By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire February 21, 2006 at 11:37AM
The recent move by The Weinstein Company to own a DVD distribution company will result in the closing of the existing theatrical distribution divsion at Wellspring, the U.S. distributor of independent, foreign language, and documentary films. Wellspring is understood to be moving away from theatrical in favor of DVD distribution of independent, foreign, and documentary film, however, today The Weinstein Company confirmed that it would be the exclusive domestic distributor for any future Wellspring theatrical releases. As part of the decision, most of the existing Wellspring staff are expected to leave the company by the end of April and the Wellspring Home Entertainment divsion will move to Santa Monica, CA. Word of the Wellspring situation began to circulate last week at the European Film Market in Berlin and buzz has intensified as Wellspring prepares for this week's theatrical release of its controversial film "Unknown White Male."
In early December, the Weinsteins announced a deal with Wellspring's corporate parent, taking a 70% stake in the newly named Genius Products LLC, a company comprised of Wellspring's large library of some 750 feature films (and as many shorts), including the work of Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Rohmer, Fassbinder, Greenaway, Almodovar, Antonioni and many others. At the time, Genius CEO Trevor Drinkwater told indieWIRE that Wellspring would continue to maintain a theatrical distribution business, mixing straight-to-DVD and some theatrical releases. Now he is understood to favor almost exclusively DVD releases of art house film.
About ten people will lose their jobs at Wellspring as a result of the decision to curtail Wellspring's theatrical arm, including Marie Therese Guirgis and her entire New York acquisitions and distribution staff. The company indicated today that it would save nearly $1 million in overhead expenses by making the shift.
"This realignment supports an aggressive acquisition campaign to build on the Wellspring brand with critically acclaimed films that celebrate intelligent cinema, while at the same time, supporting our strategy of leveraging our core competency by focusing on the sales and distribution of higher margin, packaged entertainment products at retail," said Genius Products CEO Trevor Drinkwater in a statement today. "Genius remains committed to the independent film industry and we are moving forward with indie releases. We're just going to handle them in a different manner than we did before."
Continuing in a statement today, Drinkwater added, "We celebrate the members of our theatrical distribution team for their inspired and dedicated efforts, which have made the 700-title Wellspring library what it is today. Genius will continue to position this world-class catalog and any new acquisitions as the ultimate destination for original independent and art-related films.
Controversial Doc Marks End Of Theatrical Arm; Fate of Other Films In Question
The news will no doubt be a hot topic tonight (Tuesday) in Manhattan when the company celebratees the New York premiere of Rupert Murray's "Unknown White Male" with a special screening and party. Wellspring's theatrical business will close at the end of April once it has concluded releasing "Male" in theaters. The film, about a man who suffers a bout of sudden, profound amnesia, is debuting in Los Angeles and New York on Friday amidst national media attention. The film is booked in more than 25 theaters with a listing of venues concluding with a release in Tennessee on April 28th. Should the film perform well, it is understood that part of the team will stay on to handle an expansion of the movie past the April date.
A recent spate of articles have emerged charging that the film's subject, Doug Bruce, lied about his amnesia, calling into question the truth of the documentary. But its filmmakers, and others involved, maintain that the story and subject are completely legitimate. The recent news that Wellspring is shutting down has not deterred staff at the company from executing the long-planned release of "Unknown White Male."
"I have rarely seen distributors so passionately committed to a film as [Wellspring's] Dan Goldberg and Marie Therese Guirgis are to 'Unknown White Male,'" emphasized Jeremy Walker, a New York PR vet who is handling the release of the movie. He told indieWIRE Monday, "It's clear they have developed a close, personal relationship with the filmmakers and the film's subject, and both have been working tirelessly on the release for almost a year. I have no doubt they'll continue to do everything in their power to make the film's rollout a success."
Shortly after the deal with TWC was made public, Wellspring announced its acquisition of Patrice Chereau's "Gabrielle," a fall film fest title which has secured a Special Screenings slot at SXSW in Austin, TX next month. A specific plan for the theatrical release of that film has yet to be announced. Also to be determined is the release plan for the film "Darshan" (Embracing), Jan Kounen's documentary about the celebrated Indian spiritual master, Mata Amritamandamayi (also known as Amma).
Current and upcoming Wellspring Home Entertainment releases include Hou Hsiao-hsien's "cafe Lumiere," Werner Herzog's "Wheel of Time" and "The White Diamond," John Roecker's "Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, Dan Mirvish's "Open House," and "A Hole In One."
From Fox Lorder to Winstar to Wellspring
Ownership of Wellspring has been anything but stable in recent years. The company's origins are rooted in the former Fox Lorber (later known as Winstar). In 2001, following the financial demise of Winstar, the Winstar TV & Video arm was spun off and new leadership emerged, as did the new name, Wellspring Media (then headed by Al Cattabiani). The company was subsequently sold to American Vantage Media in 2002 and following the departure of Wendy Lidell and then Cattabiani, was run by Marie Therese Guirgis and Ryan Werner (who recently joined IFC Films). American Vantage was acquired by Genius Products in a deal that closed one year ago and in December Genius announced its deal with The Weinstein Company. (According to an S.E.C. filing, an unresolved complaint lingers regarding the 2001 sale of Winstar TV & Video, later re-named Wellspring).
Foreign language releases handled by Wellspring were hardly runaway hits by studio standards, but the small theatrical division was able to run a profitable business distributing arthouse titles (indie, doc and foreign films) in limited release theatrically and then doing business with the films on DVD. Among its recent releases were Jacques Audiard's "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny," Jafar Panahi's "Crimson Gold," Jessica Yu's "In the Realms of the Unreal," Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen," Jean-Luc Godard's "Notre Musique," Todd Solondz' "Palindromes," Steve James' "Reel Paradise," Alexander Sokurov's "Russian Ark," and Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation."
The Challenges of Showing Art Films in an Art House
While the Weinsteins made their name buying and releasing small art house movies -- mostly foreign language and American indie titles in the '80s and early '90s -- today a look at the new The Weinstein Company slate reveals a company -- backed by 1. 2 billion dollars in funding -- that is more focused on genre and star-driven projects. As many in the industry have noted of late, the state of the specialty film business is shaky, leading many companies to abandon smaller movies. In this case, the Wellspring Home Entertainment divsion is expected pursue those films for exclusive DVD release.
The concern among stalwarts is that it is becoming harder and harder to get art films on art house theater screens. Indeed, the news comes at a time of transition for the film business, with fewer buyers giving well-funded releases to art house fare, particularly foreign language films that are not genre movies. Of the Indiewood companies, with the recent shakeups at Paramount Classics and Fine Line Features, only Sony Pictures Classics maintains a consistent commitment to foreign films, while many smaller boutique buyers seem to be less focused on international cinema, in favor of docs which have performed better in recent years.
While a record 91 countries submitted films for consideration at this year's Oscars, noted Anthony Kaufman in a piece for The New York Times last month titled, "Is Foreign Film the New Endangered Species?," only seven of those films have U.S. distribution. That's a drop from 2003 when more than 20 secured an American release, Kaufman wrote in the Times.
With theatrical outlets dwindling, audiences will increasingly have to rely on film festivals, or DVD, to get their fix. "Imagine never seeing an Antonioni movie on the big screen," Wellspring's Marie Therese Guirgis said in the NY Times article. "There are so many filmmakers you wouldn't like if you just rented them on video."