‘The Master’ takes arthouse box offices by storm

From killer robots to pregnant teenagers, four ‘independent films’ that broke into the mainstream.

Festival favourite ‘The Master’ has only been shown in five cinemas, but it has already developed a cult following and broken records. Does mainstream film have a lesson to learn?

The upper reaches of this weekend’s US film charts were an uninspiring affair. The favourite, a 3D re-release of Disney’s Finding Nemo, was pipped to the post by a film with only slightly more originality: the fifth cinematic outing in the sprawling Resident Evil franchise.

‘Thuddingly awful,’ was one critic’s verdict. ‘Some sequels,’ another mused, ‘suggest that no one involved with the franchise really cares any more.’ Still, director Paul W S Anderson will not be too put out: the film took over $21 million in its opening weekend.

Yet the director who was breaking records and hitting headlines was another Paul Anderson altogether. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master made a comparatively paltry $729,000. But given that the film was released in only five cinemas, this was a phenomenal achievement. It has been named the most successful film ever released in independent cinemas, and its average revenue of $146,000 per screen is by far the highest ever.

The contrast between Resident Evil and The Master could hardly be more stark. The first is a gory, high-octane thriller populated mostly by flesh-eating zombies. The second is a brooding study of the relationship between a manipulative cult leader and a young drifter driven to depravity by his experiences in World War Two.

Resident Evil relied for its success on a hugely popular brand that has reliably spun out countless video games, comic books, novels and merchandise.

The Master’s route to fame, on the other hand, began on the first of this month, when it stole the show at the arty and elite Venice Film Festival. This weekend film fanatics got their chance to take a look, when it was released at an exclusive group of arthouse cinemas in New York and Los Angeles.

Over the coming weeks, as it is released in mainstream cinemas, The Master will doubtless be battling with big budget action films at the top of the charts. But the divide between these two types of cinema will remain.

Blockbusted?

To fans of highbrow cinema, movies like The Master throw a harsh light on how mindlessly repetitive Hollywood has become. Half the blockbusters that hit our screens are sequels, they point out; the rest are mediocre imitations of a tried and tested idea. Anything innovative or risky is sacrificed to a blinkered, cowardly conservatism.

Sheer snobbery, retort others. A film made with a mass audience in mind can be just as interesting and intelligent as any arthouse fare, they say. Familiar characters can be portrayed in new and daring ways, and CGI explosions are not always fatal to a sophisticated plot. This is a false divide erected by pretentious elitists.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather watchThe MasterorResident Evil 5? Why?
  2. If a film is made for commercial reasons rather than artistic ones, is it less likely to be any good?

Activities

  1. Design a film poster to advertise eitherResident EvilorThe Master, including pictures, quotes and a tagline.
  2. Pick a subject for a film and write two alternative opening scenes: one designed for a blockbuster action movie, another for an arthouse character drama.

Some People Say...

“Ninety percent of Hollywood films are worthless, soulless junk.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So what’s all the fuss about this new film?
The Master has been eagerly awaited by film buffs ever since it was announced: its director is already highly acclaimed, and his last film, There Will Be Blood, was nominated for eight Oscars. Sure enough, it has received an adoring reception among critics and industry insiders; it is already hotly tipped to sweep this year’s awards.
Okay, but what is it actually about?
It’s loosely based on the story of L Ron Hubbard, who founded the controversial Scientology movement which many have described as a cult.The Master’s distributor claimed that top Scientologists attempted to block the film from being made.

Word Watch

Franchise
When a group of films, books, games or comics becomes lucrative, the people who created or produced them can claim intellectual property rights. That gives them the exclusive right to use the characters and worlds involved again in any form. This is called a franchise.
Independent cinemas
Any film theatre that does not belong to a chain can be described as an ‘independent cinema’. But most associate independent cinemas with the ‘arthouse’ genre: obscure or foreign films whose appeal is not broad enough for them to be shown at venues like Odeon and Cineworld.
Venice Film Festival
At a film festival, many movies are shown in the same location during a short space of time. Some of them showcase works by new artists; others are themed around a particular genre or place of origin. The most famous – such as Cannes, Sundance and Venice, the oldest of them all – can boost a film into the highest ranks of critical regard.

Subjects

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