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Eugene Hernandez: SPC v. IFC

Eugene Hernandez: SPC v. IFC

Telluride, CO, September 8, 2009 — After celebrating at an intimate private dinner on Saturday night, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, filmmaker Jacques Audiard and others joined a nearby IFC Films dinner for its own filmmakers and friends here at the Telluride Film Festival. Pause for just a moment and take that in. I did.

The event quickly became a festive gathering for distributors, critics, festival programmers and industry folks. The swelling IFC event filled many long tables at a local restaurant drawing rivals together for a few hours. The presence of SPC’s Barker, along with some of Sony’s filmmakers, turned my head because the two companies are rather fierce competitors every other week of the year. And at last year’s festival, the Saturday night dinner situation was a bit awkward as IFC and SPC butted heads when their Telluride events backed up against each other at the same restaurant.

This weekend things played out with much better results even though back in Cannes IFC Films made a play to get Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet,” losing the terrific new movie to SPC. Audiard and company, including writer Thomas Bidegain and film star Tahar Rahim, paid their respects to IFC on Saturday, settling in at a table alongside Cannes ’09 alum Andrea Arnold and her “Fish Tank” star Katie Jarvis. “Coco Before Chanel” director Anne Fontaine, with her husband and producer Philippe Carcassonne, also joined the IFC dinner.

Tahar Rahim, star of “A Prophet,” with Efe Cakarel from The Auteurs, at Saturday’s IFC dinner. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

I’m not sure how each company will feel about me recounting all of this here, but I felt it would offer a unique opportunity to ponder the increasingly dominant role these two distributors share in bringing artsy international cinema to the U.S. at a time when few others are as committed to the broad release of world cinema.

During a cocktail conversation in Telluride earlier in the weekend, a group of us agreed that Sony Pictures Classics and IFC Films are the leading outlets for the kinds of foreign films that win awards in Cannes. Acclaimed international fare with a traditional art house bent. With tremendous due respect to friends and colleagues at companies like Magnolia, Goldwyn, Zeitgeist, Strand, Roadside, Here! Films and just a few others, these days — on a sheer volume basis — SPC and IFC are the ones to watch for quality, critically acclaimed contemporary international cinema. Films from these two companies are quite prominent at the Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals and we’ll be watching to see if these two companies are actively acquiring these types of films on the circuit this fall.

In fact, most of the best art house films this year have been (or will be) released by one of these two companies, including: “Antichrist” (IFC), “Broken Embraces” (SPC), “Fish Tank” (IFC), “A Prophet” (SPC), “Still Walking” (IFC), “Summer Hours” (IFC), “The White Ribbon” (SPC), “Voy a Explotar” (IFC), and others.

“Coco Before Chanel” director Anne Fontaine with Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker at the SPC dinner in Telluride. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Releasing foreign films that aren’t horror or genre titles is a risky proposition for any company and notably, SPC and IFC are pursuing quite different models for getting the movies to audiences. They also don’t always see eye to eye on panel discussions or in the press, despite sharing a common taste in movies.

While platform theatrical distribution and then a DVD release down the line is the Sony Classics model, the company’s Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and Dylan Leiner talk a lot about building a library that will deliver revenue for years to come, especially when a film does well in its theatrical run. They release under two dozen movies per year. A passionate cinephile, Barker for example has been a fixture at retrospective screenings here in Telluride this weekend. He was gushing at the rare chance to see Jean Renoir’s “Toni” on a big screen early Saturday morning. Filmmakers notice such things. His company nabbed Phil Morrison’s “Junebug” a few years ago because Kelly Reichardt (“Old Joy”) apparently told Morrison that Barker was a fixture at classic Film Society of Lincoln Center screenings.

At IFC Films, the company has weathered considerable criticism for a day-and-date model driven by a VOD release. Higher profile titles get a simultaneous theatrical release that typically starts at its IFC Center in Manhattan. Led by Jonathan Sehring, Ryan Werner and Arianna Bocco, the company also just announced a deal to bring some of their films to Criterion. In total, IFC will hit more than 100+ releases per year. Industry and art house fixtures, the company’s team scours festivals for new titles for their pipeline and have developed tremendous street cred by releasing low budget American indies from filmmakers including Joe Swanberg and Barry Jenkins, among others.

While SPC and IFC are still certainly at odds, and will remain fierce competitors for foreign cinema — both company’s will surely battle it out on the ground in Toronto later this week — it was fun to see company executives and filmmakers bonding a bit over the weekend in Telluride. At the risk of sounding way too simplistic, if international cinema is going to find a stronger foothold with emerging and established audiences, both SPC and IFC will have to root for each other’s success. It made me wonder if there are ways they might even collaborate to work together to grow the audience for international cinema.

I found it rather fitting that the morning after the SPC and IFC dinners here in Telluride, the young lead women from their popular festival entries were sharing words of support for each other. Carey Mulligan, the polished star of SPC’s “An Education,” was on stage here in Telluride for a one-on-one conversation with Katie Jarvis, the still rather rough around the edges newcomer from IFC’s “Fish Tank.” After the chat, they posed for an indieWIRE photo on the steps of the courthouse here in Telluride, embraced warmly and then went their separate ways.

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of indieWIRE and can be reached on his blog, through Facebook or via Twitter: @eug.

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