How much of art’s perceived inferiority or superiority is determined by method of release?

In the latest episode of The Flickcast, hosts Chris Ullrich and Joseph Dilworth Jr. are discussing the latest Star Wars movie when the conversation touches on the perceived value of independent art.

Ullrich: I’m starting to worry that we’re going to be inundated with all these genre movies and people are going to get burned out. How many superhero movies do we have coming out in the next ten, fifteen years? Thousands?

Dillworth: Yes, at least a thousand.

Ullrich: […] There is a potential for a sort of superhero burnout.

Dillworth: Do you think this will marginalize or push out the, say, your Interstellars? Maybe that’s not a good example, but your smaller, independent movies? Do you think independent movies are now a thing of the internet, or do you think they still have a place in theaters?

Ullrich: I think the way it works right now, you still want to get your independent movie in a few theaters if you can, but at some point there won’t be a need for it. But it’s like anything that — it’s like writing a novel. You know, if you publish your novel on Amazon, or self-publish it, you’re not really an — I mean people think you’re not really an author, sometimes, so I think there’s still some cache, if you will, of having your  movie out in theaters.

My first instinct was to disagree – as a viewer of movies, at least. “No, no. Being in a theater doesn’t make the movie better.”

But I had to admit that … well, it does make it seem better.

photo(7)Ullrich and Dilworth use Nightcrawler (Jake Gyllenhaal), currently the top grossing movie in theaters, as an example of a comparatively low budget film that, because of its smaller production company, could just as easily have gone straight to video. Because it didn’t, it’s receiving a good amount of attention and could be a contender for an award.

Had Nightcrawler gone straight to video, it probably wouldn’t have been received quite so enthusiastically.

I know I, as a Gyllenhaal fan, would have wondered what had happened. Why was he doing straight-to-DVD movies? Had he pissed off a producer? Was TV next? He used to be so good

It made me wonder just how persuasive the packaging of a movie is when it comes to influencing its reception. Not its initial reception – not the number of people who elect to see it – but the opinions of the movie once seen. All else being equal, would Nightcrawler have been so highly praised had it gone straight to DVD? Or would the not-so-grand release method have created negative preconceptions that would taint the viewers’ opinion of the story, the writing, even the cinematography?

I’d be interested to see research analyzing the effects of expectations on forming opinions. (Well, there is this.) I can’t help but think that in many cases – and I’m guilty of this, too – it probably goes something like this:

A painting on the sidewalk: “Oh, it’s good, I suppose.”
The same painting in a gallery: “Ten thousand? I’d have paid twenty.”

A self-published book: “It’s okay. You know, for self-published.”
The same book released by a major publishing house: “Genius.”

Straight to DVD: “It was a good way to kill an hour and  a half. Not bad for straight-to-DVD.”
In the theater: “Seriously great.”

Moby Dick was a flop in Melville’s lifetime. Now it’s one of the great American novels. Students assigned to read it are compelled by their instructors to find that greatness in it.

Do movie theaters, art galleries, and publishing houses do the same?

And how did music get let off the hook? (Or did it?)

Kristen Tsetsi is the author of The Age of the Child: a birth control ban, vigilantes on the hunt for unfit parents, and a birth explosion in one generation; parent licensing as a consequence in the next. Kristen’s 5On interview series at JaneFriedman.com offers behind-the-scenes insights into all things writing and publishing.

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