NYFF 2000: 38th Fest Provides Launch Pad; Asian and Iranian Films Gain Momentum in Marketplace
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 10.10.00) -- "A slot in the New York Film Festival is worth about a million dollars in free publicity," a distributor once told NYFF selection committee chair Richard Pena, he says. "And that's a very nice thing, especially [because] these films can not afford a lot of publicity," he continues. "It's never been enough for me that the films only show at Lincoln Center; the idea is to get these films out to larger, broader markets."
At this year's 38th New York Film Festival, which closed its doors last night with Ang Lee's Chinese-language martial arts spectacle "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," all but three of the 23 feature films in the program will, in fact, make it out to larger markets with the help of distributors mid-range and miniscule. It's a testament to both the active, over-crowded market for art films and the prestige of the New York event, which together with the requisite "New York Times" review, provides little films with a much-needed mechanism to reach the marketplace.
Springboard and the Shadow of the "Times"
Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" -- the Palme d'Or award-winning film acquired by Fine Line before Cannes -- opened this year's festival. To understand the importance of the opening slot, Fine Line's Executive V.P. of Marketing Marian Koltai-Levine explains, "We were honored to be offered that Opening Night position, because it's singular. Unlike Toronto, which is a huge and wonderful festival, there is no singular position. Sundance doesn't have that kind of thing, either. As a result, New York, being the largest art-house market in the country, becomes a real springboard." Fine Line released the film the very next day (Saturday) in theaters to the tune of over $30,000 per screen in box office receipts.
For the rest of this year's selection, the Festival serves up the same sort of prestige and viable platform for release. "Inclusion in the New York festival brings [our films] to the attention of the core audience whom we would like to reach," explains Winstar Cinema's Wendy Lidell. "The art-house market is so incredibly crowded that anything one can do to raise the film above the crowd is important and the festival helps us to do that." By the end of the festival, Winstar had in its possession three festival films, Iranian Jafar Panahi's "The Circle," Taiwanese Edward Yang's "Yi Yi," and Raul Ruiz's "The Comedy of Innocence." Capitalizing on its festival premiere, "Yi Yi" opened just last weekend at New York's Film Forum. Says Lidell, "The fact that it was selected for the festival made it imperative that we find a booking as soon after the festival as possible."
One of the reasons for the rush is to take advantage of "The New York Times" review, published generally the day of its festival premiere. "The Times" will re-run their film reviews after 3 months of the initial publication date, but not before. So if distributors want to make the most of their "New York Times" review, according to New Yorker Films' Susan Wrubel, "You open immediately or you wait. If you don't open it immediately, the review goes to waste."
It's this little rule that dictates much of the release schedule for art films in the winter; the dual power of the Festival and "The Times" has little distribs at their mercy. New Yorker released festival selection "Gohatto," by Japanese auteur Nagisa Oshima, immediately after its premiere screening, and are waiting to release their Iranian acquisition, "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine" sometime next year, after the "Times'" 3-month moratorium is up. Says Lidell, "It again points to the 'New York Times' casting a shadow on us all."
Art film is Not Dead; it's Iranian and Asian
One of the trends that emerged at this year's Festival, in addition to an acknowledged tendency throughout other festivals in Y2K, was the increased presence of powerful new works from Iran and Asia. In addition to "Crouching Tiger," and the aforementioned Winstar and New Yorker titles, there was Lot 47's Korean film, "Chunhyang," Sony Classics' Takeshi Kitano film "Brother," USA Films' acquisition Wong Kar-wai film "In the Mood for Love," and the two 3-hour plus, critically praised epics, Shinji Aoyama's "Eureka" and Jia Zhang Ke's "Platform."
"Clearly, it is happening," says Lidell about the abundance of quality films from Asia and Iran. "We're looking at larger political and economic trends in those countries," she continues, considering possible reasons for the movement. "I will conjecture that pressures in a society create a context for the production of great art. But is that what's going on in Asia and Iran right now? I don't know. Is it because European money and talent is flowing into Hollywood? I don't know." Many who spoke to indieWIRE for this article indicated both were possible reasons. But will U.S. audiences now go to see these films the way they once salivated for European films?
Lidell remembers when she released Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Dust in the Wind" in 1986. "I'll never forget [Village Voice critic] Jim Hoberman's quote, 'If he were French, he'd be the toast of Lincoln Plaza.' It's something I'll always remember," she continues. "I think, in fact, that Asian and Iranian films can't do as well as a French film. I would hope that the plethora of new films from those regions will change that."
