Fresno/Clovis: 64 screens and nothing on

Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren in "The Last Station," which Fresno finally got to see last night -- thanks to Fresno Filmworks, no thanks to the chains.

This rant has been building for a while, and it took an event last night to bring it to full complaint mode.

I attended the opening of the sixth annual Fresno Film Festival. It’s presented each April by Fresno Filmworks, a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization that brings movies one Friday a month to the Tower Theatre, the 1939-vintage Art Deco gem that gives the one cool area of Fresno its name (the Tower District).

The opening-night selection was “The Last Station,” based on a novel about the final months of Leo Tolstoy’s life and the battle over his will. It was an extremely well-done film with a stellar cast: Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, Helen Mirren as his wife, Paul Giamatti (one of my favorite actors) doing another weasely turn as the author’s main disciple, and James McAvoy as Tolstoy’s personal secretary. Mirren (best actress) and Plummer (best supporting actor) were nominated for Oscars, SAGs and Golden Globes for their performances here. A great choice by Fresno Filmworks, to be sure.

So what’s my complaint? That this is a film that should have been screened at a first-run theater, not saved for a once-a-year film fest. Fresno and Clovis, with a combined population of about 600,000, have 64 screens devoted to first-run films. There’s no reason these excellent films have to fall to the realm of a dedicated but small group with limited resources, and then for just two screenings on a Friday night — or, in this case, one. Filmworks’ last two monthly selections — two programs of Oscar-nominated shorts in March; “The Messenger,” a military film with Oscar-nominee Woody Harrelson, in February — fall into the same category.

And it’s not just highbrow and/or art-house fare we’re talking about here. A month after its opening in the big cities and a week after it went wide “everywhere,” “The Runaways” hasn’t opened here, either. Guess that means this is nowhere …

This is no snobbish art house-vs.-megaplex rant. My big-chain viewings in recent months have included the 3D “Avatar,” “Crazy Heart” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” (which is so self-aware of its cheesiness that it’s hilarious — once). I don’t identify as a mainstreamer in anything, really, but I don’t pooh-pooh most things out of hand, either.

"The Runaways," despite Dakota Fanning, left, and Kristen Stewart, can't seem to find its way onto one of the 64 first-run screens in Fresno/Clovis.

And I’ve haven’t always gone to Filmworks selections, I’ll admit. Part of it is the film selection on a particular month; part of it when I was employed was the early times of the screenings coming off the end of the work week (5:30 and 8 — geared, like so many things in Fresno, to an older audience); part of it has been wanting to see a film but something comes up on a Friday night, like dinner with friends or going out of town.

But this ultimatum — come see it this one night, this one time, or sorry, pal — isn’t a choice “regular” moviegoers have to make. The usual mainstream stuff plays so often on the 64 megaplex screens that you have to try not to see a film.

Case in point: Let’s turn to Fandango … This week, that terribly reviewed “Clash of the Titans” remake is only on 11 screens (8 regular screenings, 3 3D). “How to Train Your Dragon” is only on nine screens (4 regular, 4 3D, 1 3D IMAX). That’s just under one-third of all the first-run screens in this area devoted to two films. Then count 7 more screens for “Kick-Ass,” 6 for “Death at a Funeral” (which I want to see) … that brings the total up to 33 screens — just over half — devoted to just four movies. And I’m pretty sure not every single screening is selling out — not at what it costs to go to a flick these days.

And as I said, it’s not just the art-house stuff getting the short shrift. Even more puzzling is the case of “The Runaways.” (And as a rock’n’roll fiend, I need — demand — to see this film.) Here we have a generally favorably reviewed movie starring two extremely bankable young actresses (Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning), a musical genre that has reached into almost every facet of our society … and it can’t get shown on even one of 64 screens in this huge population area.

Is it because it’s rock’n’roll, and we can’t have that sort of rabble in this little church town of a half-million? Or is it because it has a — gasp! — lesbian element to it? Can’t have the kids getting ideas, y’know. (So sexuality and rock’n’roll are taboo, but “Kick-Ass” — a film with a hard R-rating, a foul-mouthed 11-year-old girl superhero and Tarantino-style comic splatter violence, gets seven screens. Explain that.) Otherwise, I see no reason it doesn’t merit at least one lousy screen out of 64.

Subject material aside, this sort of thing seems to happen in Fresno far too often, and it isn’t new. One friend sitting with me before told me that the same thing happened 10 years ago (before my time here) with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — it didn’t open here till well after everyone else had it.

Granted, some smaller releases here are targeted to, and will reach, solid niche audiences. That’s good business. “The Perfect Game,” a feel-good film about the Monterrey team that made it to the 1957 Little League World Series championship, should draw well, especially in such a heavily Mexican city. And “Letters to God,” about an 8-year-old boy’s battle with cancer, will attract both families and the religious crowd. Tyler Perry (“Why Did I Get Married Too?”) has his built-in audience that eagerly sees anything he does.

But I’d like to think that moviegoers are more diverse than what we’re presented, even in the land of Republicans and religious “right.” The two chains that own all the first-run screens (Regal Cinemas 48, SR Entertainment 16) appear to think that we’re all a bunch of backwater yahoos who can’t deal with a little diversity and, in the case of the art-house fare, a little culture. They think we all want to see the same handful of films. As one of the half-million people in Fresno, I beg to differ. We don’t all frequent malls, eat at chain restaurants or enjoy the same mass-production entertainment.

(It should be noted here, as an aside, that the two chains do next to nothing to promote their Fresno/Clovis cinemas. They do the smallest newspaper advertising I’ve ever seen. They take out the tiniest of listing ads in The Fresno Bee, with 4-point type that renders them absolutely useless to all but people with the best vision. If they can’t bother to tell us what’s going on, in type we can read — if they think that little of their product, let alone their audience — then why should we bother going to their movies and not wait for Netflix? Even in the age of the Web, it’s a lot quicker to thumb through the paper’s features section than to turn on the computer and work your way to Fandango. And it’s not as if they can’t afford to advertise, with what they charge for admission and especially concessions. And no — if you know me, you I definitely am NOT shilling for the paper that laid me off.)

We live too far from L.A. and San Francisco to travel on a regular basis to see the non-mainstream first-runs. We have a population of 600,000 just in these two neighboring cities, and a regional population of around a million.  There are some of us who would welcome the chance to see more films that, like “The Last Station,” are more sophisticated and better quality than “Hot Tub Time Machine.” (OK, that’s unfair — used Kleenex is more sophisticated.) But you know what I’m saying — Or mainstream films like “The Runaways” that might not bring maximum profit, but will draw some fans.

What would it take to offer one or two screens a week to such films — maybe rotate them in and out quicker than a regular mainstream run; say, after a week — and, just as important, promote it properly? Spend a little cash, for chrissakes; whatever happened to “You have to spend money to make money?”

This way, Fresno Filmworks and its commendably dedicated crew can devote its energies to bringing truly esoteric films on a more regular basis — and leave the other fare to the theater chains that should be bringing it to a major population center in the first place.


One Response to “Fresno/Clovis: 64 screens and nothing on”

  1. Loretta Says:

    I say the same thing every weekend when I check my iPhone for new releases! Last FF I saw was in Santa Cruz, CA. It is ridiculous that Fresno has no (or very very few) art films playing in theaters! If one FF does play in Fresno, it’s here for only one weekend and then it’s gone! 😦 And ppl wonder why I put Fresno down!

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