At this past year's Sundance film festival, one of the most buzzed-about films was Nanette Burstein's American Teen, a documentary about five "typical" high school seniors–a "jock," a "nerd," and so on–who don't always fit their stereotypes so easily. On the day of the first critics' screening, I queued up about a half-hour beforehand–usually plenty early for a morning screening–but because the Sundance organizers scheduled American Teen in their smallest venue, I and about 60 other critics were shut out. The movie went to become one of Sundance '08's rare success stories, selling to Paramount Vantage for a million bucks, and leaving the fest as one of the few films that showbiz pundits were certain would be a success.
But something happened on the way to the bank. Despite profiles in major entertainment magazines, and an impressive per-screen average in limited release,
American Teen never really took off as expected. Blame MTV-induced "reality fatigue," or blame a tentative platforming strategy that didn't get the movie to all the people who might've wanted to see it, but in nine weeks of release, American Teen ended up making just under a million dollars–or about what Paramount paid for it.
I would've gladly given the movie my money, but American Teen never opened in my local cinemas. And while I had hoped to see it as part of my usual end-of-the-year catching-up process, Paramount Vantage never sent a screener my way. As far as I know, they didn't send screeners to any critics for year-end voting purposes. And whadda ya know? The movie didn't make a lot of year-end lists.
I've always had a love-hate relationship with the kind of access I get as a member of the media. I'm not going to lie: When those Academy screeners start rolling in around mid-November, I get excited every time the UPS guy knocks on my door and asks for a signature. Right now there's scarcely a major awards contender that I don't have sitting next to my TV, and it's a major help that I can pop one in whenever I want, to double-check the dialogue or framing in a certain scene while I write my year-end coverage. Yet at the same time, I've never had a problem with studios withholding their films, or record companies withholding their music. I don't feel any sense of entitlement. So long as no one minds a hastily written review posted after opening day, I certainly don't mind opening my wallet and joining the rest of the paying customers.
But sometimes I don't understand the logic behind the way publicity wings of media companies operate. A week ago, I received an advance CD by an artist who shall remain nameless–it's a fairly well-known name, but hardly a superstar–and at least twice per song, the music stops and a voice says, "You are enjoying a promotional copy." (And each time it happens, I think, "Well, I was.") I know that piracy is a big problem in the music business… or at least is perceived to be. There's been a fair amount of evidence that leaked albums don't suffer at the cash register anywhere near as much as the industry fears. Still, I can't believe that any musician wants his or her albums to be interrupted by a piracy-busting voice every 90 seconds. And frankly I find this anxiety over the pirating inclinations of critics insulting, since once this album comes out, anyone who buys a copy can take it home, rip it, and post it on the internet. (In fact, maybe I'll use one of those rips to get myself a copy.) Is it really that dangerous to send a critic a clean, non-watermaked, unprotected CD?
Along those same lines, earlier this year a critic friend of mine used his media credentials to get into a regional film festival screening of American Teen, and was told by a publicist on the way in that he couldn't write anything about the movie on his website, or review it anywhere before the July release date. Now, this wasn't some private advance critics' screening he was attending. This was a public event, involving a movie that had already played at multiple festivals, and that had been reviewed by the trade publications and several other critics. And it had been well reviewed, too; it wasn't like it was some stink-bomb the studio was trying to hide. Yet throughout the rollout of American Teen, there's been this weird, inexplicable attempt to make the movie scarce and secret–like some clique all the unpopular kids are dying to get into.
Which brings us up to now, and the December 21st release of American Teen on DVD. The DVD is available exclusively at Target, in one of those increasingly common examples of big-box deal-making that makes headlines when it works and gets generally ignored when it doesn't. Will this particular deal work? Well, when I went to the Target website today and typed in "American Teen," the movie didn't come up as for sale. And when I followed the Target link from an on-line review of American Teen, I got a "this product is not yet available" message. If you want to buy the American Teen DVD on-line right now, I'd recommend going to Amazon's Canadian site, since the disc's widely available up north. In fact, I might recommend that anyway, just as a way of letting the air out of all these dumb exclusivity deals.
With all the technology we have at our disposal these days, we're living in something of a multi-media wonderland. I can read books, play games and watch downloaded YouTube clips on my iPod; and now that Netflix and TiVo have finally synched up, I can watch a fair number of independent films and old TV shows on demand on my big-screen TV. But the situation's not as ideal as it could be. Because of DRM issues and general stubbornness, Apple makes it difficult for me to buy media from iTunes and move it around wherever I want. And in the various attempts by hardware developers and on-line shopping outlets to set themselves apart, lines keep getting drawn, partitioning off what content is allowed to go to which hard drive or set-top box.
It's almost as though everyone who has a desirable media property to sell is becoming so obsessive about squeezing every dollar out of it that they're willing to let it decline in value rather than share it. They'd rather sell one copy for a million dollars than two million copies for a buck each. (Whatever it takes to protect the symbolic value of the brand.) But the struggles of American Teen ought to be an object lesson: You can skillfully build buzz and brainstorm alternative revenue streams all you like, but in the end, if you want your movie to be a success, you really ought to give people a chance to see it.