At a time when so many low-profile, independently produced movies bypass theaters and go straight to streaming or VOD services, a monthly film series is providing them with a big screen platform.
The New York Film Critics series has been operating in dozens of theaters around the country for nearly four years, but it’s just now adding Spokane’s Bing Crosby Theater to its roster. The program, which kicks off tonight, gives audiences a chance to see acclaimed, modestly budgeted films before they’re officially released in theaters and on demand.
“It’s very difficult for movies of this size to make a lot of money,” said series creator Mark Ehrenkranz, who’s based out of New York. “ ‘Moonlight’ and ‘La La Land’ and ‘Manchester by the Sea’ are the exceptions this year, but what about the hundreds of films beneath that? What we do is we provide a forum for those artists to speak to 7,000 to 10,000 people. … In this day and age, your megaphone needs to be bigger than anybody else’s.”
The series opens in Spokane with a tightly wound rural thriller called “Burn Country,” which is set to be released Friday on demand. The debut narrative feature from documentary filmmaker Ian Olds stars Dominic Rains as Osman, a former Afghan war correspondent and translator living in political asylum in a sleepy Northern California town.
While crashing with the local sheriff (Melissa Leo), Osman gets a job assembling the police blotter for the town’s newspaper. After a bludgeoned body turns up on the side of a wooded road, Osman begins investigating the murder, which uncovers unsavory ties between a mysterious family that lives on the outskirts of town, an experimental theater troupe and a spacey hot tub installer played by James Franco.
“Burn Country” is a strange, sometimes dreamy movie, and it’s not a typical mystery with a clear cut solution: We’re not always certain what exactly is going on and which of its unusual characters can be trusted, even by the film’s end. It’s unsettling without ever really explaining itself, which plays into the film’s themes of alienation and xenophobia.
“It’s a super smart, layered film,” Ehrenkranz said. “It’s got a tremendous cast. … I find it fascinating, the parallel between these two tribes and how those subcultures function counter-intuitively to the rest of society.”
Some of the series’ previous selections receive wide theatrical releases after they’re screened, and some, including “American Hustle” and “Gone Girl,” went on to big box office success. But the most important quality in a film, Ehrenkranz said, is an independent spirit and the kind of thematic complexity that incites spirited post-screening conversations.
“It’s all about the film and the project, whether the filmmakers or the team who made it have come from independent film or have that sensibility,” he said. “We’re looking for the better, smarter, more challenging movies that would (inspire) a more sophisticated moviegoing experience.”
And unlike a typical film screening, each feature in the series is preceded by an introduction, typically hosted by Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, that provides background information on the film. After the credits roll, there’s a pre-filmed Q and A segment with cast and crew members, and theater patrons are encouraged to submit questions of their own beforehand.
“Not only do you get the movie, you get a little behind the scenes and you get the artists talking to you,” Ehrenkranz said. “That’s a good thing. It’s an evolution of the medium.”
Ehrenkranz said the next film in the New York Film Critics series will likely be “The Book of Love,” starring Jason Sudeikis and Jessica Biel, which will screen shortly before its official Jan. 13 release date.
For updates on future screenings, visit www.nyfilmcriticsseries.com.