Interview with Mark Ehrenkranz of The New York Film Critics Series
After 25 years, The New York Film Critics Series is becoming a national event, thanks to the wonders of technology. 50 theaters in a variety of markets will be able to connect via internet with host Peter Travers and series guests which include cast, filmmakers, and industry insiders. Although the first film screening will use Twitter to connect with theatergoers, additional screenings may go so far as to use Skype to connect with the live theater in New York City. 9 to 13 films described as prestige and art house features will screen a few weeks before their scheduled release dates, all expected to (or have already) received awards consideration and critical praise. Mark Ehrenkranz, who has curated the series for 20 years, discussed the series, how the program is planned, and launching the new simulcast element of the series.
Q: What is the mission your have for The New York Film Critics Series, particularly this new interactive system created?
A: Up until now, talent has usually been accessible in New York and Los Angeles, and then periodically with film festivals. And then perhaps where a film was made or where the director or cast lives. So it’s been very inefficient to do word-of-mouth screenings with talent in the US. And it’s become common place to release films in New York and Los Angeles and have the director or cast there on Fridays and Saturday for opening shows, but that is a very inefficient way of marketing these types of films which depend on positive audience word of mouth, since the audiences at those screenings are relatively small. So the mission really is work with distributors so the cast and filmmakers can talk with 50 theaters, after a preview screening, at one time, and still provide an intimate, exclusive feeling, rather than just have one or two small screenings.
Q: What is the inherit value of these kind of screenings?
A: For those who like to attend opening nights or discover and seek out new movies, they tend to be the trend-setters in their universe of friends. People who would attend an opening night are motivated to be the first, and when they have the chance to hear from the filmmakers themselves, there is another level of invested interest and insight into the production which provides that connectiveness to the work. They saw it first, they weren’t influenced by the reviews, and they leave with a certain insight and personal connection to the film because they experienced something with the cast or filmmakers that made the film. And it takes them to a new connection of awareness, which they pass on to friends who might be unaware or unmotivated themselves to see the film.
Q: With all the changes in technology and home entertainment, what do you see as the benefit for audiences to still see movies in theaters?
A: For me, the group experience is second to none. The power of being in the dark, with your eyes dilated and being there as a willing participant, ready to be moved, is a very powerful experience. Beyond just the physical experience, the mental and emotional aspect of being with a group of like-minded people, into discovering something new, is kind of kinship for those with similar interests. So I think it’s hugely powerful. And there is no doubt that VOD has changed our industry, it is a quantifiable source of revenue. But there are still these smaller films or documentaries, where people saw them on their computers or on TV first, but can see a benefit of seeing them on a big screen with impeccable sound, and that is still its own experience.
Q: As the series curator, how do you select films for The New York Film Critics Series?
A: Along the way, every film has its own life cycle. and being in the business, as a producer and distrubtor, I have an awareness of that lifecycle; from pre-production to post and when the film hits the market. And once a film starts to play festivals and hits the distribution markets, is when things are really exciting because myself and Peter Travers know from that point on what are expected to be very strong films and win awards this season.
All the films being shown have distributors, whether they are being distributed by a major, mini-major or independent studio, they all have a distribution schedule and its in tandem that we work with the studios and theaters to do this weeks in advance of their release dates, so doing a preview screening works in the film’s advantage to generate word-of-mouth. When we do insert a film into the program, there are all sorts of things which are very important to these pictures’ marketing, especially small ones, which have nothing to do with our screening. Because this is all part of the marketing machine of these studios. And then getting special guests to come and speak is its own challenge, because it all depends on talent availability. Actors are working all over the world, and even if they want to promote their films, there are limitations to how much and where they can do it.
Q: When you say prestige films, how do you define that kind of feature?
A: I shouldn’t say smaller, but films such as a The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, had relatively modest budgets but had success at festivals and great word of mouth and critical support, and therefore were very successful at the time of their release and continued that success up to their Oscar runs. But these films are generally films from studios like Weinstein, Focus Features, Fox Searchlights; the majors have all opened up boutique studios, and those are the studios that release the prestige films which win awards and play festivals. They play at Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, and come out with strong buzz. And those festivals, especially Toronto, can sometimes make or break an Oscar campaign. Silver Linings Playbook won the audience award last year, 12 Years a Slave won this year and that is on track for being one of the best pictures of the year.
The first film in The New York Film Critics Series, Nebraska, will screen Tuesday November 5th with guests Bruce Dern and Will Forte. To find out more about the series or see if a theater near you is taking part, visit The New York Film Critics Series website.