Pre-Fall Fest Biz: Fine Line Gets Back in the Groove While Locarno, Edinburgh Gear Up for Acquisitions Buzz
by Anthony Kaufman
It's not even August yet, but the specialized film business is looking past the summer of "Fahrenheit 9/11" and into the fall, where untold riches and accolades can be reaped. Sneak peeks and conjecture surround the selections of the Venice, Toronto, and New York film festivals, the Gotham long-lead press have been already treated to surefire autumnal triumphs such as Mike Leigh's "Vera Drake" and Alexander Payne's "Sideways," and a number of August festivals are priming up the acquisitions pump for what will be one of the most frenetic and competitive times of the year.
Just last week, Spanish foreign sales agent Sogepaq brought the fall frenzy to U.S. buyers a little earlier, with the unveiling of "Out to Sea," the latest Spanish-language drama from Alejandro Amenabar ("The Others," "Open Your Eyes"), which will get its world premiere in Venice. The screening was a highly contentious invite-only showing, reserved for the larger specialized companies (Focus, Fox Searchlight, Paramount Classics, Warner Independent, Sony Classics, Miramax, and Fine Line) and a few indie powerhouses (Lions Gate, Newmarket, and IFC Films); remaining companies such as United Artists and Samuel Goldwyn (not to mention smaller buyers) were all shut out of a possible deal.
Fine Line emerged the winning bidder, offering more than $5 million to acquire the drama for North American and all English-speaking territories. (Some insiders put the price tag at $6 million.) Such high numbers for a foreign-language feature are rare -- and rarer still without the high altitude of a Sundance or hot sunshine of a Cannes affecting buyers' brains. ("Almodovar doesn't even get that much," said one rival distributor. "It defies all logic.")
But Marian Koltai-Levine, Fine Line's executive VP of marketing says, "We believe in this film, we believe there is greatness in this film and this is a great filmmaker that we want to be in business with." As justification for the pick-up, she also noted the rising Hispanic population in the U.S., the growing grosses of Spanish-language feature "Maria Full of Grace," and that the star of "Out to Sea," Javier Bardem ("Before Night Falls"), would likely be the subject of a strong end-of-the-year Oscar push.
While Koltai-Levine admits that Fine Line has been quiet in the acquisitions game over the last year, instead distributing fellow Time Warner subsidiary HBO titles ("American Splendor," "Elephant"), she says the company maintains committed to the indie business. Fine Line also recently bought British maestro Leigh's "Vera Drake." The two recent high-profile deals also buy Fine Line some much needed street credibility, after having used most of their resources over the last couple years to a little trilogy called "Lord of the Rings."
According to Koltai-Levine, the indie division will scour the fall festivals for product, but Fine Line's face for many years, Mark Ordesky, "is no longer leading the team," she said, instead focusing on his duties at active Fine Line parent, New Line Cinema. With no figurehead to replace him, Koltai-Levine said that she and Guy Stodel, senior VP of acquisitions and production, among others, are at the forefront of New Line's specialty arm.
While the major fests in Italy, Canada, and the U.S. are still a month away, the Locarno and Edinburgh film festivals are right around the corner, offering a preview of what's to come. Locarno, the Swiss-set art-film fest, kicks off next Wednesday (August 4) with Jean-Jacques Zilbermann's "Les fautes d'orthographe" ("Spelling Mistakes"), the story of a teenage rebel, starring French thesps Carol Bouquet and Olivier Gourmet. The selection is rife with political pictures, including a 91-film sidebar called "Newsfront," which examines the cinema's depiction of journalism over the last century.
Not as high profile as Venice, Locarno is still valued as much as a place to build buzz for titles showing later in the fall (both Kim Ki-duk's "Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, and Spring" and the Bollywood crossover "Lagaan" premiered there) as well as providing for the largest test screening in the world -- at the much cherished 7000-seat open-air auditorium in the Piazza Grande. "You get a tremendous amount of information from a unique audience," says Sony Pictures Classics' Dylan Leiner. "It's more populist and because it's not getting covered by major international journalists, there's more of a word-of-mouth that comes out of it."
Producer Stanley Buchthal, a Locarno veteran, is planning to build on positive buzz for international sales on Zak Tucker's "Poster Boy," the only American film in Locarno's competition. "I wouldn't consider it the biggest marketplace, but it is a marketplace -- all of the European distributors come there," says Buchtal, who lives in Zurich. Buchtal also hopes the film's topicality -- about the gay son of a right-wing southern senator -- makes the film ripe for an August launch into the world market. (It premiered at May's Tribeca Film Festival.)
The 57th edition of Locarno will also hold world premieres of Volker Schlondroff's "The Ninth Day," about a Catholic priest released from Dachau's concentration camp in exchange for collaborating with the Nazis, and Patrice Leconte's Cambodian documentary "Dogora." According to Variety, Italian critic turned fest director Irene Bignardi also highlighted "Yasmin," directed by Kenny Glenaan and written by Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty"), about a young Pakistani woman whose husband is falsely imprisoned for being a terrorist, and Ian Gabriel's South African drama "Forgiveness" as possible commercial standouts.
By the time Locarno closes on August 14, with the sci-fi anime "Appleseed," the 58th Edinburgh Film Festival will open a few days later (August 18) with Walter Salles' "The Motorcycle Diaries." A favorite one-stop-shop for new English-language premieres, this year's festival will pique film-watchers with several anticipated U.K. works: Shane Meadows' return to the hood with "Dead Man's Shoes," a gritty tale of gangland retribution; Antonia Bird's fictionalized study "Hamburg Cell," about the September 11 hijackers in Germany; "Last Resort" director Pawel Pawlikowski's "My Summer of Love" (called a masterpiece by the fest); "East of East" director Damien O'Donnell's feel-good story of a kid with cerebral palsy "Inside I'm Dancing," Ken Loach's Glasgow-set romance "Ae Fond Kiss," and "My Little Eye" horror up-and-comer Marc Evan's latest "Trauma," starring Colin Firth as a man plagued with nightmarish visions after surviving a car accident.
All hold promise for the North American market. Let the games begin.