A few years back when I was a student in the film department at the University of Michigan, I had the pleasure of having a conversation with one of the titans of the Hollywood studio system: the founder and head of the United Talent Agency, Peter Benedek. As a proud former Wolverine, he and his lovely wife (Barbara Benedek, screenwriter of The Big Chill and Sabrina) and our sometimes professor, his brother Tom Benedek (Cocoon), had come back to Ann Arbor as a favor to the head of our screenwriting department, Jim Bernstein. For a freshman like me, they seemed like gods from a distant world, the golden glitter of “making it” glistening all over them, movie-wisdom dripping from their pores; money, thick and multiplying in their pockets.
They stood in front of our eager and mostly teenaged screenwriting classes and told us what Hollywood was “really like” for writers and filmmakers these days. Being a wannabe cinephile who adored the most obscure foreign films and low-budget American gems I could get my eyes on, I asked the group of sages during the Q & A my biggest burning question about Hollywood today: why there were so many big “crappy” studio films that filled the multiplex and so few great “small” films to compete against them?
To be more clear: Why, in essence, were the small movies—the cream of the year’s film crop—like this year’s Rachel Getting Married or last years The Diving Bell and The Butterfly—rarely seen or heard of by the general movie-going populace?
I thought I had a pretty clever theory about how to fix the whole shebang. So I blurted it out: “Think about it,” I cried, “If you just put five more Little Miss Sunshines or Secretarys or Diving Bells into the multiplex and took away five of the What Happens In Vegas or Shrek 3s, wouldn’t people the country over have to start seeing the better films? Or at least have a chance to choose to see the better films?”
They stared at me in silence. I wondered if I would be asked to leave. I wondered if my screenwriting professor, sitting behind me—(who taught us Star Wars and Rocky with the religious fervor of a minister teaching savages Revelations) thought I was a belligerent moron.
Peter Benedek, having the most authority, looked up at me and smiled. He had just talked about green-lighting several Oscar winners, and his comments basically amounted to a single truth: Nobody wants to stick their necks out for a small film.
A professor asked him to elaborate. He used Codename: The Cleaner, as an example: It’s a silly action-comedy with Lucy Liu and Cedric The Entertainer romping around in disguises, which on paper it sure looks like gold. Our class groaned good-naturedly.
“Making movies is a little like gold mining,” his wife interrupted, “You speculate endlessly, and often you wind up with nothing but ten wheelbarrows of shit and rock.”
But in the mind of the studio-heads, he assured us, the agents, managers, development creatives and the heads of agencies like him, Cedric is a known commodity—he’s funny, he has a following. He’ll get the African-American viewers. Young viewers. People in rural areas. And teenagers, who generally like silly comedies. Those are the repeat moviegoers, the people who buy all the candy and the popcorn. That’s the gold. So, even though it is an incredibly vacuous project, it’s a yes movie.
As for something like Little Miss Sunshine, it’s about a family coping with mental illness, financial issues, marital issues, physical insecurities, past suicide attempts—it covers crushed dreams of a son and a father, a grandfather’s death and an uncle with a love of French literature. That’s a lot of things. That’s a no, no, no, maybe movie. At best. Not to mention the writer/directors were first timers. Not to mention it has a nothing budget. So you have to love it to make it. He drew an analogy: “Just like good food, the best films are made with love—a burger at your local gourmet café is probably going to have a bit more taste than Burger King; it’s quality over quantity.”
He then mentioned that, down the street at the art-house theater, a great “small” movie had sold out its first week. I had been there opening night. The movie was called Junebug and would make Amy Adams (who would get an Oscar nod) a star. I adored that movie and (belligerently) made everyone I knew go see it.
Peter Benedek and I talked after the Q & A was over and he said, rather proudly, it was him who got behind Junebug from the beginning. He loved the “small” movies as much as I did, but he was a realist. He elaborated on his wife’s point. “Sometimes you have to produce three mountains of coal before you can get a diamond.”
The glory of the small movie, Peter said as we walked outside the auditorium, is that when it does get seen, when people do get behind it and become passionate about it like I had with Junebug—and it becomes beloved and cherished like Amelie did—the film makes way more money and brings much more acclaim to the producers, writers, directors and everyone involved than any of those other movies could have. The small movie can get very big indeed.
Mr. Benedek grinned, shook my hand and got into his waiting car with his wife. I waved as his car disappeared around the corner. He would be flying back to Los Angeles in the morning.
It’s several years later now and now most of that night’s conversation seems a bit obvious. After seeing an incredible gem like Jonathon Demme’s moving Rachel Getting Married last evening, and realizing that not a single person I knew had either heard of it or was considering seeing it—it got me thinking about the power and importance of “small” movies again.
A great small movie—one that achieves greatness despite limited financial means—is more than a movie, right? It becomes a tiny part of the cultural firmament. Something for people to discover for years to come. It becomes a secret shared between friends. When I find out people love the high-school new-noir film Brick as much as I do, my eyes light up, I get excited, I want to know them better. I want to know what else they like. I want to be friends with them.
And best of all, seeing a great “small” film, makes me want to see more movies – hoping, against hope that I’ll find one more piece of gold in the carbon heap.