Saturday, February 03, 2018

BPM: Beats Per Minute

I sent off a three-tweet reply the other day because a certain website put up a dumb article about how limited releases don't make sense any more and how certain movies likely had their awards and box office potential undercut by that sort of strategy. Indeed, the article argues, it's anachronistic and counterproductive now because there is little to no print cost and because the average moviegoer learns about things from national/international websites rather than their local paper.

I suspect that part of the reason I found it so annoying was that I had said things like that myself in the past before learning the tiniest scrap about how modern film distribution works, and if I could see that fatal flaw in that argument now, certainly someone who wrote on a higher-profile website and maybe even got paid for it could see that the trouble with that argument is that there are actual movie theaters between the studios trying to get their films to audiences and the audiences who might want to see said movies, and they have their own challenges.

Firstly, there's not as many of them as there used to be. Sure, there are many places putting up spiffy new multiplexes, but the big releases claim most of those screens, in part because a room that once might have held 100 people holds 45 now, with the comfy reclining chairs - it takes more screens to accommodate the demand for those blockbusters, so even if these films weren't being given limited releases, they wouldn't necessarily crack the multiplexes. So that means these boutique releases tend to play smaller, independent local theaters that only have one to four screens, and the ones that weren't driven out of business by the digital conversion are having to compete with the places that offer recliners, expanded concessions, and the like.

And those guys have a lot less room to shrug off booking something that doesn't play. If a place with "19" at the end of its name has something that people have no interest in, it's no big deal; they take the hit, kick it out after a week, and use the screen for something produced by Marvel the next week. A single-screen theater takes that sort of risk and sees the same result, and maybe they have trouble making payroll. So a limited release helps them see that, yeah, this thing is popular with more than critics, it got a huge per-screen average in the big cities, folks are giving it good word-of-mouth, it's worth fitting into their schedule a couple weeks later or at the first option - which may be some time away, if they're the kind of theater that sets their line-up for a couple months at a time because bi-monthly calendars increase turnout.

The trouble is, if things break just wrong, that first opportunity may mean that by the time a local theater has a window, they might be bumping against something being available to stream online. Which brings us to BPM (Beats Per Minute). It had its limited release in NY/LA back in October, and has just landed at the Brattle Theatre in Boston for a one-week booking now, and we're lucky to get that. Why? Well, a French film about AIDS activists in the early 1990s was probably never going to play the multiplexes, even if the one at Boston Common is pretty decent about putting stuff outside the mainstream on screens #17-19 (metaphorically speaking). The boutique multiplex had a recent renovation and though they haven't changed their programming much, there's a bit more opening on two screens rather than one, and maybe a bit more hanging around an extra week because there are fewer seats available and it takes longer to fill the local demand - maybe something like BPM gets squeezed out of a screen in that case. And so it eventually falls to the Brattle, but they've set their November/December calendar, and by the time they see that it's not going to open anywhere closer than Salem (where a locally-owned theater did find a spot for it in January), they're looking at the January/February calendar, and by the time it actually shows, you can rent the movie on Amazon.

Is this situation likely how distributor The Orchard wanted things to play out? I doubt it. They probably would have liked a thousand screens right off the bat and rapid expansion to cities like Boston. But just because they can get hundreds of copies of the movie to theaters without having to spend thousands of dollars each on a print, with a lot of the press coming at the start and hitting the whole country at the same time, does not mean there are theaters in every metro area able to take the risk of booking it at that point, and now many of them are much less likely to do so a couple months in, when it looks like they might be competing with streaming.

Those of us who can really should head down to the Brattle to catch this movie - it's terrific and has the sort of style and energy that works well on the big screen, and we're lucky that this sort of limited-release system still (barely) works well enough to get it there.

120 battements par minute [BPM (Beats Per Minute)]

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen on 2 February 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run, DCP)

120 Beats Per Minute (to translate its French name literally) is a fairly long movie, and it's in large part because it keeps going after the rallying-cry scene that would often serve as the fist-pumping finale for a film about activism and activists. It's a shift in focus that reminds the audience that this fight is not something abstract, but a matter of life and death, a fight that in many cases would pay off for the next wave of people infected with HIV (or, given that much of the work is focused on prevention, not infected). It's a shift from what's come before, but a good one - the bulk of Beats Per Minute is a terrific movie, but one cannily aware that what makes a good movie doesn't necessarily tell the whole story.

It takes place in the early 1990s, focused on ACT UP Paris, an AIDS advocacy organization noted for its guerrilla protest style that routinely results in arrests but is generally able to avoid actual injuries or serious damage. As it opens, four new members are joining the weekly meetings, including student Jérémie (Ariel Borenstein) and HIV-negative Nathan (Arnaud Valois), as the members of longer standing break down a recent activity where organizer Sophie (Adèle Haenel) thought that firebrand Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) crossed a line. It's a well-organized but tumultuous meeting of a group that shares those same characteristics.

Writer/director Robin Campillo spends much of the early going focusing on the group and how it goes about its business, obeying a lot of the same rules as a fly-on-the-wall documentary in that he doesn't necessarily worry about making sure every potential situation is either foreshadowed or explained as it comes up in order to give the audience an easy point of entry - the "orientation" is more about how the weekly meeting works than about the unfortunate state of AIDS education and the epidemic itself in France at the time. It's a choice that is quietly engrossing, allowing an audience that may be inclined to view this sort of protester as an undisciplined agitator to see the level of commitment and consideration that goes into their every action and perhaps gives the next generation some appreciation of what was involved in this sort of organization before everybody had an immediate wireless connection to everybody else.

Full review at EFC

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