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Foreign Film In Crisis?

Foreign Film In Crisis?

Uh-oh. I love stepping into the middle of a good clean debate (*batting eyelashes*), so when Anthony Kaufman’s typically excellent indieWIRE article examining the creation of Dreamachine (the brand new foreign equivalent of a mini-major which has the potential to bring major changes to the overall availability of foreign films for American screens) started making waves, I had to jump in. After all of the back and forth among my fellow bloggers about what this move may mean for everyone, there is a lot to talk about. Let’s get to the quotes.

“The only other option for the bulk of these smaller films, Panahi told me (which doesn’t appear in the article) is film festivals. If Matt Dentler wants to program some foreign art films at SXSW, he may be asked to pay up more dough, because it could be the only way these movies recoup until digital distribution takes off.”–Anthony Kaufman

“Isn’t it is just one more flare on the difficult road that both foreign cinema and American art films have been on for the past couple of years? A small, vocal audience certainly exists but the crossover that would otherwise make the economics work for a distributor doesn’t seem to turn out all that much anymore.”–Jared Moshe

This seems to me to be making a distinction not of quality but of cost; In a xenophobic, anti-intellectual, isolationist time like this, the best way to get a return on a “difficult” film (that is, almost anything subtitled or ‘downbeat’) is to spend next to nothing on them. Ad buys and marketing? Why bother? Print making? Minimal. Festivals? If you play them, charge them money to screen and market your film for you in communities where the films won’t otherwise be seen. It’ll only help your DVD and cable sales down the road and you can turn a nice profit on the backs of small, non-profit arts groups. The most difficult part to swallow regarding this strategy is that the model is a used as a pretext for “art” and is seen as somehow less commercial and more independent. Hrm. I guess if, when you say ‘less commercial’ you mean lowering expenditures in order to maximize returns, then yes. But that smells like commericalism to me. Let’s just call it what it is; Low-revenue profit making. That’s the system.”–Me, back on February 22, 2007.

“What does this mean for the American film festivals? Quite frankly, it’s no secret that many of us rely on U.S. distributors to help supply foreign films for our programming. Some North American festivals (Sundance, Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, SXSW, etc.) are able to maintain relationships with foreign sales agencies, commissions, and councils (big up to KOFIC for helping us with the new Chan-wook Park!). But for the smaller regional fests, the distributors are the ones often supplying these titles (with subtitles). If there will be fewer small, foreign films shopped to North American distributors, it will inevitably trickle down to various outlets that typically showcase them. And the small regional fests are certainly part of this equation. Not to mention, the regional arts organizations (Austin Film Society, IMAGE, Northwest Film Forum, etc.) who regularly schedule calendar screenings of arthouse fare. It doesn’t mean these films will become impossible to find in 35mm, they just will be much much harder to book. I’d be curious to see how many film festivals out there are unable to book the foreign films they want, because of the economics involved. In many cases, film organizations and film festivals are the only manner in which cinephiles can see foreign films outside of New York and L.A.”— Matt Dentler

Where to begin? First of all, there are ALREADY a ton of foreign films, many of which are represented by a diverse array of production and distrubution companies, that never get to see the light of day outside of festivals and DVD. Here in Sarasota, Holly and I work with smaller foreign companies to assemble many of our foreign titles and we negotiate many different kinds of deals with them as, over time, we continue to build a relationship. The issue, of course, is not so much with foreign distributors, artists and production companies but instead, and let’s be honest here, with the sales agents both here and abroad who level specious arguments against festival participation and who treat their films like rarified objects that shouldn’t be sullied by American audiences. That is, unless you have €2000 for two screenings.

First and foremost, a refrain we hear over and over and over again, is the utterly ridiculous decision to “not play any more festivals untl we have secured distribution”; The film will play a major festival market (Toronto, AFM, etc.) and then disappear from the festival circuit, never generating any real word of mouth and, of course, never receiving a domestic distribution deal. It simply disappears, maybe showing up as a Region 2 DVD on a shelf in a collector’s home. I could be wrong (and if so, please, someone correct me), but which distributor has ever walked away from a deal because a film has built sturdy word of mouth playing the film festival circuit? Interestingly, I’ve never heard the story of the low-budget or foreign film that lost distribution because of its popularity. These films have it hard enough as it is; I’m happy for Matt that SXSW carried the U.S. premiere of I’m A Cyborg But That’s O.K., but I am interested to watch what happens to the film here in the US. I don’t see anyone rushing to grab the rights for domestic distribution. Which is, of course, the other half of the problem. As I said above, the game is one of small expenditures and small returns and most companies don’t make enough money on these movies to justify spending anything at all.

So, who pays? What is going on overseas to revolutionize distribution and grass roots development in America for these films? You have a giant support system of film festivals, art houses and museums more than willing to help these movies grow, and yet the films are continually withheld from American audiences. Again, and I must have said this a million times, this ridiculous idea that a network of small, non-profits arts organizations should carry the load for the U.S. marketplace by paying exorbitant screening fees (without a drop of federal or state subsidy in most cases) is bullshit. Let me give you an example.

This year, the Sarasota Film Festival will spend in excess of $100,000 to outfit our theaters with video and HD projection, hire and train a technical staff, and pay for theater space. A foreign film without domestic distribution will generally play twice at the festival, in a theater that holds 120 people. If I sell the film out twice at $8 a ticket, the festival earns $1920. That is a huge assumption, since most foreign films are a much tougher sell for even a festival. Oh, and don’t forget complimentary tickets for artists (we’re courteous down here, what can I say?). Add to that the fact that there is no domestic marketing campaign for the movie and that most people won’t have heard of the film, and it becomes MY JOB to sell the film to my audiences. Still, in the best of all possible worlds, if you deduct projection costs, two-way print shipping (on most foreign titles), theater rental and staffing costs, then I have already lost money. The usual fee requested for the film itself? €1000. For whom does THAT economic model work?

I really don’t understand what all the hand-wringing is about; The business just doesn’t get it. The industry has a huge sales job on its hands with the American public, and instead of alienating the institutional network that is passionate about helping revitalize the marketplace for foreign film, you should be taking full advantage of the grass roots to re-establish a large, passionate audience for these movies. Instead, festivals and non-profits are being saddled with the responsibility of carrying the whole enterprise until the accountants can figure out what to do next; We’re paying you to do your job for you. This won’t last.

It was interesting reading all the complaints about TriBeCa’s decision to raise ticket prices to $18. I assume they aren’t paying a bunch of money for prints and are instead using their brand’s muscle to get what they want, but still; If you find that ticket price worrying, I encourage you fasten your seat belts, because if the cost of showing and marketing films at festivals continues to rise, the price at all festivals will continue to go up as well and all that will do is further alienate the very people to whom we should be marketing these films. In the meantime, we will continue to keep hustling and working on our relationships with people who want their films seen and who understand the relative value of the grass roots. What else can we do?

Full disclosure: A complete list of foreign features at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival can be found here.

EDIT: I should also mention that we will be hosting a panel discussion about this very topic at this year’s festival. Foreign Film: Challenges In The American Marketplace takes places Friday, April 20th at 11:30 am at METRO Coffee and Wine here in Sarasota. Confirmed panelists include Josh Braun (Submarine), Tom Bernard (Sony Pictures Classics), Jon Gerrans (Strand Releasing), Paul Hudson (Outsider Pictures) and Jonathan Sehring (IFC Films and 2007 Sarasota Film Festival Producer’s Award Honoree). More reason to join us!

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