Wellspring Sets New Agenda with Werner & Guirgis and More from Berlin
by Eugene Hernandez
For New York's smaller art house and independent film distribution companies, the annual Berlinale and the concurrent European Film Market are must attend stops on the annual festival circuit. The rosters of titles in Berlin, from premiere works screening in the festival, to films from Sundance and Rotterdam that are playing here in the market, offer a lot of opportunities.
One company seizing the moment here in Berlin is Wellspring, the New York based theatrical and DVD/home video distributor of world cinema and documentaries. The company confirmed last week that it has been acquired by American Vantage Media and made more news over the weekend in Berlin, announcing that Ryan Werner is on board as the new head of theatrical distribution. Werner is leaving a similar post at Palm Pictures and will oversee all aspects of theatrical distribution, marketing and publicity for the art house label. He will also work closely with head of acquisitions Marie Therese Guirgis on setting the company's release slate. In a conversation with indieWIRE over the weekend in Berlin, Werner and Guirgis said that as a result of the sale to American Vantage Media, they plan to increase their annual release slate to about ten films this year.
Wellspring president Al Cattabiani told indieWIRE on Sunday that the slate could go as high as a dozen movies a year and indicated that the company will in some cases pursue some larger titles.
Close friends, and competitors for many of the same films over the years, Werner and Guirgis will each report directly to Cattabiani. "I give Al a lot of credit for putting together a young team that is incredibly motivated," Werner told indieWIRE during an afternoon conversation here at the Berlinale, "Part of the reason that I decided to switch to Wellspring is because I know that he his going to create the right environment to get what we need done." Guirgis added, "We will be much more collaborative, (acquisitions and distribution) will work together more closely than we have in the past."
Guirgis explained that she and Werner are eyeing Britain's Metro Tartan as the sort of company that they want to model. They intend to further establish the Wellspring name as one that means something to moviegoers. Werner and Guirgis plan to offer a diverse slate that will include established international auteurs, classics, cinema for a younger audience and even racier titles. "Our goal is to have one movie a year with a blow job in it," joked Werner as Guirgis nodded in agreement.
Building bonds with directors will be a priority as well. "I think we want to be known for great relationships with filmmakers," Werner said, "I do think that there is a gap in that tradition that was really strong maybe ten years ago, of starting with the filmmaker and to the best of a your ability keeping it with the filmmaker. That is something that I admire about people like Bingham Ray. I would love it if we were also known for that."
Werner set up the small in-house theatrical division at Palm, Chris Blackwell's company. The news marks the second person to leave the division recently. Nicolette Aizenberg left her PR post at the company and is joining IDP next week. "I am proud of what we did at Palm in such a quick time," Werner said, "I feel like I am leaving them on good terms." He added that he is still talking with Palm about working on the upcoming release of "Noi Albinoi," a film that he and David Koh acquired here at the European Film Market last year.
Wellspring head Cattabiani told indieWIRE that former head of theatrical distribution Wendy Lidell has left the company to pursue other interests.
"I've had a great run with the company from the time Fox Lorber sublicensed my International Film Circuit library and brought me in to expand their theatrical capabilities in 1998 through the Winstar period and the emergence of Wellspring," Wendy Lidell told indieWIRE by email on Monday morning, "I was responsible for taking 'Russian Ark' to $2.5m in U.S. box office receipts, 'Under the Sand' to $1.5m, and 'YiYi' and 'Notorious C.H.O.' to $1m each." Continuing she added, "I have been told the new owners are planning to take the company in a different direction so it seemed like a good time to part ways. I have had conversations with a number of companies and hope to announce my next move shortly."
Wrapping up the conversation with indieWIRE on Sunday, Werner and Guirgis indicated that they plan to pick up at least two films here in Berlin. "I love it as a film festival, its also my favorite place to work," Guirgis said, "I get to see a lot of films, there are a lot of films in the market and the festival selection is really good (and) it is not as frantic as Cannes." Werner added, "It is as important as any other festival, even if it doesn't have the names that Cannes or Toronto has, it is a place to discover new talent."
BERLINALE WEEKEND BUZZ
Quoting Che Guevara in his opening remarks in the festival catalog book, Berlinale festival director Dieter Kosslick writes, "You may cut the flowers but it will not stop the spring." Continuing Kosslick adds, "Well said, Che Guevara. Welcome to the 54th Berlinale this February, for a foretaste of spring."
The weather cooperated with Kosslick's welcome message, delivering warmer than usual temperatures on the first days of the festival, including a few rays of sunshine Saturday that brought out some chirping birds. However, as the festival truly heated up with large crowds and buzz titles, a brief afternoon snowstorm hit in Sunday. The Berlinale is truly underway.
Some attendees groused about a lack of star power in Berlin resulting in a lower energy Berlinale opening night; Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, and Renee Zellweger missed the gala. Still, Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein was on hand to tell Variety that "Cold Mountain" is the "most independent film we've ever made."
Of the films that have played in competition so far, the Danish movie, "In Your Hands" may be the standout. While some were mixed on the Dogme 95 movie, directed by Annette K. Olesen, many agreed that it would receive an award on closing night. The film, which had its gala premiere on Sunday night here in Berlin, is the tough story of a female preacher who works in a women's prison. After learning that she is pregnant, the woman must make a tough decision that will affect the fate of her unborn child. Trust Films is selling the film and toasted the new movie with a popular party in Mitte late Sunday.
Patrice Leconte's "Confidences Trop Intimes" (Intimate Strangers) with Sandrine Bonnaire and Fabrice Luchini has had some viewers and buyers buzzing. While the movie has received mixed but notices, Paramount Classics is said to be pursuing a pact for the North American right.
John Boorman's "Country of My Skull" has suffered from bad word of mouth at the Berlinale. Attendees have widely criticized the movie, which stars Samuel L. Jackson and Juliette Binoche. Sony Pictures Classics acquired it on the eve of its competition premiere. Other films that screened on the first weekend, in competition, include Hans Petter Moland's "Beautiful Country," Ron Howard's "The Missing," Patty Jenkins' "Monster," and Nancy Meyers' "Something's Gotta Give" which welcomed stars Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton to Berlin.