Illustration by Max Cornell“Our longest-running foreign film was A Man and a Woman,” Laemmle
Theatres president Robert Laemmle sighs nostalgically. “We played it exclusively
at the Royal for two years. You can’t do that anymore. Now distributors are in
a rush to get to the next revenue stream.”
And these days that next revenue stream is looking more and more like DVD. Theatrical hits are now measured in weeks, not months, and celebrated auteurs like A Man and a Woman’s Claude Lelouch, Bertrand Tavernier (Coup de Torchon) and Costa-Gavras (Z) find themselves appearing hat in hand at events like the Directors Guild’s annual City of Lights, City of Angels film festival, hoping to attract distributor attention for new work that, in the past, would almost certainly have opened here. Time passes and tastes shift, but the sea change in foreign-film distribution in recent years has been so dramatic that one of world cinema’s most legendary figures, director Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad), witnessed the biggest success (in France) of his more-than-50-year career, Not on the Lips, make its U.S. debut on home video. Why? It’s the “bottom line.”“Our biggest hit this year is Head-On,” says Marcus Hu, co-president of that most independent of independent distributors, Strand Releasing. “At the end of the day, it’s going to come in at $600,000 to $700,000, which, for a small company like us, is quite good. We spend very modestly, open a few prints and move them around the country. If it works, the film plays for a year.”A smash in its native Germany, Head-On captured the Zeitgeist of its Turkish-émigré characters in a way that pleased many critics and more than a few viewers in the U.S. But even if it hadn’t hit theatrically, there’s always home video, as Strand learned last year with Son Frère, Patrice Chéreau’s drama about brotherly love and death.“It opened in New York, got great reviews and just didn’t perform,” Hu notes. “It’s a somber film, and in this day and age, people ask themselves, ‘Am I gonna plunk my $10 down and take two hours out of my very busy life to be depressed or put the same $10 down on Spider-Man 2?’ So we played New York and Chicago, and that was it. I tried to get one of the art chains to play it in Los Angeles. They looked at the New York numbers and, in spite of the reviews, they weren’t going to take the risk. This year, I’ve really gone out on a limb to push [Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s] Tropical Malady — I can’t tell you how much I love that movie. It’s my passion in life.”But passion doesn’t always aid the bottom line, or spark the word of mouth that has made the documentary March of the Penguins this year’s art-house sleeper. Of course, the fact that one doesn’t need to speak Penguin to appreciate the film (a French documentary with a Morgan Freeman–voiced narration created for the U.S. release) helps. And in an increasingly uncertain industry, the “classics” divisions of major studios find it even easier to sell small-scale homegrown fare like Sideways and Broken Flowers. Hence the foreign is displaced by the familiar at a time when domestic theatrical attendance has dropped some 9 percent from last year, and an Associated Press–AOL News poll found that 73 percent of adults prefer to watch movies at home on DVD, videotape or pay-per-view. For non-English-language films, the impact is more severe.“I would say the theatrical horizon has been shrinking for some time,” says Gary Palmucci of distributor Kino International. “We’ve had a good run here with pictures like Amos Gitai’s Kadosh (1999) and Himalaya (1999), a film by French director Eric Valli. Both grossed close to $1 million — which for small companies is sort of the gold standard. In the last three years, we’ve only had one picture that’s approached $500,000 at the box office — The Return, by a new Russian director, Andrei Zvyagintsev. We probably released another 10 or 15 movies and struggled to get anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000, so DVD is kind of a buttress.”
But something more than a mere buttress is involved when works by name talent
are being passed over for theatrical play dates.
“Not on the Lips is something people have asked a lot about,” says Ryan Werner of Wellspring, one of the leading U.S. distributors of foreign fare. “The thing about it, and about Jacques Rivette’s The Story of Marie and Julien, is that there’s an audience for them, but it’s small. I couldn’t get a play date for Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn in Los Angeles except for a couple of days at the Aero theater right before it came out on DVD. None of Tsai’s films have done particularly well at the box office, but they’ve all done well on video. Not on the Lips is arguably more commercial. It’s got Audrey Tautou from Amélie and Lambert Wilson from The Matrix. We made a print, and we’re trying to get it out to some theaters. It’s going to run at the Anthology Film Archives in New York in late August or early September. But we did the math, and it didn’t add up to a full theatrical release. We’ve also had Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning Night for some time. It’s an important film, and we know we’re going to make a bit of money on the video. But the climate with exhibitors is that there are so many films opening that unless you can guarantee you’re going to get major coverage from The New York Times and the L.A. Times, it’s really hard to get a film to run for more than one week.”“The problem isn’t just with foreign films,” says Marcus Hu. “I was talking with John Waters the other day, and he wanted to know the grosses on Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, which he loves. It’s one of the best films of the year, and if you look at the numbers, it’s just crushing. John was so disappointed to see how America is responding to such a great movie. Obviously, with artier films the margin is really slim.”
Track records of all kinds are in the process of being rewritten with DVD,
as foreign films long bypassed for U.S. distribution are turning up all the time.
“I think the norm in the future is that DVD is where you’ll make money,” says
Bob Foster, production coordinator for video giant Image Entertainment. “We jumped
on DVD fairly early — late ’97, early ’98. Prior to that, Image was mostly laserdiscs.
There have been 48,000 DVDs since 1997. This year there will be 3,500 titles.
