In the wake of New York Times editor Bill Keller’s startling announcement that the leading American newspaper is cutting 100 jobs, here are a few more rumblings of media-world gloom and doom specifically calibrated for indie-film lovers. Leading critic and blogger Glenn Kenny announced today that he’s been fired by Premiere.com (which is all that remains of the once-popular Hachette Filipacchi movie magazine). I am not the first to ask what the doggone heck the point of that site is without Kenny on it. And Warner Bros. announced, also on Thursday, that it will close down both Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures, its two semi-autonomous “specialty” divisions. (Anne Thompson at Variety got the story first, or at least damn early.)
Kenny is one of the finest, most erudite and funniest commentators in the business, and I can’t imagine he’ll remain unemployed for long. (I consider Glenn a buddy, though we don’t hang out away from our interlocking professional lives.) But this is clearly another illustration of the precarious status of film criticism, and all other forms of independent critical intelligence, in a rapidly changing — and perhaps rapidly imploding — media universe.
It’s too early to evaluate the effects of the Warner news, but it ain’t good. WB president Alan Horn’s statement was a masterwork of business-speak nothingness (and split infinitives): “After much painstaking analysis, this was a difficult decision to make, but it reflects the reality of a changing marketplace and our need to prudently run our businesses with increased efficiencies.” Those efficiencies begin with killing off New York-based Picturehouse, which under Bob Berney’s leadership was among the most ambitious of the quasi-independent “mini-majors.” Berney backed some duds, like any exec, but he’s an extremely knowledgeable film buff, and his notable pictures of the last four years have included “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “La Vie en Rose,” “The Orphanage,” “A Prairie Home Companion,” “The Notorious Bettie Page” and “Ushpizin.”
Polly Cohen’s West Coast-based Warner Independent has always been more a mixed bag, seemingly a bit more under the thumb of the parent company and a little less clear about its own identity. WIP had a great 2005 with Oscar-nominated fare like “Good Night, and Good Luck” and the controversial “Paradise Now,” but has had numerous misfires since then, sometimes with fine films (like “Duck Season,” “A Scanner Darkly” and “The Science of Sleep”) that never found the right audiences. More recently, Cohen and her staff seemed to be guessing: There were socially conscious documentaries like “11th Hour” and “Darfur Now”; there were attempts at more commercial fare like Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah” and Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” remake. None of it quite worked.
All this results from Warner Bros.’ recent corporate absorption of New Line Cinema, which apparently couldn’t maintain its independent existence within the Time Warner empire after the quasi-debacle of “The Golden Compass.” But New Line, while it’s got an admirable production and distribution history, has always been a studio (albeit a relatively small and eccentric one). Unless New Line gets reshaped into something totally different, it’s not a company likely to seek out the adventurous auteur-driven indies, foreign-language films and documentaries that WIP and Picturehouse favored. Based on today’s reports, it appears that New Line head Toby Emmerich is staying on while Berney and Cohen are unemployed.
Both Picturehouse and Warner Independent have various projects in the pipeline. Sergei Bodrov’s Oscar-nominated “Mongol” is slated for release next month by Picturehouse, which has the sci-fi comedy “Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel” and Diane English’s update of George Cukor’s “The Women” listed for next year. WIP has Alan Ball’s “Towelhead” and Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” scheduled later this year, and a Steven Soderbergh thriller called “The Informant” in production. I imagine those movies will all be released, but exactly when or how or under what label remains to be seen. The bigger picture is clear: Time Warner has reached a top-level executive decision to back away from making or distributing adult-oriented, art-house films.