Today, in indieWIRE, the wonderful Anthony Kaufman chats with former Celluloid Dreams head Hengameh Panahi about the formation of her new company with HanWay Films producer Jeremy Thomas, a new company called Dreamachine. The interview with Panahi and others in the foreign-film business raises some important questions for the internationally-minded American cinephile (not to mention film fans across the globe). Panahi comments in the piece:
“It is not a healthy market,” she adds, noting a litany of challenges facing global independents (TV is not buying, DVD is dropping, V.O.D. is not there yet, studio and domestic product continues to take a greater share of ticket sales). “We’re in the complete center of a maelstrom where there’s lots of confusion and despair. At the same time, it’s a great moment, because you can reinvent anything,” she continued, “because nothing works.”
While U.S. art-house distributors did not see the Celluloid/HanWay pact coming, they agree that the merger makes sense in today’s marketplace.
“It’s indicative of the times we’re in right now,” said IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring, whose company has worked extensively with both outfits over the years. “I think studio involvement in the specialized business has caused a global consolidation and made it more difficult for more daring projects to find audiences. I think it’s out of necessity. But I think both companies will be better set up for the future.”
Zeitgeist Films’ Nancy Gerstman, who recently bought U.S. rights to Celluloid movies such as Jia Zhang-Ke’s “The World” and the Quay brothers’ “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes,” agreed that the smaller foreign language films that Celluloid handled in the past “are becoming very difficult to release theatrically and I can understand her wanting to sell fewer, bigger films,” she said.
In other words, the amount of obscure, difficult foreign films will have an even harder time getting the exposure they require for U.S. distributors to acquire them. It’s unfair to blame Dreamachine, as this interview shows, because this is just the nature of the business, apparently. This is one of the next major steps at consolidating foreign films in the U.S. marketplace, which was also given a blow when Wellspring shut its doors two years ago, and when the Weinstein brothers left Miramax and a huge backlog of orphaned foreign titles.
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.
The well is drying up, and the people who will suffer most are the film fans who wanna see the latest Korean export in a format other than a bootleg DVD found at their local indie video store. Renew that membership!
Additionally, fellow indieWIRE blogger Jared Moshe chimes in with his more optimistic thoughts.
UPDATE: Blogger and Sarasota Film Festival director of programming Tom Hall weighs in as well.