Redefining film genre in the era of multi-million dollar blockbusters

When it comes to today’s cinema, how do box office figures affect the genre label ‘art-house’ and when are films allowed to run with the description, asks Pete Castaldi.

I keep reading that the George Clooney film The Descendants is an art-house picture. Fantastic. A coup for art cinema; released in Australia mid-January on 189 screens with an opening week gross of almost $2.5 million. A spectacular result, for so-called art-house. With The Ides of March charting at number 20, eight weeks in, with a box-office gross of $4.4 million, Mr Clooney must now be affirmed as the poster boy of art-house.

The Descendants seems to have been classified as art-house by sheer force of its co-writer and director Alexander Payne. His pedigree slots him out of the mainstream, in the English language market at least. As writer-director of Citizen Ruth, Election, and Sideways he certainly was in the darling club of independent vision and story; quirky, off-centre and unexpected, and so very art-house in his sensibilities.

But what happened to Payne and the art-house genre when Sideways went from opening in the US on four screens to closing almost seven months later, after hitting 1,800 screens, with a gross of almost $US72million? It was one of those spectacular breakout films that no-one saw coming – a bit like last year’s Midnight in Paris.

Why is The Descendants seen as art-house? Because of Payne, Clooney or the subject matter? The story certainly plays out like an English language version of syrupy bourgeois mainstream European cinema.

Or is it art-house because it’s not a multimillion dollar 3D action sci-fi adventure, or a tent-pole franchise? I suspect that’s more the case.

It’s certainly not the art-house cinema I remember – stuff like the films of the fifth and sixth Generation of Chinese directors, the films of the Tokyo Filmmakers Co-op, the cinema of Burkina Faso, the Indian cinema out of Chennai and Kolkata.

Pete Castaldi is a journalist and broadcaster who also works in independent feature film distribution and sales.


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