Service Entrance starring Sandrine Kiberlain and Fabrice Luchini
And then I learned the hard facts of foreign language film distribution in the U.S. in a frank discussion with Richard Lorber of Kino Lorber, Ed Arentz of Music Box, Frederic Demey of NeoClassics, and Greg Laemmle of Laemmle Theaters moderated by Unifrance‘s John Kochman. Popular comedies in foreign languages do not garner critical reviews and critical reviews are the crucial selling point – to theaters – for booking foreign language films.
If you continue reading you will get an earful, a vrai compendium of the ills of the foreign film distribution system in the U.S. Each point deserves a chapter to itself, but here follows a quick look at the issues raised.
Granted the first 20 minutes of this film would discourage buyers who must judge the commerciality of a French comedy in the U.S., but the actors (Fabrice Luchini now in theaters near you in Potiche, Sandrine Kiberlain soon to be seen in Cannes Festival’s Polisse, Natalia Verbeke,and Carmen Maura) are so impeccable in their characterizations and comedic timing; the historical setting and the look of the 60s in Paris so perfect; the story which completely carries the film all charm the viewer.
U.S. audiences have lost the art of watching non English language films as pure entertainment. Quelle dommage! This one, in my optimistic view, could be a runaway success except that it may not get seen even by a large swath of Los Angeles (which in foreign movie terms includes Santa Monica, West L.A., downtown L.A., Orange County, Pasadena). But I know, it needs the critical praise of a top N.Y. critic, though Jon Gerrans of Strand, who says the screeners are just now going out to exhibitors, thinks that if it can succeed in the Paris Theater in N.Y., even without a top reviewer reviewing it, it might still have a chance to take N.Y., go to L.A. and at its best, expand to 50 cities.
Jon, who saw it in Berlin, knew the pitfalls of such a venture but still hoped no one else was paying attention to the film, which to him — as to me — was a hidden gem. He is hoping it will cross the divide and come close enough to the arthouse critical review crowd. Remember when a “cross over film” meant crossing from the small critical elite film lovers to the popular audiences?
For those of us who can recall the enthusiasm which greeted such foreign language comedies as Bertrand Blier’s Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978 New Line), or the South African film The Gods Must Be Crazy (1984) which grossed $30,031,783 domestically and played more than 52 weeks in N.Y. alone, or Like Water for Chocolate (1992 Miramax $21,665,468 U.S. BO), let us keep the faith with this one, see it and tell you friends to see it too.
And for those of us who are pessimistic, here are further facts which came out in the talk among distributors which will allow you to stay that way:
• Competition among the small number of theaters showing foreign language films is so fierce that a bid from a “better” theater, such as an Arclight in L.A. vs. a Laemmle; or a multiplex in Tucson vs. an “arthouse theater” such as The Loft, can kill the film’s chance of making a successful run.
• The time spent on box office numbers (which is meaningless but newsworthy for up-to-the-minute news – more on that later) as a topic of conversation and for bragging rights takes away from meaningful conversation about the artistic merits of film. Film is discussed as a product not as an aesthetic experience. Ed Arentz looks more for the overall box office rather than per screen averages, another block in the commercializing of specialty films.
• L.A. Times Calendar is more interested in the business of film so that the space for critical reviews is decreased by stories which other cities run in the business section (which also features film news in the L.A. Times).
• To release in L.A., the second largest art house city is much more expensive than to release in N.Y. because it is more spread out making more screens necessary to reach the audience craving art house fare. And many art house theaters are not digitally equipped and therefore requiring 35mm prints throughout the suburbs.
• Per Ed Arentz, the Tattoo films (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) contractually cannot be exploited theatrically the English language remakes are showing. HOWEVER, there is a 9 hour version which did well on European TV, and perhaps that could show well stateside simultaneously. Certainly the DVDs and VoDs can be exploited at the same time as the English versions’ theatrical runs.
• There is a serious lack of repertory screens in L.A. which by necessity run at a loss. (Print costs, advertising costs, etc.) The L.A. situation is worsened by the LACMA debacle which leaves Ian Bernie out in the cold whereas N.Y. has MOCA, Film Forum and the upcoming N.Y. Film Society theater which will be managed by Bingham Ray and other venues, we have The Beverly, occasionally UCLA, occasionally NuArt and the American Cinematheque. Maybe – but it is yet to be seen – Film Independent’s upcoming partnership with LACMA will fill this gap, but it seems unlikely as their mission is to promote American indies.
• Internet-based social networking doesn’t work as a cheap way to advertise or promote because it cannot be localized and a film which plays out nationally over time, as the art house films do, can be forgotten if it is acclaimed on Facebook during its early release. Screenings serve as a better tool but theaters do not like too many local screenings as they cannibalize the paying audience. Festivals serve as good promotion, but again local theaters often object to booking the film if a local festival has too large an audience.
• Per Lorber, Netflix is both the savior and the scourge of the specialty film business. At this point there is little to replace it if it defects toward the majors and first run TV series and neglects the “long tale” in favor of the “body”. Netflix is renegotiating output deals with specialty distributors like Kino Lorber. Next week he’ll know the outcome of his negotiation. It is also responsible for the demise of the local videostores. However, what falls off the Netflix truck may be a feast for new digital outlets such as Fandor and subscription sites that fill curatorial slots. Netflix is the only brand on Netflix which has led to Criterion moving its label to Hulu Plus to guard its own label.
• There is always something impinging on theaters, if it’s not TV in the 50s or video in the 80s, then it’s digital in the teens. Democratization of access cuts out the role of theatrical curatorship, BUT, the movie going experience remains unique. Whereas critic Pauline Kael curated the Berkeley repertoire theater in the 60s, now the critics prevent foreign language films with broad popular appeal (such as commercial comedies) from entering the U.S. market. ColCoa gives these films a chance for audiences to experience them, but ColCoa is only in L.A. However, its astounding and rapid growth here in L.A., considered an unfriendly town toward foreign language films, belies L.A.’s reputation.