Lance Hammer's feature debut "Ballast" isn't the first American independent film to leap from laurels in Park City to a prestigious competition slot in Berlin. In 1999, Tony Bui's Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner "Three Seasons" went onto the Berlinale contest, while more recently, Joshua Marston's "Maria Full of Grace" (2004) and Mike Mills' "Thumbsucker" (2005) also made the double-play, winning acclaim at both festivals for their lead actors.
Whether "Ballast" leaves Germany this weekend with additional awards (it won Sundance's best director and cinematography prizes), the jump from Park City smallfry to world-class international competition entry is a prize in and of itself. But festival accolades are one thing; survival in the marketplace is another. "It's a beautiful work of art," said Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Films, which bought North American rights to "Ballast" shortly after Sundance concluded. "But it's not necessarily your obvious slam-dunk success," he added.
Few indies are nowadays. It may not need repeating, but audiences have been increasingly abandoning star-free American art cinema: Most notably, 2007 saw dismal ticket sales for the Sundance breakouts "Great World of Sound" and "Joshua"; in recent years, several American critics-list-toppers -- "Great World of Sound, "Keane," "Old Joy," "In Between Days," "Mutual Appreciation," "Day Night Day Night" -- failed to register for moviegoers. It's no wonder so many American filmmakers quickly flee hardcore indie cinema for the Hollywood specialty divisions.
At Sundance 2008, the buying reflected this wariness: While the studio units fought over the few obvious commercial prospects - the marketable reality-film "American Teen" and dark comedies with recognizable casts ("Hamlet 2," "Choke") - Sony Pictures Classics was the only distributor to acquire smaller films during the festival. Magnolia, ThinkFilm, Samuel Goldwyn and even bigger outfits like Lionsgate, Miramax and Picturehouse chose not to take the risk.
Hammer, a USC architecture graduate who went onto work as an art director in the studio system, while making shorts and writing scripts, says he was fully aware of "how difficult it might be to get the film out into the world," he told indieWIRE in an email interview from Berlin earlier this week.
"Before I decided to shoot the film, I came to terms with the fact that it might never find distribution," he continued. "By accepting this fact at the outset, and by realizing that the endeavor would be worthwhile anyway, I was able to proceed without any concern for the marketplace." He added, "This was essential for the creative process."
Indeed, Hammer's results are daring and defiantly non-commercial: Starring three non-professional black actors and set in the bleak, wintry Mississippi landscape, the beautifully rendered "Ballast" feels more at home in a sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival than the hothouse market environs of Sundance. (Fittingly, Hammer developed his vision at Berlin's 2004 Talent Campus program, where he met "Ballast" cinematographer, the British D.P. Lol Crowley.)
If the film feels more European, that's where most of its audience may ultimately lie. The fact is there are few U.S. companies operating today that would ever consider taking on "Ballast." "It's just not part of their economic model," said Sehring. Speaking about most of his larger specialty division rivals, Sehring added, "They have to have a movie that's making $10 million, minimum."
Before IFC got on board "Ballast," the film also closed a deal with foreign sales company Celluloid Dreams, which has long been associated with its library of international auteur cinema, from Abbas Kiarostami to Takeshi Kitano.
According to a source close to the film, companies in the UK, Germany and France are all pursuing "Ballast," and in an email exchange, Celluloid Dreams' Pierre Menahem confirmed the film's Berlin momentum. "We have offers and a great deal of interest, as the film arrives here with a wonderful buzz, rave reviews and two awards from Sundance," he said.
Even after the critical plaudits - from the L.A. Weekly's Scott Foundas ("the single most impressive film to premiere at Sundance since 'Half Nelson'"), Variety's Robert Koehler ("a thoroughly engrossing experience"), and the New York Times' Manohla Dargis ("a startlingly assured, pitch-perfect first feature"), Hammer said he still has no idea who will respond to the film, either in the U.S. or abroad. "Because I have lost all objectivity," he admitted, "my opinion is unreliable."
But Sehring and his team at IFC want to help "Ballast" find an audience domestically, but the big question is, as Sehring admitted: "How can you make movies like that work?"
Sehring and others involved in IFC's negotiations point to the company's recent release of Cannes Palm d'Or winner, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," a similarly challenging, intense and artful drama. After a little more than three weeks in release, "4 Months" has earned almost $375,000, making it already the third most successful film in IFC's two-year-old First Take theatrical and V.O.D. day-and-date program -- behind Cannes '06 Palm winner "The Wind That Shakes The Barley" ($1.84 million) and "CSA: Confederate States of America" ($672,000). "4 Months"s' recent robust theatrical performance was one deciding factor, according to "Ballast" sales agent Cassian Elwes, in making the IFC deal for "Ballast."
But First Take's theatrical record is mediocre, at best. Critic-driven American indies, in particular, have failed to lure audiences: Larry Fessenden's "The Last Winter" and Joe Swanberg's "Hannah Takes the Stairs" collectively made only $56,000 in U.S. ticket sales last year, while the company's other top performers have been foreign flicks, such as "Gabrielle" and "Russian Dolls" (which both made about a third of a million dollars).
But IFC will argue that the program's video-on-demand component makes them uniquely situated to take on riskier movies, with less grosses, as the films have a better chance to turn a profit through their simultaneous VOD revenue stream.
The IFC's rivals, however, continue to rail against the company for closing the theatrical window and flooding the market. As an executive at another small distrib recently told this writer, "One particular distributor has now acquired, by my rough count, 20-25 of the leading foreign and specialized releases of this year. What sort of release is each of those worthy titles going to get? And how will the pace of those releases affect the already-fragile ecosystem of specialized distribution?"
For "Ballast," only time will tell. The film will likely land a slot at the highly curated New Directors/New Films from the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center this spring and an IFC First Take release in the late summer.
Hammer is content with IFC and its innovative approach to the industry, and believes that the best path he can take for his debut feature is one that is faithful to the film's artistic content. "This is probably the wisest way to see profit in the long run," he said.