Finally, finally the studios' attitude is coming back to bite them. Snakes on a Plane is in the midst of flopping; it had a major drop-off in just its second week. I'm convinced that, if New Line had screened it for the press, they would have staved off the bad rumors and earned enough good reviews to boost business. Instead they blamed their own ignorance on the press, as has been the trend this year.

As of now, something like 25 movies have been purposely withheld from critics. Renny Harlin's The Covenant is the latest to join the hall of shame. What is perhaps more distressing than the studios' attitude toward reviewing press is their attitude toward the films themselves. Regardless of the press, it's the studios who have determined that these films stink. These are the same films they have paid for and hired artists to make, in some cases talented people like Neil LaBute and Nicolas Cage (The Wicker Man). It's like they've made a bad batch of widgets, and instead of throwing them away and starting over, they're foisting the tainted product on the public with no warning from critics. They hope that the gullible, dim-witted ticket buyers will help them make back a significant amount of their investment before word of mouth gets out. It's a new wave of disposable movies.

All of which brings me to this week's topic, which is word of mouth and long runs of engagement. When the business began, each movie played for only a week or so until studios discovered the phenomenon of "repeat business." If they liked a film enough, people would go back again, thereby increasing profits. And so films stayed longer in theaters. And the longer a film stayed, the more people could go see it.

If a movie had good word of mouth, all the better. Sometimes a movie could start off slow, then build business as word of mouth spread. This new system of disposable films flies directly in the face of the word of mouth factor.

This week I thought I'd celebrate the few word of mouth hits still hanging on, movies that have been in theaters for more than a couple of months. The average Hollywood "smash" spends about 2 months in the upper echelon (more than 400 screens), before sinking into nothingness. Disposable films rarely continue any kind of brisk business after eight weeks.

Right now the longest-running shows are the IMAX productions, which are more like carnival rides, permanent installations. After that, we have Laurent Cantet's Heading South, which has yet to open here in the Bay Area, but has played for 30 weeks in other cities. Likewise, the documentary Our Brand Is Crisis, which has played elsewhere for 26 weeks.

Astonishingly, the restoration and revival of Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol (1948) has been playing somewhere in America for 29 weeks! Currently on 2 screens, this is not any kind of masterpiece, but it's certainly an entertaining thriller. It tells the story of a London diplomat's son (Bobby Henrey) and the butler (Ralph Richardson) he admires, and their twisted fates when murder enters into their relationship. Director Reed and writer Graham Greene went on to make the essential and justly beloved The Third Man the following year, so perhaps that's what is driving business to this companion piece.

Susan Seidelman's Boynton Beach Club, which just opened here a couple of weeks ago, has achieved 24 weeks in theaters. Co-starring Dyan Cannon and Sally Kellerman, the film isn't the world's brightest romantic comedy, but it's easy enough to decipher its success; it's the only film currently playing made for women over 50. Perhaps Hollywood ought to look toward this untapped audience...

The black comedy Thank You for Smoking has reached its 24th week. This clever spoof actually gets the audience to side with a charismatic lobbyist (Aaron Eckhart) for a cigarette company and against a liberal senator (William H. Macy). The best scenes are the weekly dinners that the hero eats with his colleagues, an alcohol lobbyist (Maria Bello) and gun lobbyist (David Koechner). It's exactly the kind of smart, under-the-radar comedy that merits return business.

Here's an oddity the animated sequel, Ice Age: The Meltdown, has actually lasted 22 weeks (currently on 18 screens). I can only attribute this to the presence of Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth; perhaps people really are concerned with the issue of global warming?

Tied at 18 weeks apiece are three of my favorites: Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, Park Chan-wook's Lady Vengeance and Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. Who says Americans don't like to read subtitles?

Finally, I'd like to send some love out to João Pedro Rodrigues' Two Drifters, a bizarre, deadpan little film from Portugal with some hilariously absurd moments. Currently playing on one screen with a total gross of $21,000, it tells the story of a man who loses his lover in a car accident and a woman who becomes obsessed with the deceased -- even though she's never met him. The gorgeous, haunting Ana Cristina De Oliveira plays the girl with such icy amusement that she's mesmerizing. It takes a peculiar taste to get behind this very distant, very intellectual picture, and I'm certain that it's yet another in a series of films that I liked and everyone else hated.
CATEGORIES Columns, Cinematical