Movie News & Reviews

Hunting seasons

You've got to hand it to geese. They just seem to know when to fly south for the winter. Without the benefit of calendars on their iPods, air-quality ratings from Christmas Tree Lane, a count of the number of cars in the Fashion Fair parking lot or even the date on the annual calendar they pick up at the hardware store (alas, does anyone even hand out such things anymore?), geese know what season it is.

You can't always say the same for movie fans.

The top complaint I hear from readers has to do with smaller or independent films in Fresno. The variations on the theme are endless, but it often goes something like this: There are no art films shown here. The ones that play in San Francisco never come here. We don't have an independent art-house cinema, so all we can see are the blockbusters.

Part of this is just a tendency toward exaggeration, of course. But there's another explanation, and it might surprise some people:

They're wrong.

At least a little.

Many smaller films do come to Fresno. Perhaps not the tiny ones that play on only 20 screens nationwide (as opposed to as many as 5,000 for the mega-blockbusters.) But even some of the low-count guys slip in.

But a lot of it depends on the season.

In the past month or so, such smaller films as "Once," "Across the Universe," "The Darjeeling Limited," "Lars and the Real Girl" and "Gone Baby Gone" have played in Fresno. (Some didn't stay around very long, but, again, you can't always expect the luxury of a three-month run of a small film when you live in a medium-size city.)

As a film fan, if you are truly passionate about the smaller kinds of films that aren't plastered on billboards or screaming at you from TV or adorning super-value meals at your neighborhood fast-food joint, you have to learn to pay a little better attention so you don't miss them.

Think about those geese. Not being one myself, I can't tell you exactly what triggers these elegant winged creatures to know that it's time to fly south: The angle of the sun? The number of minutes of daylight? The average nighttime temperature? A Travelzoo Top 20 e-mail alert for all-inclusive vacations in Cancun? All I know is that being creatures of the wild, they're finely attuned to their environment. They know that the seasons roll on with clocklike efficiency, and that a few simple observations keep them abreast about the time of year.

As a movie fan, you can expand your own powers of observation. Make no mistake: You are a hunter if you want to see these kinds of films. They aren't going to trumpet themselves in commercials on "E.R." You have to seek out these titles: Scan the fine print in the weekly entertainment section, pay attention to reviews, and -- above all -- get your bottom out to the theater in a timely fashion once you decide to see something instead of waiting three months and then whining, "Why don't films that do come to Fresno ever stick around?"

And, more than anything, take advantage of smaller films during the times of year that they're more plentiful.

A small film can slip in any time of year, of course. But there are definite seasons.

Summer is a bust, of course. When you have 25 screens of "Pirates of the Caribbean" playing in town, there isn't room for much else. Occasionally a wonderful thing happens in movie-studio land called "counterprogramming," which means that a studio tries to release a title that appeals to the narrow demographic not interested in explosions and Adam Sandler. But even these films -- typified this past summer by a title such as "Waitress" in June or "The Year of the Dog" in May -- tend to be breezier and more geared toward the "summer spirit" than most art films.

The holiday movie season, which is pretty much under way with the release of such films as "Bee Movie," "Fred Claus" and on Friday "Mr. Magorium's Toy Emporium," also can be a hard time for lovers of the nonblockbusters.

As a hunter of art films, however, you might have more luck during the holidays than in summer. That's because the holiday season butts up against, and in some cases coexists, with films vying for Oscars.

Because of the vagaries of Academy Award rules, studios often release their Oscar candidates in just one or two cities in December so they're eligible for competition but still fresh in the minds of Academy voters. Then they slowly dribble out the film in the following weeks to achieve maximum exposure and critical support.

It's important to remember that studios often unleash an all-out national campaign for a film -- including lots of interviews in national magazines and on TV -- even though only a few viewers in Los Angeles and New York actually have the chance to see the film. That's why you have to be patient. Already, in November, we're hearing about such films as "Atonement." But we won't see them for a while. (In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that "Atonement" won't open in Fresno until January.) The lesson here is don't despair. Short of driving to Los Angeles (which is still a pretty good option compared to most other people in the country), you're going to have to wait.

That's why it turns out that probably the best time to see an art film in Fresno is January. This past year, for example, such Oscar heavyweights as "The Last King of Scotland," "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" all opened Jan. 19. Talk about feast or famine.

There are a couple of other times of year that are more conducive to art films. You can think of them as the "shoulder season" in travel-agent language -- the off-peak times of the year when you can get better deals on flights and hotels. These include September and October, which were pretty good to us this year in terms of smaller films, and the spring months of April and May before the Memorial Day behemoths stamp into town.

Still, no matter what time of year, it's incumbent upon art-film lovers to remain attentive. Sharpen your powers of observation. Be on the hunt. You might have to work a little harder to find these films. But they're almost always worth it.