Monday, September 04, 2006

Undermining Idiocracy

BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD creator and OFFICE SPACE director Mike Judge had a new film open this past Friday, not that anyone noticed. It wasn’t difficult to overlook. IDIOCRACY, a satire set a thousand years in the future, was unceremoniously dumped in Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Toronto and left to fail per its hush-hush release.

IDIOCRACY first crossed my radar last spring when it appeared on the upcoming release grid e-mailed to critics. At the time it was titled 3001, and if memory serves, it was supposed to open in late summer 2005. As a fan of Judge's previous work, I looked forward to it despite information being pretty limited. Of course, with the sheer number of films opening each week and not a peep in the press about IDIOCRACY, I forgot about it until it turned up on the grid with a September 1, 2006 release date. I never saw a trailer, but a poster playing off of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian man drawing showed up in at least one theater in town.

And then the posters disappeared, it fell off the grid, and it bowed with as little publicity possible for a major studio release. For comparison’s sake, September 1 openers THE WICKER MAN and CRANK were not screened in advance for the press, although industrious, in-the-know critics could gain admittance to 10:00 p.m. Thursday screenings with the proper promises. Still, in my observation both films were promoted in the typical fashion (trailers, posters, and TV advertisements). CROSSOVER, an amateurish streetball pic with limited commercial prospects, had a Wednesday night promo screening in Columbus, too late for the alt-weeklies but plenty in advance for the dailies and websites.

Could IDIOCRACY be that bad? Maybe. Nevertheless, studios release plenty of crummy films, but that doesn’t make them shy about making sure moviegoers know that their products will be at theaters near you this Friday. Even with the valid huffing and puffing about the number of films not screening for critics this year, a good number of stinkers are still shown to the press.

Regardless of IDIOCRACY'S quality, Judge’s name ought to be worth something. OFFICE SPACE was a box office disappointment but found its audience on DVD. Its home video success even spurred Swingline to make a red stapler, a treasured item that previously didn’t exist outside the film’s universe. IDIOCRACY star Luke Wilson may not be a sure-fire box office draw, but this summer’s flat comedy MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND, in which he starred alongside Uma Thurman, still managed to collect $22 million to date in box office receipts. No matter how bad the film might be, a trailer and minimal marketing campaign with Wilson’s face and Judge’s credits should have been able to pull in a few bucks at the nation’s theaters.

As it stands, most of us don’t have a chance to see it, including the residents of New York City. It is extremely rare for a major studio to release a film and not open it in NYC, which begs the question of what is really going on here. New York-based writer Bilge Ebiri is doing all he can to get to the bottom of the story, going so far as to try and coax film industry writers David Poland and Jeffrey Wells to see IDIOCRACY. On his ScreenGrab blog Ebiri points out that the few reviews out there are generally favorable, including Carina Chocano’s positive L.A. Times piece, but press coverage of the film is noticeably absent.

Regardless of if the film is unspeakably bad, a maligned masterpiece, or something in between, kudos to Ebiri for trying to bring the story to light even if he can’t see IDIOCRACY. In this age of frontloaded box office, critical opinion probably doesn’t make more than a superficial dent on the bodies of the blockbusters. Critics can make a difference with small films, and he’s doing what he can to bring IDIOCRACY to our attention. Judge’s film seems destined to film maudit status, but it would be nice if the moviegoing public could actually have a chance to determine whether such a designation is deserved or not.

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