Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Where the heck is True Grit?

Well, it’s on its way. Later this week, nearly two months after it emerged in the United States, the Coen brothers’ excellent western finds its way into British and Irish cinemas. Intelligent cinemagoers will rejoice. Having stumbled a little at …

Sun, Feb 6, 2011, 21:07


Well, it’s on its way. Later this week, nearly two months after it emerged in the United States, the Coen brothers’ excellent western finds its way into British and Irish cinemas. Intelligent cinemagoers will rejoice. Having stumbled a little at the start of the last decade — remember Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers — the Coens defied expectations by returning with three near-masterpieces (No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man and, now, True Grit) and one hugely enjoyable romp (Burn After Reading).

The average film fan in these territories will, however, reasonably wonder why it has taken so long for True Grit to emerge. This sort of thing doesn’t happen much any more.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s a whole series of insulting hierarchies governed release strategies for American films.¬†The most tortuous pattern went like this. Firstly, the distinguished burghers of New York and Los Angeles would get to see the film. If it was a hit then the picture would gradually expand to other American cities. Then, a few weeks after that, prints might sneak into provincial corners of the US. A gap of many months would set in. Eventually, after the prints were gathered back from Tuna Fish, Iowa and Bottle Top, Wyoming, they would be polished up in preparation for the Rest-of-World release. (A sobering example: Star Wars was released in the US during May 1977, but didn’t arrive in the UK until late December.)

So, now, finally, the citizen of Birmingham or Ballybrophy would get to see this exciting release? Hold on to your, horses. The film could still spends weeks playing solely in London’s Leicester Square before moving out to remoter parts of the UK and — Jesus, do I still want to see this bleeding thing? — poor old Ireland.

The pattern above details the most cautious strategy, but it was far from uncommon for an Irish filmgoer to finally encounter a film close to a year after its US release. Several innovations changed this practice. Firstly, the success of Jaws’ US-wide release proved the virtues of making the initial launch a major national event. The arrival of video — and threats of piracy — furthered inclinations towards narrowing the gap between limited and wide release. Now, with downloading gaining epidemic status, the worldwide “day and date” release has become commonplace.

It should be said that the old system had its virtues. More eccentric films had the chance to grow via word of mouth. Now, a widely released movie stands or falls on its opening weekend. Happily, smaller, independent movies, unleashed initially on smallish print runs, do still profit from this dynamic. It’s hardly fair to expect the distributors of My Camel is No Longer at the Yam Yam Tree to get a print into every country on the day of release. But there is little excuse for a major studio — Paramount, in this case — to delay the release of a much anticipated picture by two months.

So, what’s going on? Well, firstly, we have the business of Oscar season. All those films that look like Oscar-bait are rushed into US cinemas before New Years Day in order to qualify for the awards. On occasion, the studio will sneak just one print into an LA cinema. The proper release must wait until the New Year. Hence, Black Swan, The King’s Speech and The Fighter all opened here in January and early February.

True Grit was, however, knocked back another few weeks because the studio accepted an offer to have the film open the looming Berlin Film Festival. This is all a bit mad. Berlin now opens with a picture that, far from being a premiere, has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people in the US. Meanwhile, in order to allow the Germans a bit of red-carpet action, Paramount has denied an entire continent the right to see the film for an indecently lengthy period.

Good grief. Imagine if, after all that, the film turned out to be a turkey. Happily, it is worth the wait.

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