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by Anthony Kaufman
December 21, 2006 1:59 AM
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CRITICS' POLL '06 | Film Critics Pick 200+ Favorite Undistributed Films

A scene from Hong Sang-soo's "Woman on the Beach."

Is Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo the must unsung auteur in the U.S. marketplace? For the last several years, the director's work has continued to place high atop critic polls of the year's best undistributed films at both indieWIRE and the Village Voice. From "The Power of Kangwon Province" to "Turning Gate" to "Woman is the Future of Man" to "Tale of Cinema" to this year's top undistributed vote-getter "Woman on the Beach," Hong represents the profound chasm between art and commerce in cinema today.

The entire list of Best Undistributed Films is available here at indieWIRE.com, along with the complete list of indieWIRE Critics' Poll results, including links to individual ballots.

But as voter Michael Atkinson wrote earlier this year, "Slowly, we're catching up with the Korean New Wave's answer to the love child Antonioni and Hou Hsiao-hsien never had: If Hong Sang-soo's elusive masterpiece "The Power of Kangwon Province" (1998) is still cinema non grata on these shores, his grim structuralist follow-up 'Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors' (2000) is properly DVD'd here, and his fifth film, 'Woman Is the Future of Man' (2004), now catches legit screen time."

While no one in the film business expects Hong's work to break the bank in theaters, video-on-demand or DVD (New Yorker Films' 5-week "legit screen time" of "Woman is the Future of Man" grossed $11,807), there are still plenty of cineastes burning to see the director's long-take visions of twentysomething romantic dysfunction unfold on the silver screen.

In the first round of indieWIRE's critics vote, a close second for the most popular undistributed film was Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Syndromes and a Century," but the movie - apparently unbeknownst to many a critic - was acquired by Strand Releasing earlier this year (along with another ineligible poll favorite, "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone," from Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang). As one critic responded upon hearing of the films' distribution: "Excellent release news: Strand Releasing are my heroes." Let's hope the company does a better job of distributing the movies than reaching out to their target audience with acquisition news.

With that double feature out of the game, Chinese maverick Jia Zhang-ke dominates the top ten with his recent pair "Still Life" (#2), a surprise Golden Lion winner at Venice, and his Three Gorges Dam companion piece "Dong" (#6), a documentary about a Chinese artist. Word on the street is that Jia's sales agents are still hoping for a U.S. deal -- and with Jia's previous three features "The World," "Unknown Pleasures" and "Platform" eventually all landing some sort of U.S. distribution (and all currently available on DVD), Jia-deprived fans may still get lucky in 2007.

Only three out of the poll's top 26 undistributed films happen to be U.S. productions. Is the predominance of foreign language films a reflection of the marketplace? Or is it simply the collective taste of the poll's critics, whose film festival attendance is more attuned to world cinema showcases such as those in Cannes, Toronto and New York rather than U.S.-heavy events such as Sundance, South by Southwest or Los Angeles? Or was it just a weak year for new American independents?

The answer may be a combination of all three. Foreign titles, especially those that don't involve World War II, martial arts and Pedro Almodovar, are falling out of favor with U.S. distributors. With DVD sales not exactly picking up the slack for diminished theatrical receipts, mainstream distributors are forced to target more accessible fare, or seek alternative distribution strategies, such as the IFC First Take series. With the demise of art-house distributor Wellspring in 2006, companies with modest marketing budgets such as Strand, Zeitgeist, New Yorker and IFC First Take are the only options left.

Still, there's nothing more irksome to U.S. art house distributors than being told they should pick up a film that only a couple thousand people in the entire country will pay up to see. If 19 North American film critics are heralding Pedro Costa's visionary docu-fiction hybrid "Colossal Youth" (#3) as one of the best undistributed films of the year, that doesn't mean that a company can make a living putting it into theaters. But it does mean museums and other nonprofit film venues should give it a shot of finding an audience.

While most of the American titles on the list ranked fairly low, it's probably not a coincidence that the duo that rose to the top, So Yong Kim's "In Between Days" (#4), a mostly Korean-language delicately observed drama, and Julia Loktev's "Day Night Day Night" (#6), a provocative portrait of a suicide bomber in New York, feel more like foreign cinema in their focus on intimate character study rather than plot.

