International Gateway: NYFF A Crucial Destination for World Cinema Seeking Distribution
by Anthony Kaufman
While next week's New York Film Festival premieres of Lodge Kerrigan's "Keane" and Todd Solondz' "Palindromes" are certainly not the last time you'll see these maverick American independent works in the country (they're actively engaged in negotiations with potential distributors), both films are among a sizable batch of this year's NYFF selection that don't yet have U.S. release plans in place.
About 10 NYFF films still remain without a home in North America, from the work of Asian masters (Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Cafe Lumiere," Hong Sang soo's "Woman is the Future of Man," Jia Zhang-ke's "The World") to Middle Eastern newcomers (Keren Yedaya's "Or," Danielle Arbid's "In the Battlefields," Yousry Nasrallah's "The Gate of the Sun") to that of foreign auteurs, young and old (Pablo Trapero's "Rolling Family," Eric Rohmer's "Triple Agent").
Many of the films are arriving in New York City as the final stop on an international festival tour that began in Cannes or Venice, continuing in Toronto, and potentially culminating with a deal in Manhattan, one of the world's leading locales for art-house film. "New York City continues to be the absolute essential showcase for international and independent film and the New York Film Festival, in particular, has been seen over the years as the gateway to North American audiences," says Richard Peña, the festival's programming chairman and the year-round program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. "Because we're highly selective," he continues, "that often helps the films get distribution, or if they have distribution, helps them to have a good launch.
Offering hope for the few cinephiles salivating at the chance to see the latest pics from Hou Hsiao-hsien or Jia Zhang-ke, a trio of last year's NYFF orphans found some distribution, albeit limited: Tsai Ming-liang's astonishing masterpiece "Goodbye Dragon Inn" is currently playing in one theater in New York via Wellspring; Barbara Albert's "Free Radicals" received a one-week run by Kino International; and Wellspring is still sitting on Marco Bellochio's "Good Morning, Night."
Not exactly ample opportunities for some of the best in world cinema, but we'll take what we can get. Standing the most to gain from slots in the NYFF's prestigious 23-narrative feature selection may be those foreign-language films that benefit from a coveted strong New York Times review, the highest arbiter of refined movie taste in indiedom. So far, of the 10 undistributed pictures, only reviews for Rohmer's "Triple Agent," Arbid's "In the Battlefields," and Yedaya's "Or" have been published; and none were hits out of the ballpark (the first was called "an impressive docudrama"; the second a "grim family drama" and the last, a "well-meaning but irritatingly naïve feature").
However, "Or" has received a favorable buzz from other critics and audiences at the festival, according to the Film Society's communication director Graham Leggat, and could end up with a distributor attached. A harsh portrait of a middle-aged prostitute and her sexually coming-of-age daughter's fight to keep her mom off the streets, "Or" doesn't go down easy, but its potent hopelessness viscerally captures the ills of contemporary Tel Aviv.
If Jia Zhang-ke still remains an unknown commodity outside of the cinerati (his most recent "Unknown Pleasures" went nowhere in theaters last year), his latest globalization opus "The World" may finally find a marginally larger release, if the positive word of mouth persists at its Gotham screenings next Monday and Tuesday. Called "the world's greatest filmmaker under 40," by the Village Voice last week, Jia has received continued support from critics and "the consensus is that 'The World' has the best chance of getting distribution of his three features,'" according to the Film Society's Leggat.
Indeed, sales company Celluloid Dreams' managing director Charlotte Mickie is revved up about "The World"'s NYFF bow. "The New York Film Festival will be very helpful with respect to U.S. sales," she says. "We have already received offers and expect more during the festival."
For films that already have U.S. distribution, the NYFF is invaluable for a company's fall release plans. "It's a great launching ground," says Sony Pictures Classics' Michael Barker, "especially having the opening night film." This year's opener Agnes Jaoui's "Look at Me" has already received the kind of accolades the company couldn't have paid for: it was called "a witty and acute examination of friendship, ambition and betrayal" by the Times.
While Sony Classics -- the company with the largest NYFF presence -- won't release "Look at Me" until 2005, along with Ingmar Bergman's "Saraband," they're banking on positive reviews for their remaining NYFF screenings of Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education" and Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers," both of which are high-profile 4th quarter foreign language releases.
For Wellspring Media, second behind Sony Classics in the NYFF race for prestige, with three films -- Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation," Jean-Luc Godard's "Notre Musique," and new acquisition "Kings and Queen," from French director Arnaud Desplechin -- "We know that we have a great opportunity to attract a wide and diverse audience because of the NYFF New York City launch," says Wellspring's Marie-Therese Guirgis. "It opens the next day at another major New York film institution, the Film Forum. The combination of this kind of support contributes to our confidence in the potential impact of this film."
However, the rush of expectations surrounding New York Film Festival screenings doesn't always translate to success in the real world. As some of the most groundbreaking, inspired, and admittedly, challenging cinema in the land, general audiences are not always adequately prepared. At last Saturday's screening for Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Tropical Malady," being distributed by Strand Releasing in 2005, for example, "there was a huge groundswell of anticipation; the audience seemed rabid," recalls Leggat. "But a lot of people got a rude awakening when the film screened. Afterwards, two older women came up to me and asked, 'what was that I just saw?' They were completely ill equipped to make sense of it. But," adds Leggat, "they were still quite happy that they had the experience."