“A lot of people here at Image are film buffs, and they’ll go out of their way to pick up things that companies like Sony wouldn’t, because we can sell fewer units and still make money at it,” Foster explains. “We don’t have to make up for the films that bomb. We bought three Rivette films that were unreleased in the U.S. — Wuthering Heights, Gang of Four, Secret Defense — as a group, so it was the same marketing for all of them. We realize when we buy certain films that they’re not going to sell gigantic numbers right away, but they may become backlist items. We need to look at theatrical release as the advertising for the DVD. Playing for one day only, but coming to DVD.”Which is what happened with Wellspring and Goodbye Dragon Inn. But that company is also interested in promotion of other kinds, like the touring show it sponsored of films by French director Arnaud Desplechin, whose La Sentinelle, My Sex Life (or How I Got Into an Argument) and Esther Kahn have been much admired by critics. Still, it did little to help his latest, the widely acclaimed Kings and Queens.“With Arnaud Desplechin’s tour, we had a program book and tried to make it a sort of event,” notes Ryan Werner. “But you never know what’s going to hit. Russian Ark — a film done in one continuous shot — was the kind of thing nobody thought would do any business, yet it made $3 million and is huge on video.”So there was an audience out there they didn’t know about. And knowing your audience is a distributor’s key task.“There was an Australian film we released a few years back, also called Head On,” notes Strand co-president Jon Gerrans. “It had a strong gay element and did very well. That’s an important audience now. Yossi & Jagger was a very successful film. It had the highest U.S. box office to date of any Israeli film. It had a gay audience and an Israeli audience. Likewise, there are Ferzan Ozpetek’s films (His Secret Life, Steam), which are gay and Turkish.”But while Strand has many gay titles, Picture This! Entertainment is almost exclusively gay — and almost exclusively a video-release company.“I don’t think theatrical releases will ever fade out completely,” says company press representative Matt Giedlinski, “but there’s no money in theatrical releases of certain films. The French ‘coming out’ drama Come Undone (2000) was our best film so far theatrically. It was kind of risky and one-of-a-kind at the time. Nowadays, there are gay films coming out every week, so new films have to stand out more. We have a film called Garçon Stupide that’s been playing numerous festivals, and everyone’s very excited about it.”Yet there are always risks, no matter what you do.“The reality of going directly to video is that, generally, foreign films do not do business in video,” notes Michael McLellan, vice president and film buyer for Landmark Theaters, the nation’s largest theater chain specializing in independent and foreign-language programming. “One of our most successful films last year was The Motorcycle Diaries, followed by Maria Full of Grace, but only three foreign-language films were in our Top 20 last year. The third was The Triplets of Belleville. And normally you could say that wasn’t even a foreign-language film at all.”“We’ve got another success this year with the German-Israeli film Walk on Water,” adds Landmark vice president and head film buyer Ted Mundorff. “In Bethesda, it’s still onscreen. It was a much bigger hit than Yossi & Jagger was, and that was a big hit. So there’s hope: It really comes down to the niche audience and if you can tap into that niche. But there’s no common thread. Motorcycle Diaries had Gael Garcia Bernal, who’s a star, and it made him a much bigger star. And it related to Bad Education, the Almodóvar film [which also starred Bernal], which was his most successful in the States to date. “Almodóvar is a director who’s a star. So is Wong Kar-wai, but his track record isn’t great. With In the Mood for Love, audiences supported it initially because they thought they were going to see a lovely romantic drama. And it was, but not for Americans, because the film has no sex in it, and that translated into ‘slow and dull.’ It got huge negative word of mouth, and died quickly. So with his new film, 2046, the critics are telling audiences not to expect to get involved with the story — just to lose themselves in the atmosphere — and audiences are responding.”Likewise, Landmark is hoping local audiences will respond when it opens its new theater at the Westside Pavilion in the first quarter of 2007. “We’re in the western block,” says Mundorff. “The only thing there now is Barnes & Noble. We’ll have some unique opportunities to show things.”New theaters in what’s supposed to be a shrinking theatrical market? Bob Laemmle finds it entirely justified.“Last Friday, there was a groundbreaking for our new theater, which will be in Claremont,” he says. “Five screens. We’ll book the same films we play in Pasadena. Already, we’re in advanced negotiations for another theater, in a community that very specifically wants a Laemmle theater.”“In every town, you can always count on there being an art-house venue,” adds Marcus Hu, who has visited any number of them personally. “I’m always amazed at just how well little towns can do, because there is still a hungry audience in Middle America that wants to see interesting foreign films.”And what that audience needs, especially if it is increasingly seeing films on home video, is critical information. To which end, Dave Kehr, video reviewer for The New York Times, is becoming arguably more important than his counterparts, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, who review the week’s new theatrical releases.“Most foreign films close a week after they open,” says Kehr, “even with Manohla plugging away at the readers about Head-On and Tropical Malady. Both Manohla and Tony see it as their mandate to push the art films they love, and they’ve both found it a sobering experience that their love doesn’t make any difference. The power of New York Times film critics to influence filmgoers is practically nonexistent at this point.“There are more choices through different delivery systems, and DVD is becoming the primary one. It’s a lot for a tiny, thousand-word column to deal with. All that I try to do is put together as much of a mix as I can with my bizarre taste. The Story of Marie and Julien came across my desk the other day, so I looked up the review in the Times and found that there wasn’t one. But these things aren’t coming to me with ‘DVD Premiere’ stamped on them. In other words, ‘straight-to-video’ once meant ‘not good enough to be shown in theaters.’ Now it means ‘too good to be shown in theaters.’ That’s the reality.”
Illustration by Max Cornell“Our longest-running foreign film was A Man and a Woman,” Laemmle