Iconoclastic Tartan Films Starts U.S. Distribution With Small (Yet Still Controversial) Releases
by Wendy Mitchell
"Cautious" isn't the first word that would come to mind for a distributor launching in the U.S. with films depicting a woman being sexually violated with garden tools, a couple having real on-screen intercourse, or torture involving teeth pulling and chomping on live squid. Still, Hamish McAlpine, the head of longtime U.K. distributor Tartan Films, said of the launch of Tartan's U.S. operations, "We're being fairly cautious initially. We're starting off walking, not running." But he's quick to clarify: "That's fiscally cautious, not cautious with the types of films we acquire."
Tartan USA started with extremely limited engagements in late summer and early fall (followed by DVD releases) of the Karl Rove doc "Bush's Brain," Catherine Breillat's provocative "Anatomy of Hell," and "Hillside Strangler," produced by McAlpine as part of his "serial killer trilogy." Those first releases haven't created a huge stir -- controversial "Anatomy of Hell," for instance took in only $31,000 during its very limited run. But McAlpine says they've performed "okay" theatrically and will be profitable on home video.
The outfit will offer some higher-profile releases in coming months: the South Korean horror domestic hit "A Tale of Two Sisters," Michael Winterbottom's sexually explicit love story "Nine Songs," and Park Chan-wook's violent Cannes award winner "Old Boy," as well as its predecessor "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance." Richard Jobson's Edinburgh story "16 Years of Alcohol," which McAlpine executive produced, will be released in February.
Tartan is also now going after U.S. indie fare -- the company just acquired U.S. rights to Allan Mindel's festival hit "Milwaukee, Minnesota" (one of indieWIRE's top 20 undistributed films of 2003), as well as the rights to Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin," the provocative feature that played well in Venice and Toronto.
McAlpine admitted he's being cautious Stateside. "For me it is a new market, I'm on a learning curve as steep as the Cliffs of Navarone," he told indieWIRE. "We wanted to start off with some small releases... It's tempting to start with a big splash but I didn't think that was the most intelligent way to start a new venture." Plus, McAlpine said, he's not sure he could afford to enter a U.S. bidding war for higher-profile films, like "Super Size Me," for which he acquired the U.K. rights. The U.S. arm is being grown "organically," he says, funded from the U.K. company's profits. Tartan aims to release 8-12 films per year theatrically and about three video titles per month (ramping up slowly until a regular video schedule starts in March 2005).
McAlpine launched Tartan Films in the U.K. in 1984 (it merged with Metro Pictures to create Metro Tartan in 1992 and is now just Tartan again) and the company has handled the U.K. releases of films such as "Cinema Paradiso," "Super Size Me," "In the Mood for Love," "Audition," "Capturing the Friedmans," "Secretary," "The Last Seduction," and "Julien Donkey-Boy."
Tartan USA has a staff of seven in its Los Angeles office (established in April), which McAlpine estimates will grow to 10 by year's end. Its home video business is handled through a partnership with Philadelphia-based TLA Releasing, which handles sales and distribution while Tartan does its own marketing and advertising. Tartan USA has a number of U.S. industry veterans on board: MJ Peckos and Bob Myerson both formerly of First Look Pictures, Overseas Filmgroup, and their own Dada Films; another First Look alum Giovanna Trischitta, and Andrew Schrieber, a vet of Playboy Video. Peckos supervises U.S. acquisitions, working closely with McAlpine and number of other Tartan acquisitions execs, including head of Oriental acquisition Christine Iso (based in L.A.) and head of Occidental acquisitions Jane Giles, based in London. Tartan is also working with David Schultz of Vitagraph Films, who may jointly acquire films with Tartan and is helping the company with its theatrical bookings.
So, with its U.K. business celebrating its 20th anniversary, why did McAlpine want to invade these shores now? "It struck me that nobody was paying attention to the New Wave of Asian Cinema in the U.S. when we started doing it in the U.K., so I saw this gaping hole in the market," he told indieWIRE. He also saw a hole for edgier foreign-language films not from outside of Asia. "All the specialty divisions of the studios will have bidding wars against each other for Italian romantic comedies, but they're not going near the edgier product... Initially that's a lot of our focus. But who knows, that may change."
Industry watchers note that Tartan's reputation and past success in the U.K. has little bearing on how the company can navigate the much different U.S. market. Tartan's closest competitors for U.S. acquisitions are companies such as Wellspring, Palm Pictures, Magnolia Films, Lions Gate, Newmarket, and Strand Releasing.
Marie Therese Guirgis, head of acquisitions at Wellspring, recently competed (successfully) with Tartan for the U.S. rights to Todd Solondz' "Palindromes" and she said "undoubtedly we will compete again in the future." She has mixed expectations for Tartan -- as a film lover she says, "I am happy when a new company with good and bold taste emerges -- Tartan will undoubtedly release a few films that might not find a home elsewhere." But judging from a business perspective, she is more cautious: "Those of us entrenched in the struggle to get screens, stay on screens, and draw an audience can't help but wonder why anyone would want to enter the fray at this moment."
Palm Pictures' acquisitions head David Koh noted that the market for challenging films has gotten more crowded in the U.S. in the last few years. "There were less people into foreign language films, Asian cinema, documentaries, etc., a few years ago," he said. "But luckily there are a lot of good movies to go around." He sees Tartan's American entrée as a sign of health for the industry but also notes that the U.S. "is one of the most difficult territories to distribute in and to be competitive you need to have access to a lot of capital."
The first big test, rival distributors say, may be Tartan's release of Winterbottom's much-buzzed-about "Nine Songs" in February. The film shows a couple having graphic sex, intercut with scenes of live music. Following a legal battle with director Winterbottom and his Revolution Films, Tartan only has U.S. distribution rights to the film, as Optimum Releasing stepped in to handle U.K. releasing. McAlpine doesn't have a U.S. release strategy cemented yet. "MJ and I are just beginning to speak to distributors, get an idea of how wide we can go," he explained. "That's the way I like to work, going to distributors first and gauging their ability to support the film." That film, like a number of upcoming Tartan titles, will be released unrated.
Another indie distribution exec, who wished to remain anonymous, told indieWIRE that McAlpine's tastes can be so bold that they might be fiscally irresponsible sometimes. "There are a bunch of distributors who would like to take out very challenging fare on a higher level, but the incredibly high costs of American marketing and distribution make it an insane risk," the exec said.
Time will tell if Tartan's risky choices can be financially successful here, or critically lauded (many critics were vehement in their distaste for "Anatomy of Hell"). For now, the famously bombastic McAlpine, who splits his time between homes in Paris, London, and L.A., is trying to stay humble: "I think really the learning curve has just started. It's going to take time for me to work out what the differences are. I'll be learning by my mistakes and make sure they're not too expensive."