New approaches, new audiences In the biggest Catch-22 in foreign-film distribution, if a film doesnt prove itself in New York, which has the highest promotional costs in the nation, chances are that exhibitors in other cities, including Los Angeles, will be reluctant to book it. If it doesnt make it in New York, says Jon Gerrans of Strand Releasing, its going to be a tough film to release. Add to this other complaints such as Hollywoods recent incursion into the art-house market, an aging audience base and a generally disinterested entertainment press, and its a rough time for serious foreign-language film distribution all over.
So why, in such a climate, is Landmark Theaters, the countrys largest art-house chain, expanding the number of screens devoted to foreign-language films -- and in cities such as St. Louis, Denver, Minneapolis and Dallas, not usually associated with cineaste culture? According to Cary Jones, Landmarks vice-president of marketing, the answer is simple: We think theres an audience out there.
The real question for Jones is how to get its attention. The challenge for us, he says, is how do you expose foreign-language films to people who have been inculcated by Hollywood studio storytelling? We have to acculturate them into seeing foreign-language films as a way to be fascinated and entertained.
To varying degrees, Landmark -- known throughout the industry for mobilizing local, grassroots campaigns to support films showing in its theaters -- has been able to do just that.
Weve had films perform better in Minneapolis than in Los Angeles, says Jones, and weve seen foreign-language films perform exceptionally well in markets like St. Louis or Dallas.
Exceptionally well, of course, is a relative term when it comes to foreign-language box office, but the fundamental lesson of such successes remains: If you can get the films on the screens and get the word out, audiences looking for something different will show up. And there are signs, however tenuous, that new strategies are beginning to catch on with distributors -- and that a new audience is responding.
In a recent Variety article, Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, is quoted as saying that 1998 was such a bad year for foreign-language films the company was ready to turn in the towel. Clearly, that didnt happen, and in 1999 Sony Classics had one of its best years. Not only did Tom Tykwers Run Lola Run become the second-highest-grossing German film ever, but Pedro Almodovars latest, All About My Mother, is on its way to becoming one of the highest-grossing Spanish films, and The Dreamlife of Angels and Central Station proved to be hits for the company.
Sometimes youre just at the mercy of the quality of the films being made, says Barker. At the same time, the company was able to pitch films such as Lola and Mother in ways that ran counter to more traditional approaches, finding that sometimes it helps to play down a films foreign status, or at least recast it in order to draw in newer, younger audiences.
We didnt really market Lola as a foreign-language film, says Barker. We had spots on VH1 and MTV. We definitely aimed it at a younger crowd, and the younger crowd turned out. And a younger crowd turned out for The Dreamlife of Angels, too. Thats definitely very positive. And our latest ads for All About My Mother in The New York Times definitely do not have the conventional foreign-language-film look.
Not all distributors, however, have Sony Classics resources. Advertising in The New York Times, let alone on MTV, is simply too expensive for companies that are already hoping only to break even.
Such discrepancies make it tough on smaller independent distributors. But those that can develop innovative grassroots campaigns -- such as getting local consulates and ethnic restaurants into the promotions game -- or that have charted nontraditional release patterns have been able to survive. Indeed, two of the best-known and respected independent distributors, Strand Releasing and Zeitgeist Films, both celebrated their 10th anniversaries last year.
Its not so much that the good films dont get distributed, says Nancy Gerstman, co-founder of Zeitgeist along with Emily Russo. Its that they dont get distributed well.
Similar to Sony Classics strategy with Run Lola Run, Zeitgeist has found a link between the American indie and foreign-language scenes. Doing a film like Irma Vep really isnt that different than doing an American independent film, Gerstman says. It can be marketed in almost the same way, with Olivier Assayas as the director of a strong, hip, edgy film. We just have to try to do as much as we can with as little as possible, and our expertise has really grown over the years.
Other times, getting a foreign-language film into theaters can require fast maneuvering around the usual channels. Such was the case with Strands handling of Andre Techines Wild Reeds. For me, that film is just an arrow to my heart, says Marcus Hu, who runs Strand with partner Jon Gerrans. But the reason Wild Reeds wasnt acquired by anyone else is it screened at the New York Film Festival and got mediocre reviews.
After Strand bought the rights for the film, it took the unusual and risky approach of avoiding the New York market at first. In this instance, the strategy paid off. With a strong review from Kevin Thomas in the L.A. Times, Wild Reeds opened to solid numbers here. Strand then rolled out the film in other major cities -- with the help of exhibitors such as Landmark -- and by the time it finally backed into New York, it was already on its way to becoming one of Strands biggest hits.
Another of Strands recent successes is indicative of the positive changes afoot in the foreign-language market: its re-release of Jean-Luc Godards 1963 masterpiece Contempt. Lauded by critics eager once again to champion a legendary auteur, the film also drew a much younger audience than Hu expected.
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Reissues like Nights of Cabiria and Grand Illusion have a built-in audience, says Michael McClellan, vice president of booking at Landmark Theaters. But theyre also very much about introducing older films to a new generation. Theyre very much a part of the ongoing revitalization of foreign-language films -- they whet the appetite of younger audiences for the newer films. Run Lola Run only reinforces that idea.
Just how great this appetite is, at this point, is anybodys guess. As Hu says, I dont think any of us can predict when a movies going to hit or not. The year ahead offers some more than worthy test cases, including Claire Denis Beau Travail, Dogma 95 cofounder Lars von Triers The Idiots and Takeshi Beat Kitanos Kikujiro. But beyond the success of any single release, a larger shift in thinking has to take place if the daunting obstacles of the marketplace are to be overcome.
As the gleam fades from the American independent scene -- as much the result of Hollywoods influence as of the sheer glut of indie films -- there is what McClellan calls a golden opportunity for foreign-language film to regain its cachet as a real alternative to studio product. (While no one believes that Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami could ever be as big as Quentin Tarantino, you cant get much further from Hollywood than Tehran.) But if even fans of foreign-language film continue to be satisfied with imports such as Life Is Beautiful, and critics fail to support new directors such as Taiwans Tsai Ming-Liang while still mourning the passing of Truffaut, it will be an opportunity lost. In other words, to get the thriving and diverse film culture we claim we want, those of us who care about movies have to open our eyes, take a chance and care about foreign-language films again.
This is the second of two parts.