by Kevin Dreyfuss
Two years ago Greg Hatanaka, head of micro-distribution company Phaedra
Cinema, thought he glimpsed an opening in the feature film universe, in
the form of a growing market for specialized, cutting-edge American
independent films. "Independent is such a wide term these days. I was
thinking more of the really, truly independent films. Good quality
films that just weren't getting picked up."
The idea was, in essence, "to feed that market and also at the same time
create it, build upon it." Tiny but energetic Phaedra has done so,
with a 1998 slate that includes the recently released dark chamber
comedy "Bad Manners," from director Jonathan Kaufer starring David
Strathairn, Bonnie Bedelia and Saul Rubinek, and the introspective
French drama "La Separation," starring Isabelle Huppert and Daniel
The release pattern for these films varies wildly, from fifteen screens
in five markets for "Bad Manners," to four screens for "La Separation,"
to nearly 20 screens for the upcoming "A Little Bit of Soul," a surreal
offering from director Peter Duncan ("Children of the Revolution") and
starring Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush ("Shine"). The types of films vary
just as wildly, from indie stalwarts like 20-something romantic comedies
and genre crime dramas, to recent French and Japanese cinema, including
distributing an early offering from the internationally renowned Takeshi
Kitano ("Fireworks"). Phaedra even provides a healthy smattering of
Midnight Movies with titles like the highly memorable "One Armed Boxer
Vs. Flying Guillotine."
To Hatanaka's mind, "Phaedra right now is a like a hybrid of the early
days of New Yorker Films and New Line Cinema." He hopes the company can
combine the attraction to quality specialized market fodder, as New
Yorker did with Bertolucci in America, while grafting on a bit of the
risk-taking exemplified by New Line head Bob Shaye, with an eye to cult
films. "It's basically all about how passionate I can feel about a
picture," he explains, "Down at this level, the question is more of an
aesthetic choice. How do we feel? Can we get behind this film?"
At first, Phaedra was a more focused enterprise, going for the more
challenging American indie films that fall through the cracks due to
off-putting, singular style or too-quirky subject matter -- anything
that might be a bit too difficult to market for one of the larger
distributors. But following their maiden film, actress Adrienne
Shelley's directing debut "Sudden Manhattan," that first year was tough
going. They were able to get out their product, even make some money on
the college circuit, but Hatanaka knew he was going to have to
"There was no question we had to readjust our philosophy after that
first year," recalls Hatanaka, "I think this year and next we've got a
balance in terms of what I consider more standard arthouse fare, like
the foreign language films we've got. And at the same time we're able
to take chances on a select number of American films we can really get
When it comes to his slate of foreign films, Hatanaka shows a genuine
love and passion. It is born out of his background, distributing the
works of Satyajit Ray and pioneering films like John Woo's "The Killer"
for companies like Filmopolis. And that past experience has given
Hatanaka and Phaedra a firm grasp on the economics of distributing these
kinds of movies. He notes that foreign films are four times as
expensive to release, with higher print costs and the expenses involved
with subtitling. But there is also a deeply entrenched audience for
these films, making them a much easier proposition when it comes to
promotion and getting reviewed in major outlets.
"The arthouse audience is an older, fifty-plus crowd," insists
Hatanaka. They are the stable, predictable core to whom foreign films
appeal so well, which explains why the more mainstream "La Separation"
has proven to be a consistent performer for Phaedra, while the riskier
"Bad Manners" has not lived up to expectations, even with glowing
reviews and an ambitious release pattern.
And yet Hatanaka seems most passionate and zealous when working to prove
the existence of a consistent market for these more radical American
independents. Phaedra's slate of upcoming films is Exhibit A in this
ongoing struggle, with films like "Metal Skin" from "Romper Stomper"
director Geoffrey Wright, and "States of Control," which tells the tale
of a young woman testing the bounds of nihilism and desire. And then
there is "Strawberry Fields," from young Asian-American director Rea
Tajiri, produced by Open City, detailing the story of a rebellious
Japanese-American teen in the 70's reopening old family wounds from the
World War II Japanese internment camps.
Other upcoming releases for Phaedra Cinema include director David Evans
adaptation of Nick Hornby's comic soccer obsession novel, "Fever Pitch,"
starring Colin Firth, as well as "Shadowplay," with Helena Bonham
Phaedra hopes these films set it apart from fellow boutique warriors
like Strand, which Hatanaka says focuses on more commercial indie films,
or Seventh Art and First Run, dealing more in documentaries and gay and
lesbian films. But like Strand, First Run and their ilk, Phaedra frames
the distribution game as a sort of primal battle for legitimacy and
relevance. "To me, to be a true independent, there must be some sort of
intense struggle involved, even during distribution. If you throw a
half a million or a million at a movie like 'Happiness,' you've got
certain luxuries that you don't have when we're releasing films here for
20 or 30 thousand dollars. That kind of film's a true independent, all
the way through."
One of the ways Phaedra is able to survive is to have a lot of
flexibility when it comes to releasing this product, looking for
favorable, "gaps in the marketplace," as Hatanaka calls them. An
example is "A Little Bit of Soul," initially slated for a November
release, but pushed back to January considering the glut in quality
indie films with which it would have to compete in major markets.
"The name Phaedra has nothing to do with the Greek mythological story,"
sums up Hatanaka. "We didn't build the company based upon a foundation
of tragedy. This is no tragedy." The growing number of cutting-edge
American independents struggling inside the distribution shuffle can
only hope he is right.