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The Dreamlife of Foreign-Film Distributors

New approaches, new audiences In the biggest Catch-22 in foreign-film distribution, if a film doesn‘t 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 doesn’t make it in New York,” says Jon Gerrans of Strand Releasing, “it‘s going to be a tough film to release.” Add to this other complaints such as Hollywood’s recent incursion into the art-house market, an aging audience base and a generally disinterested entertainment press, and it‘s a rough time for serious foreign-language film distribution all over.

So why, in such a climate, is Landmark Theaters, the country’s 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, Landmark‘s vice-president of marketing, the answer is simple: “We think there’s 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.

“We‘ve had films perform better in Minneapolis than in Los Angeles,” says Jones, “and we’ve 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 didn‘t happen, and in 1999 Sony Classics had one of its best years. Not only did Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run become the second-highest-grossing German film ever, but Pedro Almodovar‘s 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 you’re 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 film‘s foreign status, or at least recast it in order to draw in newer, younger audiences.

“We didn’t 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. That‘s 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.

“It‘s not so much that the good films don’t get distributed,” says Nancy Gerstman, co-founder of Zeitgeist along with Emily Russo. “It‘s that they don’t 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 isn’t 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 Strand‘s handling of Andre Techine’s 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 wasn‘t 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 Strand’s biggest hits.

Another of Strand‘s recent successes is indicative of the positive changes afoot in the foreign-language market: its re-release of Jean-Luc Godard’s 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.

“Reissues like Nights of Cabiria and Grand Illusion have a built-in audience,” says Michael McClellan, vice president of booking at Landmark Theaters. “But they‘re also very much about introducing older films to a new generation. They’re 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 anybody‘s guess. As Hu says, “I don’t think any of us can predict when a movie‘s 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 Trier‘s The Idiots and Takeshi “Beat” Kitano’s 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 Hollywood‘s 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 can’t 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 Taiwan‘s 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.

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