Many fans of Asian cinema are hoping that "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" will be a strong helping hand in that change. Michael Barker, Co-President of Sony Pictures Classics, which will release the film this December, says, "We're in a stage where Asian films have the highest profile of any world cinema outside of U.S. films. And I think that's born out of Cannes, where there were so many Asian films and much fewer, prominent European films in the past." "I think 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' will be a locomotive of sorts," he says, referring to its potential ability to widen the opportunity for other Asian films.
"Everyone is saying that the foreign film is dead," continues Barker, "but I think what they're referring to is how difficult it is in the ancillaries with these smaller foreign films. But every year, one or two films have come to the fore and really performed," Barker added, listing off films like "Life is Beautiful," "Run Lola Run," and "All About My Mother."
Speaking specifically about Iranian films, Susan Wrubel thinks there's a universality in their subject matter that makes them able to cross over, as already reflected in Panahi's 1996 release, "The White Balloon" and Miramax's campaign for Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven" last year. "Because of the movies' on the surface simplicity, dealing with children or every day occurrences," she says, "it takes you back to a style of filmmaking that you don't see in the U.S. anymore. The depth of the film is in the simplicity and critics are really responding well to that."
Lidell is optimistic, as well. "We're lucky that there's such a good number of Iranian films at the festival and coming out after the festival, so they'll build up a trajectory of interest." In addition to the festival selections, the Shooting Gallery will release "A Time for Drunken Horses" and New Yorker will distribute "Djomeh" -- the dual winners of the Camera d'Or at this year's Cannes.
"The audience grows," agrees Pena. "Each time a film like that comes around and has success, the next time that person will come back and bring a friend. My sense is that both of these films ["The Circle" and "Smell of Camphor"] will play widely and win new audiences for Iranian cinema. But it is an evolutionary process," he adds. "It isn't something that happens immediately."
English-language Buzz or Bust?
In addition to the high interest in Asian and Iranian films at this year's festival, English language entries all fared predictably well. Ed Harris' "Pollock" was one of the first films to sell out, as was Terence Davies' "House of Mirth," notably because of its star, Gillian Anderson. According to the Film Society's Graham Leggat, "They were ravenous," he says of the "Gillian Anderson network" that bought Film Society of Lincoln Center memberships in order to get advanced tickets to the festival. "We've never seen membership boost because of a cult of personality," he added. When Sony Classics releases the film this December, we'll see whether Anderson's stellar performance will continue to give this decidedly art house film an "X-Files"-like force.
In addition to "Pollock" (acquired in Venice by Sony Classics), the only other U.S. films in this year's selection were independently financed entries like David Gordon Green's "George Washington" (Cowboy Booking) and Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls" (acquired post-Venice award by Fine Line). It's worth noting that none of these films originated at an Indiewood studio.
Though Pena would not go so far as to claim a downward spiral in the quality of mini-major productions, he did acknowledge a possible temporary slump. "We saw proportionally less films that excited us coming from American indie [companies]," but nevertheless, it's a year by year thing," he says. "Last year was a pretty good year for American independents," he noted, citing films like "Boys Don't Cry" (Fox Searchlight), "Being John Malkovich" (USA Films), and "Dogma" (financed by Miramax). "And this year, somewhat less so," he added.
American films were also scant in the short film selection, the only one being Frazer Bradshaw's Sundance 2000 entry, "Every Day Here." More effective works came from further abroad, with the most auspicious debut found in Felicity Morgan-Rhind's "Donuts for Breakfast" (New Zealand), following in the footsteps of Jane Campion with a quirky, assertively-told story of a young girl's abuse. Also notable were Adam Elliot's poignant piece of claymation "Brother" (Australia) and France's two entries, Caroline Vignal's "Roule, Ma Poule" (Move it, Girl), the witty story of a lonely driving instructor, and Eric Oriot's award-winning experimental work of cinematic degradation, "Plus Tard" (Later).
Providing further momentum for cinemas abroad, there were two subtle neo-realist entries of beauty and precision, Aditya Assarat's disturbing and elegant fable "Motorcycle" (Thailand) and the Palme d'Or-winning short "Anino" from the Philippines, one of the first shorts I've ever seen with a distributor's logo preceding it: AtomFilms. Just consider it, first Iran and China, next Thailand and the Philippines. If the New York Film Festival continues to seek out and program such films, and distributors continue to capitalize on the opportunities provided by the fest, anything is possible.