment, which was prohibitively expensive for ma-and-pa operations already working on very thin margins. Their reward for making this conversion? A lot of movies that people could watch at home. And to make matters worse, those programmers looking to lure audiences with repertory screenings of 35mm films, for example, have been increasingly stymied by studios restricting their archives—or shutting them down completely. (Vulture critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote at length two years ago about Disney tucking Fox movies into the vault.)
Is Memoria, the new film by a brilliant but difficult director, going to bring these independent movie theaters back? No. But it’s worth appreciating that arthouses that do get Memoria will have an extraordinarily unique experience: For one week, they will be the exclusive venue for the new Apitchatpong Weerasethakul movie. They will not be undercut by $7 video rentals or streaming exclusives. They will be able to offer their communities a chance to attend a special event, and plan around it differently than they would a conventional new release, perhaps with more active attention from the distributor. There’s possibility in that—and, at minimum, a sliver of cosmic justice.
It seems highly unlikely that the “never-ending” Memoria distribution tour will actually never end, and that it won’t find its way into the homes of those unwillingto travel impressive distances to see a movie. But those who decry the supposed elitism of Neon’s plans—which, by the way, could benefit theaters like the Belcourt in Nashville or the Wexner Center in Columbus, and not just New York and L.A.—should consider how important independent movie theaters still are to film culture at large. As much as we try to bring passionate cinephiles together online—hello, Revealers—these physical spaces are an irreplaceable gathering place for people to nurture their love of film. And even if you don’t have access to an independent theater yourself, you still benefit from them in unseen ways, because they’re a network of support for smaller movies and they cultivate an audience that creates demand for experiences beyond machine-tooled blockbusters. Releasing Memoria to them is akin to tending the garden.