Cruel Summer: Hot Docs and Niche Pics Chill Prospects for Foreign Flicks
by Anthony Kaufman
Two weekends ago, when the world was watching "Fahrenheit 9/11," a hundred people gathered at the small Cinema Village theaters in Lower Manhattan to watch a film that exposes an even more blistering snapshot of humanity's dire straights. But "Time of the Wolf," Austrian director Michael Haneke's apocalyptic verite masterpiece, will only get seen by a fraction of the audience that it deserves, because according to this summer's art-house crowd, foreign language films are out of fashion, replaced by hot docs and specialized studio pics.
"'Fahrenheit' killed us opening weekend," says Neal Block, director of theatrical distribution at Palm Pictures, which released "Time of the Wolf" on June 25, or "F-Day," as it could be called in indie film distribution circles. "Had we opened another weekend, without a doubt, we would have made more money," he says. "A lot of distributors moved out of that period."
Sony Pictures Classics, for example, pushed their Gong Li starrer "Zhou Yu's Train" from July 2 to July 16. The theater where it was scheduled to open in New York City, premier art-house venue Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, was showing "Fahrenheit" on four out of its six screens.
In its favor, "Time of the Wolf" garnered rave reviews from across the nation. ("One of the most harrowing and plausible visions of apocalypse since George A. Romero's 1968 zombie shocker 'Night of the Living Dead,'" wrote Manohla Dargis in the Los Angeles Times.) But despite the critical goodwill and a New York Times Arts & Leisure feature pegged to the late June release, audiences have preferred the horrors of reality to fiction.
In addition to "Fahrenheit 9/11," other nonfiction films including "Control Room," "The Corporation," and "Super Size Me" have taken a sizable bite out of the art-house market. "This summer, the media has focused on the political documentary trend, and it's virtually impossible to get coverage for foreign films," says Wellspring Films' Ryan Werner, who is releasing the festival crowd-pleaser "Seducing Doctor Lewis," which he says was a "major disappointment" in its recent New York opening. Even the critically supported Wellspring release, "Strayed," Andre Techine's seductive WWII-era drama, started out strong with a healthy half-million dollars at the box office, but has recently "been hurt by the competition," says Werner.
While Zeitgeist Films has capitalized on the nonfiction hype with "The Corporation," Mark Achbar's successful anti-corporate manifesto, the company's release of "Since Otar Left," French filmmaker Julie Bertuccelli's sharply observed and sensitive portrait of three generations of Georgian women, has recently sputtered. Clearly, subtlety is not one of the buzzwords of summer.
"'Since Otar Left' had a nice launch in the late spring," says Zeitgeist's Emily Russo. "It played pretty solidly in May and June, but the 'Fahrenheit 9-11' weekend blew a lot of things off the map." Zeitgeist opened "Since Otar Left" on "F-Day" in Chicago, and felt the impact with lower-than-expected numbers in the Windy City. "We're going to have to hold our breath for now and open it in other markets down the road." Adds Russo, "It could be that the documentaries have a timeliness about them that the foreign films don't."
In addition to documentaries, foreign films also face stiff competition this summer from a number of well-reviewed Indiewood releases. "Hollywood has really delivered more choices for adults than ever before," notes Wellspring's Ryan Werner. "You have 'De-Lovely,' 'Before Sunset,' 'The Door In The Floor.'" Even studio pics like "The Terminal," "Spider-Man 2," "Shrek 2," and "Harry Potter," with their strong reviews, have stolen art-house audiences, says Werner. "The marketplace is completely oversaturated with choices."
All this clutter comes just when the spring months showed a bounce for foreign-lingo titles (after a lackluster year in 2003 when only about seven foreign titles broke $1 million). Films such as Sony Classics' "Good Bye Lenin!" ($4 million), "Bon Voyage" ($2.3 million), and "Monsieur Ibrahim" ($2.8 million), and Miramax's "I'm Not Scared" ($1.58 million) showed an increased appetite for foreign fare. "A number of films really made their mark early in the year," comments Werner. "You can't say that the audience is disappearing."
And yet two of the best films of 2004, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's masterful inquiry into masculine detachment "Distant," which opened in March, and Jafar Panahi's searing Iranian "Taxi Driver"-like exposé "Crimson Gold," which opened in January, barely made a dent at the box office, earning $67,000 and $148,196, respectively.
The current situation may reflect an endemic problem: auteur-driven foreign films are always a tough sell, and if all the stars are not perfectly aligned, these prestigious festival favorites are likely to fail in the theatrical marketplace than succeed. "I'm not 100 percent sure that releasing this film during the spring or fall would have improved its chances at finding an audience," says Palm's Block, regarding Haneke's "Time of the Wolf." "Finding an audience for difficult films is always a struggle, regardless of the time of year."
"Basically, foreign language films are always tough in the summer, as the press focuses on the bigger movies," says Miramax's Amanda Lundberg, a publicist working on Takeshi Kitano's wry and satisfying samurai adventure, "The Blind Swordman: Zatoichi," which changed its release from June 4 to July 23rd. "But they're tough all year round," she adds.
Lundberg denies that "Fahrenheit 9/11" had anything to do with the delay of "Zatoichi." Pushing back the release date," she says, "gave us more time to do word of mouth efforts. We've taken it to film festivals, showed to different groups, and the audience we've been targeting loved it and we just wanted more time." If any summer foreign film has the ability to break out and even crossover, it's probably "Zatoichi," but Lundberg says that it's taken a slow and careful buzz campaign to reach that level. "Nobody said that a month ago," she says. "We're letting the reviews permeate."
On a smaller scale, Wellspring's Ryan Werner is still hoping to push Techine's worthy "Strayed" in additional markets. The company will also put out Cedric Kahn's mischievously witty psychological thriller "Red Lights" at the end of the summer.
And Palm Pictures' Neal Block isn't giving up on "Time of the Wolf," perhaps the year's most relevant and absorbing depiction of our current culture of doom. "The good thing is that we have a nice open run at Cinema Village and they continue to promote the film, and we continue to advertise, and the word of mouth will carry it for at least a few more weeks," says Block. "Time of the Wolf" also opens in San Francisco this Friday, followed by openings in Washington D.C. on July 23 and Chicago on July 30. See it now -- because it might not be around for long.