Term Paper: Film Audience and the Movie Capote

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Capote

The recent film Capote (2005, Bennett Miller) achieved a modest success by Hollywood standards but was never expected to do more than that given the subject matter and the divisions within the audience. The film was released by Sony Pictures Classics, a subdivision in the Sony system that is dedicated to releasing more difficult independent films, films that are not expected to reach the mass audience needed for most films and that may require more careful handling in distribution than is the norm. The film had no major stars, was relatively low budget (about $7,000,000), had no special effects or other mass-audience appeals, and was on what was considered a more esoteric subject, that being the American writer Truman Capote and his obsession with writing the book In Cold Blood about the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas in the late 1950s and the capture, trial, and execution of the murderers. Another negative element for marketing the film was the fact that the main character was not heroic or admirable in normal terms. He as not only gay, which turns off one segment of the audience, but he was manipulative and needed the two killers he had befriended to be executed so his book would have an ending. Given these negatives, the marketing department had to find an audience.

The economics of the film business change from time to time, forcing a rethinking of old patterns and often leaving ideas that could still work behind. The major studios again dominate, after a period of more diffusion, though the business also has opened the way for smaller companies in some situations. Film exhibition today is geared more for multiplexes than the large stand-alone theaters of the past, and this has contributed to the change because theater owners have more screens to fill.

They often do so by showing the same film on two or three screens at a time, but they also must get a larger number of films if they are to keep moviegoers coming back week after week.

Many widely-accepted ideas about film releases govern what the industry as a whole does, among them the idea that certain times of the year are best for certain kinds of films, that a big star can assure a large opening weekend, that a high-grossing opening weekend is necessary if a film is to succeed, and so on. Many of these accepted ideas have been challenged from time to time by one or more films, and even when shown to be wanting, the underlying belief remains powerful and affects next year's product. Many of the independent companies have been taken over by larger entities and act as boutiques, but they still manage to continue to be the most likely to challenge accepted doctrine and to take more chances. Sony Pictures Classics is the sort of in-studio arm that has been developed to handle this sort of release, with Capote a prime example.

The film was released September 30, 2005, and to date it has grossed $28,750,530. That number is the sort of grow a major Hollywood film expects on its opening weekend. The foreign gross to date has been $20,482,631, for a worldwide total of $49,233,161. This is a good number for an independent film but not for normal Hollywood product. The pattern of release for the film shows how the studio was handling the film, seeking to develop an audience rathe than simply hoping to find one. The initial release in September was a limited release in which the film would play in a few theaters, primarily in large cities, to allow reviewers to find the film and help promote it and in order to generate sufficient interest for award nominations to help publicize the film further. The wide release of the film came on February 3, 2006, and such a five-month lag today is considered lengthy. At its widest release period, the film was in 1,239 theaters, and in total, the film was in theaters for 30 weeks. The initial release in September was to 12 theaters, and the per-screen average for that weekend stood at $27,071, which is a good number (Box Office Mojo website).

The plan to get award nominations to promote the film worked well, with the film garnering five Academy Award nominations at about the time of its wide release (the film later won one). Star Philip Seymour Hoffman won a Golden Globe from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for playing the title role, another award that is televised and that serves as a major means of publicity. Hoffman and the film itself received awards from the National Society of Film Critics, and it was also noted how the film and the star beat out the favored film, Brokeback Mountain, another difficult-to-sell movie of the period ("Capote,' Hoffman, Witherspoon cop top critic nods" para. 1).

In spite of the fact that the film did what it needed to do to gain an audience and that Golden Globe wins and Oscar nominations are good publicity, the audience for this sort of film is not as easily found as for more traditional fare. For years, there has been a view prevalent that an Oscar nomination adds greatly to the Box Office for a film, but in truth, this is not necessarily the case. If the film has a certain kind of broad appeal, then a nomination may draw in the curious right away. Christian Toto notes that in 2005, Million Dollar Baby received a nomination and grossed $12.3 million that weekend, over the $1.7 it had made the week before. On the other hand, the gross for Capote after its nomination was $2.3 million for 1,239 theaters, an increase, but not a great increase (Toto A01). The more difficult subject matter and the problems with selling this sort of film remained potent even with a nomination and a win.

In a review of the film from its early showing at the Toronto Film Festival, the reviewer cites Hoffman's performance in the title role and then notes, "Sony Pictures Classics will rightfully hitch the film's marketing to this remarkable performance" ("Capote" para. 3). This strategy was indeed followed by sony Pictures, which promoted Hoffman in inteviews and focused on his performance more than on the plot. The connection with In Cold Blood was often noted, perhaps from the view that the book is widely read, or perhaos because of the film made from that book in 1967 (the earlier film was in fact re-released to some art houses in major cities this year to capitalize on the connection and is also available on DVD, with connections being made in the marketing). The success of the film is attrributed by the director of Capote to good criticial response, for he notes to one interviewer, "a film like Capote, had it not been seriously championed by serious critics and writers, there is no way I would be sitting here talking to you at this point" (Papamichael para. 17).

The showing at the Toronto Film Festival was also key to getting this good critical response. The film was well-received there, so much so that it started talk in the industry and in the press about the quality of the film and the particular quality of Hoffman's performance. Major studios often avoid film festivals, seeing the audience as part of an elite and not representative of the movie-going public. Whether that is true or not is arguable, but it is clear that an educated elite would be precisely the sort of audience that Capote needed and that would be attracted to a story about a literary light from the past. Studios often treat the audience as made up of uneducated and mindless robots who can be attracted to the same thing over and over again and who never venture to see anything new or different. If this were true, films would not change much over time, but they do. Still, studios rely on what they think is tried-and-true and see any other approach as too risky. Capote was not a studio-made film, though, and studios often pick up independent films of this sort to fill out a schedule and to add to DVD releases, where more money is to be made in today's market. Few of these films take off as Capote did, but the potential is always there, a potential that can be increased when the film is marketed properly, as was the case with Capote. Of course, Sony Pictures Classics did not make the film or even select it in the normal course of things. The film was supposed to be released by United Artists but was taken over by Sony Pictures Classics when United Artists went out of business (though it has recently been revived).

Different audiences respond to films in different ways. Capote has little appeal to the mass teenaged audience that goes to the movies every week looking for the latest action film, gross comedy, or… [END OF PREVIEW]

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