Still For Sale: Notable World Offerings Up For Grabs at the New York Film Festival
by Anthony Kaufman
Time is running out for eight films showing at the 41st New York Film Festival. While the movies have screened at such prestigious showcases as Cannes and Venice over the last year, their playdates in New York may be their final moments in the spotlight. From master directors (Marco Bellochio's "Good Morning, Night," Tsai Ming-liang's "Goodbye Dragon Inn," Lester James Peries' "Mansion by the Lake") to promising up-and-comers (Faouzi Bensaidi's "A Thousand Months" and Barbara Albert's "Free Radicals") to NYFF newcomers (Jacques Doillon's "Raja," Jan Jakub Koski's "Pornography," Johnnie To's "PTU"), these films lack U.S. distribution, and by all accounts, the New York Film Festival is likely to be their last shot at a deal.
A number of notable films from last year's NYFF selection -- "Turning Gate," "The Uncertainty Principle," "Monday Morning," and "My Mother's Smile" (all appearing on the list of best undistributed films in the Village Voice's annual Film Critics poll) -- never turned up in arthouses after their New York festival premiere. However, all hope is not lost. Some films find a commercial home during or after the festival: in recent years, small distributors like Kino International, New Yorker Films, Palm Pictures, and Zeitgeist Films have all stepped up to acquire NYFF's more challenging fare, such as "Chihwaseon," "Unknown Pleasures," "Beau Travail," "Springtime in A Small Town," "Careful," and "Irma Vep."
But the New York Film Festival is not about business. Rather, it's a highly selective, high-art showcase for the city's cine-elite; it's not, never has been, nor ever will be an industry feeding frenzy like Cannes or Toronto. But this is its most cherished asset for New York's critics and industryites. "They're not as harried as they are at Toronto, Cannes or Sundance," says Susan Norget, a publicist repping "Good Morning, Night" and "Free Radicals" for French sales company Celluloid Dreams. "The lean selection gives them enough time to contemplate what they've seen."
While acquisition execs admit they've already seen most of the main program's 23 feature films at prior festivals, there's one major wild card that can "throw such bizarre English on a film," says John Vanco, president of Cowboy Pictures: the New York Times Review. "All of a sudden, there's this weird, marginal movie with this front-of-the-section rave review [in the Times.] It's like, 'God damn, if you're on the fence, that may be enough to persuade you [to buy it]," he says.
Indeed, Zeitgeist Films' Emily Russo admits that a positive Times review for Arnaud Desplechin's "My Sex Life Or How I Got Into An Argument" (NYFF '97) helped the company decide to acquire the film.
Mark Urman, head of distribution at ThinkFilm, which announced its acquisition of Laurent Cantet's "Time Out" at the festival in 2001, says he will likely be catching two of NYFF's available titles that he missed at Cannes. "If those films to get an encouraging New York Times review, one would have to look more closely at them," he says. "I don't rule out the possibility [of an acquisition], but at this point, they are not easily going to settle into a distribution situation."
Still, Celluloid Dreams' head of sales Pierre Menahem is wagering on a positive New York Times review to propel skeptical buyers. "We make sure that all the distributors based in New York see our film and read the New York Times review," he explains. "If this review is good, then it makes it impossible not to sell it to the U.S."
That's exactly Menaham's strategy for "Good Morning, Night" and "Free Radicals" -- two of the most potential titles among the available eight. "Good Morning, Night," according to publicist Susan Norget, will be an easy sell to the discerning New York critics that can help foster a deal. "Bellochio is one of Italy's greatest living filmmakers," she says. "He really has a solid background, so that's one of my entry points. And this film deals with a kidnapping that most Americans don't know much about, but it has compelling subject matter, with a particular timeliness."
And Barbara Albert's ambitious, multi-layered "Free Radicals" received strong buzz out of its Toronto premiere and is likely to generate fans among New York's press (the Village Voice's J. Hoberman called it "an intelligent exercise in montage enlivened with some terrific visual and dramatic ideas"). However, while a Variety review heralded Albert as among "the forefront of younger European talent," the trade paper dismissed the film as less commercial than Albert's previous "Northern Skirts." A Times review will likely serve as the tipping point.
Sometimes, however, selection in the NYFF alone can be enough for sales agents "to start a mini bidding war if several buyers are interested," explains Celluloid's Menahem. For example, Zeitgeist outbid three other distributors in Toronto to acquire another New York selection, Julie Bertuccelli's "Since Otar Left," according to Menahem. But by selling beforehand, he says, they also cut short their chances for a potentially larger sale if the New York Times review is stellar. On the other hand, there is always the risk, adds Menahem, "Maybe the New York Times review will not be great."
Indeed, Mark Urman remembers a particularly "poisonous" review for Alain Resnais' "Same Old Song" (NYFF 1998). "I quite enjoyed 'Same Old Song,' but nobody else liked it," he admits. "The New York Times review can cripple a film's distribution."
This year's victims are already falling like dominoes: "'Mansion by the Lake' is a bland, pitted reconfiguring of Chekhov," wrote the Times' Elvis Mitchell, while fellow critic Stephen Holden has effectively sunk "Pornography": "The film, though handsomely photographed and well acted, ultimately doesn't register as a stinging or especially funny satire of human pettiness and denial."
Faouzi Bensaidi's debut feature "A Thousand Months," an assured poetic drama that mixes coming-of-age poignancy and political pressures in a small Moroccan town -- fared much better in its Times review. (Mitchell called it an "impressively structured melodrama, with daffy, character-revealing comic scenes.") Whether his comments (or mine) are enough of a rave to put on the film's advertisement is still up for marketers to decide.
The rest of the available films won't be reviewed until this coming weekend and the following week, but you can bet that New York's film community will be reading very closely.