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Open Thread: Did Johnny Depp Step in It?

The facts are these: Last weekend, The Guardian ran an interview with Johnny Depp, promoting the European release of his Hunter S. Thompson adaptation The Rum Diary. Decca Aitkenhead’s profile begins with the line “In the weeks leading up to this interview, I began to think there must be some law that makes it illegal not to love Johnny Depp,” which has turned out to be an ironically specious statement, since this very piece has ended up pissing off an entire Midwestern city.

The quote, on the mediocre domestic box office returns of the aforementioned Rum Diary:

“I believe that this film, regardless of what it makes in, you know, Wichita, Kansas, this week – which is probably about $13 – it doesn’t make any difference. I believe that this film will have a shelf life. I think it will stick around and people will watch it and enjoy it… I think it’s an intelligent film. (Pause) And a lot of times, outside the big cities in the States, they don’t want that.”

The disclosure: your author was born, and spent the first 30 years of his life, in Wichita, Kansas. So yes, I’m taking this line a little personally — and not because I’m a tremendous apologist for Wichita, Kansas, where I was frequently irritated by the delayed, short, or nonexistent runs of independent/art-house/foreign films. But talking shit about my hometown is like calling my kid stupid: only I get to do that. Stop calling my kid stupid, Johnny Depp!

Wichitans, unsurprisingly, are less than thrilled by Mr. Depp’s characterization of their fair city as a haven for dumb, uncultured yokels. “People have these preconceived notions about cities like Wichita and cities in the Midwest,” Lela Meadow-Conner told the local Wichita Eagle. “Because his movie has been deemed a critical stinker . . . and audiences haven’t gravitated toward it, obviously he is trying to displace the blame onto audiences here who he deems unintelligent.” Meadow-Conner knows better; she’s the executive director of the Tallgrass Film Festival, a terrific regional fest that just celebrated its ninth year.

Bill Warren, the local theatre magnate, got down to the bottom line. “That’s just sour grapes,” he told the Eagle. Last time I heard, it [The Rum Diary] didn’t do well in New York, either.” It didn’t — and the notices it received from critics in those “big cities” were less than rhapsodic (“an oddly inoffensive piece and a personal project for its disconcertingly unengaged star,” writes the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman; Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir deems it “largely a pointless entertainment”). So if his point — that a movie like this does well in urban areas, where it is appreciated by sophisticated moviegoers and critics, but is ignored or misunderstood in the so-called “flyover country” — is entirely inaccurate, what’s with the weirdly specific shot at Wichita?

The attitude of the film industry in general towards small and medium markets like Wichita always seemed, to this Midwesterner anyway, vaguely condescending and distrustful; witness the release patterns of any film that isn’t a break-wide big-star blockbuster. It gets the New York/LA release first, then Chicago and other commensurate markets, and then (if it has performed adequately in those cities), it’ll make its way to a market like Wichita. Sometimes it doesn’t at all; many don’t make it any closer than, say, Kansas City, so you have to travel (as I often did) or wait for video. Some of this is rooted in the demand for these films by local exhibitors, but it’s mostly based on the number of prints in circulation and release patterns set by distributor.

They, to be fair, are looking to protect their investments, and it certainly doesn’t make sense to dump Bill Cunningham New York or Bellflower onto 1500 screens in week one. These are niche films. What’s presumptive, however, about a distributor who chooses to skip those smaller markets entirely is the same thing that is upsetting about Depp’s snub — the presumption that those niches only exist in the major cosmopolitan areas, and that everyone in a city with less than a million people is a mouth-breathing, Kardashian-loving, Transformers-owning troglodyte.

That’s the kind of thing, in a cultural sense anyway, that is a component of a phrase I hesitate to use because of its Fox News, cultural-conservative connotations — but it must be said that coastal elitism is a real thing. (Don’t believe me? Read Villiage Voice writer Gary Indiana’s cheap, cruel, and ugly “Town of the Living Dead,” which is basically a 17-page sneer at the easy target of Branson, Missouri.) Whatever Johnny Depp may think or presume to know, I saw The Rum Diary as a five-year New Yorker, and didn’t like it any more than I would have if I’d seen it in Wichita, Kansas. News flash: New York is full of unenlightened, philistine moviegoers, as a visit to any Times Square multiplex on a Saturday night will confirm. Now, are there anti-intellectual morons in Wichita? Absolutely. And there are also people who like off-beat cinema and read Hunter S. Thompson, and now have a very good reason to not go see The Rum Diary.

What do you think? Does Depp have a point? Or is he just making excuses? And does any city have the market cornered in smart or stupid moviegoers?

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