Jeez, don't these critics have a sense of humor? Unless you think Alain Resnais' "Private Fears in Public Places" (#5), Otar Iosseliani's "Gardens in Autumn" (#8) or Albert Serra's "Honor de Cavalleria" (another #8) are funny, one has to go down to 10th place ties such as the Japanese whack-job "Funky Forest: The First Contact" or Jim Finn's Communist mockumentary satire "Interkosmos" to find something close to comedy.

But perhaps it makes sense. While some of the movies may have had limited runs here and there, and a few may have deals in the works, there is a vast amount of undiscovered gems. When it comes to the challenges of distributing such foreign auteur fare and challenging American cinema in the U.S. marketplace, few people are laughing.

[EDITORS NOTE: Films selected by critics in the best undistributed film category will be among those considered for participation in the next indieWIRE Undiscovered Gems series, which will be announced in the new year.]

The entire list of Best Undistributed Films is available here at indieWIRE.com, along with the complete list of indieWIRE Critics' Poll results, including links to individual ballots.

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3 Comments

  • gabesmail | December 22, 2006 6:31 AMReply

    Bravo Tom! Well said.



    You've captured the perspective of non-profits and festivals perfectly.



    What remains to be seen is how technology will affect distribution and exhibition models in the future.



    Consider "on demand" solutions like "IFC First Take" and Marc Cuban's HDNet gambit; on-line services like Morgan Freeman's Clickstar.com or Dovetail.tv; downloadable podcasts from iTunes et al; companies like Netflix or Withoutabox--both of whom are making a play for "content", or direct sales DVD services like Customflix.com.



    If we believe that watching a film on the big screen, in a theatre, with an audience is the ideal way to see a film, then we believe that festivals and non-profit venues will continue to serve a valuable vital function, or should it be said, we will continue to provide that service?



    However, with affordable advances in home theatre systems, and HD solutions fast settling into livingrooms everywhere, it could be argued the presentation of most works--especially digital formats--in a home living room matches or surpasses to what most film festivals can deliver. (The overwhelming majority of non-profit venues, festival screens and commercial theatres cannot satisfy the basic needs required to project an HD, Dolby Surround digital film. Instead, most festivals rely on donated projectors, which are rigged into commercial venues or converted spaces, where they screen works on Beta, DigiBeta if you're lucky, or DVD if you are not... and usually the best audio output is limited to stereo sound.)



    I believe that international sales agents, small distributors and indie filmmakers should look to festivals (and non-profits) as platforms for launching films, developing new audiences, and generating buzz.



    However, if the endgame for those who create and invest in the work lies in generating revenue, then festivals and non-profit exhibitors may be in trouble if filmmakers and foreign sales agents opt to eschew the festival game all together (with the exception of the MAJORS) and bypass regional markets in favor of direct sales to consumers.

  • tom hall | December 21, 2006 5:29 AMReply

    "Still, there's nothing more irksome to U.S. art house distributors than being told they should pick up a film that only a couple thousand people in the entire country will pay up to see. If 19 North American film critics are heralding Pedro Costa's visionary docu-fiction hybrid "Colossal Youth" (#3) as one of the best undistributed films of the year, that doesn't mean that a company can make a living putting it into theaters. But it does mean museums and other nonprofit film venues should give it a shot of finding an audience."



    I agree, but there's nothing more irksome to the non-profit film community than being asked to pay $1000 plus PER SCREENING of these films in order to compensate for the fact that film distribution for these titles is not working. If Sony Classics or Tartan or Strand aren't willing to lose money on these titles, how can festivals and museums be expected to do so? What is happening is that the commercial burden for recouping money on these films is being shifted to the small non-profit arts organizations who are the least financially able to bear the burden. This is particularaly true for foreign titles in the US as foreign sales agents, used to working in havily subsidized arts communities in Europe and Asia, run square into the fact that most non-profit arts organizations in the US receive very little subsidy. Couple this with the non-profit mandate to keep ticket prices accessible for festivals (I did see my first $35 film festival screening ticket this year... we charge $8) and you now have festivals LOSING money to screen the most challenging and engaging films. The system is breaking down everywhere.

  • dchin | December 21, 2006 4:50 AMReply

    I plead guilty to being one of the ones who included "Syndromes and a Century" and "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" among my "Undistributed Films" list, and so I admit to being amiss in not being privileged to get the info from Strand. But a lot of small distributors have faced enormous difficulties because their economic straits prevent adequate press coverage, and these distributors are aiming for the same mainstream press coverage as the majors, when they should be cultivating the blogs and online film critics, which might provide a small audience, but an informed and passionate one.