By Indiewire | Indiewire May 29, 2002 at 2:0AM
WORLD CINEMA REPORT: Foreign Flicks Look for Push at Local Fests
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE: 05.29.02) -- Now that the Cannes Film Festival is over, where do all those foreign masterpieces go? While the talk of the past two weeks has been Brazilian this and Finnish that, what actually happens to these movies on U.S. shores is often much less hyped. Despite occasional crossover successes ("Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), foreign films continue to have a tough time on U.S. screens. But now that summer is just about here and U.S. communities are revving up their local economies with splashy events, there's no better place to get the word out on foreign films than your local regional film festival.
In June alone, there are the Newport, Florida, CineVegas, Nashville, Maui, Provincetown, and Nantucket Film Festivals, as well as the Lake Placid Film Forum. Every one of these events will screen some foreign fare (most of which already have distribution) amidst the standard mix of studio galas, star-laden indies, and local products.
For distributors, these fests afford cheap publicity for their upcoming releases. "We solicit a slot at any festival that occurs before our movie opens commercially," says ThinkFilm's Mark Urman, who is handling the late summer release of the Italian comedy "The Last Kiss," featured in programs from Newport to Florida. "Most regional fests are important to us especially if they are in reasonably close proximity to opening date," Urman continues. "You get buzz, and you may learn where you stand with the local critic."
Lot 47's Jeff Lipsky, handling the Inuit feature "The Fast Runner" (opening in late June and screening at Newport and Lake Placid), also acknowledges the benefits of the "gratis word of mouth screening." Though he admits the impact of festival showings is "strictly local," he says some festivals are particularly adept at generating awareness outside their immediate areas. "If we had a gay-themed film, we'd be aggressive about placing it in the gay fest circuit, because that community has an especially good impact on word of mouth," Lipsky adds.
But not every foreign film is suitable to the regional festival circuit. "The Last Kiss," billed as "a bittersweet comedy," and "The Fast Runner," an Arctic epic fable, fall on the more family-friendly end of the arthouse spectrum. "At film festivals, you like to have accessible, crowd-pleasing work," says Magnolia Pictures' Eamonn Bowles, who will release the French hit "Read My Lips" in July and debut the film at a number of regional fests beforehand. "In our minds, this film is such an audience crowd-pleaser that we wanted to get it in front of a lot of people and get the word of mouth started," he says.
But, as Bowles explains, "Sometimes a film needs to be set up by critics and marketing, and sometimes without that proper set-up, it creates the wrong word of mouth at film festivals. More cerebral works may not be right for that environment," he says. Bowles notes a film like the Japanese art-movie "Eureka," which he released through the now defunct Shooting Gallery Film Series in 2001, was best served by festivals with a "metropolitan, sophisticated audience."
This presents a challenge for distributors and programmers alike. If more demanding works are getting tossed out in favor of a "Life is Beautiful" or "Malena," doesn't this defy the purpose of a film festival: to expose audiences to different and innovative cinema that they normally wouldn't get to see in theaters?
"Speaking personally," says Kathleen Carroll, co-founder and programmer of the Lake Placid Film Forum, "I would be happy to show nothing but films from Taiwan, Korea, China, Cuba, France, Italy, and Iran. Alas, it's true that it's still something of challenge to get audiences interested in subtitled films." Because Lake Placid's program is already limited in size, Carroll explains, "We try to achieve a balance between some of the more provocative and imaginative American indies and a few foreign films that any audience can relate to." While Carroll has slipped in some lesser-known works (e.g. China's "The Orphan of Anyang," a favorite at Toronto 2001 and still without distribution), a majority of the foreign films come via small distributors like Zeitgeist ("Red Satin"), Sony Classics ("Secret Ballot"), Magnolia, and Lot 47.
"Foreign films play different roles at different festivals," says Trevor Groth, Sundance programmer and the new director of programming at CineVegas. "Some festivals like San Francisco and Seattle that have been around for a long time show a tremendous amount of foreign films, and their core audiences have come to expect this and avidly support it. However at newer festivals, like CineVegas, we run into some of the same problems that distributors face getting audiences to come to foreign language films."
Groth's CineVegas program of foreign works is extensive, however. There's certainly an interest in audience-friendly films, but the reach is wider. While Groth nabbed North American premieres of Michael Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People" and Agustin Diaz Yanes's sexy Spanish tale "No News from God," the selection also features Chee Kong Cheah's Singaporean romantic comedy "Chicken Rice War," Shunji Iwai's Japanese art-film "All About Lily Chou Chou," a French comedy called "Get Away," and Julio Medem's "Sex and Lucia." It's a very different program from the rest of the domestic fests. "I wasn't concerned with showing the newest international films," says Groth. "I was more interested in presenting a small but diverse selection from different regions."
Programming more diverse works isn't easy. Besides audiences who only want to see accessible films, programmers must also contend with a new set of rules that comes with films that don't have distribution. "There were films that I wanted to show," Groth admits, but couldn't because of what he calls "a competitive marketplace," where sales agents hold on to their films until the next Sundance or Toronto.
But regional festivals shouldn't struggle over nabbing world premieres or making a global impact, argues Magnolia's Bowles. "They should be for their local communities; that's what's worthwhile about regional film festivals. Too many regional festivals try to be international in reach, and aside from boosting the egos involved, that doesn't help any."