Well. In her recent Cannes journal entry on Michael Haneke’s film Caché, Manohla Dargis writes:
“Yesterday, I ran into a very smart Industry Bigwig and asked if he had seen anything he liked. Well, he “loves” the Michael Haneke film “Caché,” but he also thinks it would be a tough sell to the older art-house audience, you know, those folks who support banal French movies about singing orphans and the like. Well, I think it’s time to kill off that audience and grow a new audience if the only films we are going to get from abroad are nice, nauseatingly polite works about characters who simply hold up a mirror to that audience, who wear nice clothes, live in nice houses and have discreet but finally resolvable crises. If someone doesn’t buy “Caché” and give it a seriously funded push, then the state of film distribution in the United States is far worse than I thought.”
I agree with this 100%, but only because the state of film distribution in the United States IS far worse than she thinks. As I wrote in an earlier post, there is a huge problem with the presentation of foreign film in America. From my point of view, there is an entire campaign required in order to turn American audiences on to the pleasures of foreign film, a campaign that utilizes film festivals, grass roots marketing campaigns and an expansion of foreign titles from urban art houses into suburban and rural theaters.
But the question is, can companies like Kino International and Palm Pictures (who released Haneke’s The Piano Teacher and The Time of The Wolf respectively) deliver that type of distribution? These are small, specialty distributors fighting the good fight and putting challenging foreign work in the theaters that will have it. But look at a film like The Time of The Wolf, which earned Palm Pictures a whopping $61,400 in distribution (according to imdb.com) in the U.S. market. Working with those numbers, it almost isn’t worth it to strike a 35mm print, let alone take out an ad in the New York Times.
I don’t have the data, but I bet that a look at any of the companies who are contenders to distribute a film like Caché, companies like Palm, Wellspring, New Yorker, THINKFilm, Kino; That is, actual independent film companies and not the studio backed mini-majors like Fox Searchlight, Paramount Classics, etc., will reveal companies that are operating on the slimmest margins of staff, advertising, and print striking. Every decision must be optimal for the film, and flexibility is far more limited. There is only so much you can do. On the flip side, you have the once mighty and now unknown quantity of Miramax, a company that has made its bread and butter on Dargis’ “banal French movies about singing orphans and the like.” Miramax has almost become a synonym for these safe, tepid films and they have done just fine by creating Oscar campaigns around movies like Life Is Beautiful.
However, the greatest barrier to foreign success in America is bigger than all of this stuff put together. Dargis hits it right between the eyes when she says “Well, I think it’s time to kill off that (older art house) audience and grow a new audience; if the only films we are going to get from abroad are nice, nauseatingly polite works about characters who simply hold up a mirror to that audience, who wear nice clothes, live in nice houses and have discreet but finally resolvable crises.”
I would modify this only by taking out the ‘if’.
There are a million reasons to go to the movies in New York City, but sitting in the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas among the older Upper West Side elites as they grumble their way through another charming French movie ain’t one of them. Call me ageist, call me an asshole. Guilty as charged. But the only way to build and sustain a foreign film base in the USA (aside from pulling the culture out of this xenophobic, anti-intellectual quagmire we live in now) is to get younger people invested in the connections between foreign artists and their own concerns. And that means getting young people to read subtitles, to see their lives as being reflected in the works of other cultures. If a film like the Cesar award winning L’Esquive can’t turn on urban American teenagers, its time for a look in the mirror. Don’t listen to the guy in the White House. It’s not them, it’s us. So, baby boomers, thanks again for everything, but if you don’t mind stepping to the side, we’ve got a future to run.