The word began to spread last week, and was made official on Monday, that venerable distributor New Yorker Films was going under. It's hard to imagine the impact the company made in just its first few years, way back in 1965, well before the advent of home video and, later, dvd, when film was still watched in theaters and projected off of, um, film. They released a number of now established classics - films by Akerman, Herzog, Bresson, Lanzman, etc. Just a quick glimpse at my own video shelf reveals about two dozen of their cassettes, and about a dozen of their dvds (including films by Denis, the Dardennes, Resnais, Godard, Sang-soo, Zhangke and Kiarostami) . Indeed, the transition from video to digital perhaps revealed the first signs of an impending decline, if not out and out collapse - a number of their holdings never made the jump from one format to the other, either through lack of care, concern or rights retention. As point of reference, their video releases of Bresson's The Devil Probably and A Gentle Woman have not only not been released on dvd by them, they have in fact not been issued on dvd by anyone at all in this country.
Another sign of the times? Not quite - even before our current financial woes, distributors were going under left and right (Think Film, Palm Pictures, Wellspring, etc). More a sign, then, of the shifting tides of the state of film itself. As fewer and fewer companies release fewer and fewer films, even one financial disappointment can spell certain doom. Add into the mix higher budgets and increased advertising dollars for those few films, in addition to shrinking exhibition opportunities, and you've got a near suicidal business plan. So what's the concerned cinephile to do? Your guess is as good as mine. Smaller companies like the recently founded Benten Films are trying to carve out a little corner of the market on their own modest terms, more a labor of love than anything else, while Koch Lorber and IFC continue to release worthwhile films, although I fear to increasingly diminishing returns. While Washington fumbles about with its bailout plans and the bankers wait with baited breath, I'll be mourning (in private, with a minimum of fuss - a state that us increasingly marginalized film lovers are becoming more and more familiar with).