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by Brian Brooks
May 13, 2009 10:30 AM
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Still Grappling With Loss, Fortissimo Moves Forward

The sudden, unexpected death of Wouter Barendrecht last month sent many in the international film industry into a tailspin, not to mention the shock and sadness felt by the late executive's colleagues at sales outfit Fortissimo Films, the company he ran with longtime business partner Michael Werner. Fortissimo returns to Cannes this year in full force, even as they face continual condolence calls and occasional questions wondering about the future of the company.

"There's no specific changes planned structurally [at the company]," Fortissimo chief Michael Werner told indieWIRE during a chat Tuesday afternoon in Cannes. "Like any company, we're evaluating the way the market is going."

"Wouter and I worked together for 15 years [but] after we get over the emotional side and the tragic loss of a friend and colleague, at the end of the day, we know how to run this company," he continued. At one point pausing to reflect on the pain of the past few weeks, Werner noted that he was anxious about this year's festival, which would have been his 15th with Wouter.

Again setting up shop in the Grand Hotel, but this year in a new space upstairs, their bustling Cannes office maintains its stunning view of the Mediterranean. Werner noted that Fortissimo's entire sales team is in Cannes including SVP Chris Paton, who was seated nearby for yesterday's conversation. New York-based Winnie Lau who will remain based in the U.S., but also spend time in the Hong Kong office where Barendrecht was based with Werner. Fortissimo is headquartered in Amsterdam and has 20 people on staff.

Before the official Cannes kickoff tonight, the event paused this afternoon to remember Barendrecht with a memorial service at the Plage des Palmes club along the sea behind the Palais des Festivals. Werner and others, including organizers from the Cannes, Berlin and Toronto festivals, felt that it was best to honor his memory at the start of the festival, so that everyone could come together, but then get on with the business at hand. "Without him, a lot of films and filmmakers couldn't exist so strongly," Cannes fest head Thierry Fremaux said at the service today, choking up at times he dedicated this year's official selection to Wouter.

"Fortissimo Films lives on," Michael Werner said emphatically at the crowded event that was a who's who of the international film community. "We are ready to deal with this tremendous challenge."

Cannes Fest head Thierry Fremaux speaking at the memorial service for Wouter Barendrecht. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE.

Headlining Fortissimo's Cannes lineup this year is Tsai Ming-Liang's competition film, "Face," shot in Paris and based on the myth of Salome. It is one of the first films shot at the Louvre, which also helped finance the film. Meanwhile, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda will premiere his latest, "Air Doll" in Un Certain Regard section.

Consistent with Fortissimo's history of clever outreach, the company put together a blow up-bound cover for its press kit for the film, a life-size air doll that lives in a shabby apartment in Tokyo whose middle-aged master talks to her, gives her a bath and makes love with her every day after he returns from work. The film has already had pre-sales activity in some markets, in addition to other Fortissimo titles, which the company will announce during the festival.

Also screening in Cannes are the world premieres of Fortissimo's "Nymph" by Pen-ek Ratanaruang in Un Certain Regard and Michel Franco's "Daniel & Ana," which Werner expects could see some controversy.

Fortissimo is aggressively pursuing the genre market with "Dream Home," which Werner described as "horror with intelligence and artistic merit." Another film depicted in a poster hanging in Fortissimo's Cannes suite is Indian director Rajesh Jala's "Children of the Pyre," which has a not-quite-so-subtle headline, "Not Every Kid is Destined to be a Millionaire." Werner noted that Indian cinema will be a key focus for the company going forward.

Additionally, Fortissimo will be handling all rights outside Asia and North America to Chinese production "The Warrior and the Worlf" from producer Bill Kong ("Hero," "Lust, Caution"). Based on a short story from award winning author Yasushi Inoue, the film is written and directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang ("Springtime in a Small Town"). "Warrior" is currently in post-production and Fortissimo plans to launch the film at fall festivals.

Looking ahead, Fortissimo's Werner also noted that the company is developing an English-language film with Michelle Yeoh, who will star in the project. Chris Doyle is on board to shoot it. They are also pursuing a development deal with John Woo and producer Terence Chang. And, Todd Solondz' latest will debut at a fall film festival, Werner said.

Though North America is generally considered by many to be in the doldrums, Werner sees positive development in French markets, Benelux and Germany, where "Air Doll" and "Dream Home" have found interest. He also said he's taken early meetings with North American companies who expressed interest in Fortissimo's lineup, which may be a good sign.

"I'm personally positive because a strong [Cannes] Official Selection lifts all boats," said Werner who added that this year's roster of Fortissimo films is its strongest. "If [the festival] ends up being weak, then everyone will have to to re-think where things are going."

[Eugene Hernandez contributed to this article.]

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