As tends to be the case, several of the best films made in the last year have yet to screen outside of the festival circuit. For some this is because their scheduled release date simply hasn't arrived; others are still waiting to be picked up by a distributor in the first place.
The vagaries of cinematic distribution are many, and there's rarely a 1:1 correlation between the quality of a film premiering at, say, the Sundance Film Festival and its attendant price tag. Many critical darlings are passed over by the Weinsteins and their ilk in favor of more commercially viable options, with most truly adventurous films eventually landing in the hands of the country's more intrepid art-house distributors: Strand Releasing, Cinema Guild, Kino Lorber, IFC Films, Oscilloscope Laboratories, Factory 25. This is all par for the course, but it remains an imperfect system that allows a number of worthwhile efforts to fall through the cracks.
With the Los Angeles Film Festival underway, I found myself thinking in recent weeks of Eliza Hittman's It Felt Like Love, the best film to play Sundance this year not called Before Midnight; Dominga Sotomayor's Thursday Till Sunday, my favorite film from last year's LAFF; Edoardo Gabbriellini's Padroni di Casa, a slow-burning surprise from last year's edition of the Locarno Film Festival about two construction-worker brothers; and Gabriela Pichler's Eat Sleep Die, which I saw at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea last October. Aside from Gabbriellini's, all four are understated character studies by first-time directors focusing on young women on the cusp of major realizations about themselves and the world around them — not exactly blockbuster material.
Owed largely to its status as the premier showcase for independent cinema in the city (the oft-misused “I” word was even part of its name for a time), LAFF screens a great many films that are never shown here again. I feared this may be the case for Thursday, but it turns out I was wrong: the film was recently acquired by Magic Lantern Films, though it still doesn't have a fixed release date. (Until it does, I invite you to avail yourself of its trailer.)
None of the other films have been picked up, though Hittman's is by far the most likely to: much like Thursday, it's been riding a wave of critical acclaim from its very first screening, with particular attention rightfully being paid to the director's sensitive treatment of her young protagonist. It Felt Like Love and Thursday Till Sunday are further linked by evocative visuals and occasionally heartbreaking takes on two very different aspects of growing up, but what most joins the two debuts together is the apparent similarity of their festival-circuit trajectory.
It was with that in mind that I got in touch with Sotomayor and Hittman to gain a sense of the festival experience from their itinerant perspective, both as a reward unto itself and a stepping stone to larger things — how strange it must be to receive such effusive praise from so many outlets yet remain stranded in distribution limbo. “Last year was a very intense period,” Sotomayor admits over email. “I was traveling a lot, which for me was the real limbo; I was at home a month in total. Rotterdam [a festival in the Netherlands where Thursday had its world premiere] was the first experience of being in a cinema with 700 people sitting there looking at something that I made, something very personal that took so long. I was curious and nervous. It was a big surprise, the reception; I was not expecting this emotional connection with the people.”
By the time Sotomayor's film is released in theaters, many will already have seen it: “There is a big audience when a film is in around 80 festivals,” she points out; that number is an exaggeration, but not a huge one: Thursday Till Sunday has made stops at fests in Lisbon, Montreal, Buenos Aires, Leeds, Bangkok, Thessaloniki, Vienna, Tokyo, and a dozen-odd other cities.
Hittman, a Brooklyn native who received her MFA from CalArts three years ago, echoes many of Sotomayor's sentiments. “This experience is new to me,” she tells me from Berlin, “so it has been a total whirlwind. We shot the film last August and it was a fast and furious process. The success of the film was totally unexpected. I had no support making it. Everyone hated the script.” This didn't stop the film from being accepted into Sundance, where it premiered in January; once there, it garnered widespread praise.
Since then, Hittman has been “living out of a suitcase. I sublet my apartment for the next three months to promote the film. The travel is stressful, but the festivals in Europe treat you like royalty.” Said festivals on the Continent include Rotterdam, Gothenburg, and Munich; stateside, the film has also played the Maryland, Sarasota, and Nashville film festivals, among others. Its next stop is the increasingly essential BAMcinemaFest in Brooklyn this Friday, a homecoming which Hittman says has already sold out.
Sotomayor seems to have taken the festival experience on its own terms. “The truth is that I was not expecting too much about the theatrical release” other than in her native Chile, Sotomayor says, and “I thought that around the world the film was going to be mainly at festivals.” Hittman, meanwhile, notes that “There was a lot of buzz around the film at Sundance in the NEXT ⇔ section and we had all great press. But distributors stalled out making a decision and eventually passed. In the back of my head, I know it's a crumbling system, but it still feels like a major rejection.”
Her comments bring to mind Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, whose most innovative facet may actually be its filmmaker's decision to self-distribute. Though not everyone has the means or even inclination to follow suit, the ability to stream an increasing number of films once (and, in some cases, even before) they're in theaters is changing the way people watch newly-released movies.
“The most profound and perhaps naive revelation I've had is that movies are bought and sold by men,” Hittman continues, “thus everything you see in the media is curated by their taste.” Her point is backed up by some troubling statistics: Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly recently pointed out that it had been over two months since a major studio released a film starring a woman, and as of last February the Academy was only 22 percent female.
One suspects — or at least hopes — that a film as good as It Felt Like Love will soon have its day. For now, Hittman soldiers on. “I'm still trying to wrap my head around it,” she says. “We have a new plan formulating for a release, but are still weighing options.” Though things are still up in the air stateside, Hittman has had good news abroad: “The film is having a theatrical release in France. It's opening on 15 screens in Paris on July 17. Our distributor KMBO thinks the film has a wide appeal and wide audience. Go figure.”