Red states, blue states. How about red movies and “blue” movies?

A film-studies professor friend of mine just sent me a note from the Studio Briefing files (fifth item) about Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial new film, which is veering into rating territory where few recent artsy skin flicks have dared to go.

In limited release . . . The Dreamers took in $511,236 in 66 theaters, or an average of $7,746 per location. Fox Searchlight said that, despite the film’s NC-17 rating, it had had no difficulty buying newspaper ads for it. However, distribution chief Steve Gilula told . . . (the) Los Angeles Times that a few theaters had lease restrictions barring them from running NC-17-rated films. Gilula said that the film is producing its best results in major metropolitan areas, while business was relatively weak in more conservative areas.

For my friend, this raised an interesting question. Is this reference to “more conservative” zones and theaters the flip side of the much-discussed decision by Mel Gibson and his Icon company to steer copies of “The Passion of the Christ” toward more culturally conservative parts of the map (think Dallas suburbs) and away from more culturally liberal sectors (think Manhattan)?

As an aside, I thought it was interesting that some commentators thought it was controversial for Gibson & Co. to use this strategy. In effect, they were projecting headlines such as “Gibson intentionally avoids Jewish, liberal neighborhoods.” Stop and think about that. Try to imagine the furor that would have surrounded headlines that said: “Gibson targets Jewish, liberal neighborhoods.”

This red-theaters, blue-theaters marketing story could be linked to emerging political realities. While some experts are in denial about this, it seems that many politicos are now openly discussing the “pew gap,” which means that religiously active people are much more likely to vote for culturally conservative candidates while liberal candidates clearly appeal to secular voters and the declining numbers of believers who are active in oldline, progressive Protestant pews.

So are these marketing decisions — Passion vs. Dreamers — a sign that Hollywood is ready to accept that there are red movies and, well, “blue movies” in both sense of that latter word? Does this mean that screenwriters will soon be able to openly pitch films to a dependable “red theater” market?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Victor Morton

    I’d be dubious about any statement about “Hollywood” based on these two movies. Both THE PASSION and THE DREAMERS are independently-made movies (the latter is American in no meaningful sense) — which is not to say “Hollywood” won’t draw lessons, particularly if THE PASSION is as big a smash as it looks like it’ll be. But THE DREAMERS (though I think it is a very good film) is just doing the typical art-house release pattern.

    The red-blue gap has been a fact of art-house and indie marketing for … decades, probably. Speaking loosely, all the profitable art-houses are in the blue states (with a few two-screen holdouts in the college towns of the red states). I worked for five years in medium-sized cities in Georgia and to see almost any subtitled or independent film required a 150-mile drive to Atlanta. To maximize viewing, I would make a weekend of it about once-a-month, check into a motel for a night and see typically about six films in two days. Between grub, motel, gas and tickets, it was about a $100 trip.

    What makes Gibson’s strategy unique is that it’s an indie film that pitching itself primarily to the red states. This isn’t totally new, but *is* unprecedented for a $25 million film with A-list stars and technical credits (separating it from the LEFT BEHIND movies, Mormon-pitched films like GOD’S ARMY and BRIGHAM CITY, and straight-to-video stuff).

  • Judith

    I’m not sure about the whole red state/blue state thing, but here’s a link that questions the widespread view that The Passion has been booked so selectively as it’s been made out to be. The author notes that the release (at the time the article was written, a week ago) parallels that of “50 First Dates” in many areas. And that’s before the increased number of theaters was announced.