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Fortissimo Films at 20: A Vendor’s Tale

Fortissimo at 20: A Vendor's Tale

Fortissimo spoils us. The multinational-based sales company is very well respected by those in both the film biz and the symbiotic universe of criticism and programming. Perhaps that is why the “family” has received multiple tributes this, its 20th-anniversary, year. (I will write about the MOMA exhibition, in part 2 of this article, which will be posted on Indiewire this week.)
Many of us know the endearing “Fortissimi” individually. Whether or not a distributor deems a particular film the company is handling commercial or worthwhile enough to purchase for its territory, whether or not a critic or curator is drawn to the movie (it might be a picture Fortissimo has produced or executive produced), human relationships take priority. Profit is an intrinsic goal, to be sure, but Fortissimo employees take great pleasure in the intangibles of the collaboration: love of the medium, rapport with filmmakers, sharing the pleasure of their work with others on the circuit over meals (almost always Chinese) or drinks or coffee in the apartments they rent at the big festivals.

And they are characters to boot! The Fortissimi remind us that we are all in this together, and as important as being in the black is for them, labor and cinephilia are about much more. This is company as mensch (NOT to be confused with Mitt Romney’s assertion that corporations are people, too).

With offices in Hong Kong, Amsterdam, London, and New York, Fortissimo has a diversity of personnel lacking in most other sales companies, like the ones based in France, Germany, the UK, and the US. There’s an American Jew in Hong Kong, a Dutch-Chinese woman in New York, several Chinese staffers in Hong Kong, Dutch sisters in Amsterdam, and a British noblewoman in London, to mention just a few.

The heterogeneous demographic echoes the firm’s wide variety of titles. Many of their movies defy conventional genre distinctions (the kinds of films less creative companies and distributors get nervous about because they aren’t easily pigeonholed), ones that occupy a quasi-subterranean realm, an accessible underground that, in the best way, replaces oft-narrow national distinctions with universal artistic impulses that frequently challenge norms. Flagging “Shortbus!”

From its inception in 1991, Fortissimo specialized in films from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, most notably those of Wong Kar-wai, who remains both a friend and a cash cow, but soon expanded to other countries in Asia such as Thailand and the Philippines. The company expanded into American independents (“Night on Earth,” “Winter’s Bone”) and docs (“Capturing the Friedmans,” “The Bridge,” “Super-Size Me”); New Queer Cinema (“Poison,” “Mysterious Skin”); movies from Latin America (“Daniel and Ana,” “The House of Sand”); Australia (“Somersault”); Holland (“The Dress”); Russia (“My Joy”); Hungary (“Taxidermia,” “The Man From London”), and the rest of Europe.

More and more, they have supplemented the First World fare with films from underrepresented regions like Arab  countries (“Laila’s Birthday,” “Cairo 678”) and, for an international audience anyway, Quebec (the astonishing “Wetlands”).

The beloved ex-Rotterdam programmer Wouter Barendrecht founded the company with Helen Loveridge and Shu Kei, but eventually, the latter two left and seasoned international film business exec Michael Werner came on board as co-chairman. Since the Hong Kong-based Barendrecht’s untimely death in 2009, Werner, he of the dry wit, has run Fortissimo from HK with much of the same staff in place, including such effective drones with infectious personalities as Winnie Lau, Nicole Mackey, and Nelleke Driessen.

The oft jet-lagged Werner, who spends much of his time schlepping around the world looking for new product and plugging his own, opens up about the place Fortissimo occupies in his life.  

“During the past 16 years, I had the opportunity to become part of something which, give or take a few missteps, is a force for good in this amazing film-business universe,” he said. “When I was younger, I wanted to be a diplomat and work for the UN or in the Foreign Service. That did not happen, but to me, Fortissimo is like the United Nations of Cinema – and I think that having the opportunity to know and work with Wouter and this dedicated team, and with great filmmakers and producers from around the globe, and with the new filmmakers that we keep finding, as well as to be part of the festival world with the awards that our films have won: It’s been a great and sometimes maddening wonderful trip that I hope will continue for years to come.”  

Who would have thought two decades ago that a risky business focusing on the dissemination of Asian films in Western markets would end up in the top tier of sales companies? These days, Fortissimo, like all of their competitors, is challenged, by the global economy of course, but also by the increasing difficulty in marketing foreign-language films internationally.

This is a period of transition in the company, of cutting back releases and taking on more defined genre films, of balancing commercial titles with artful works that may or may not generate a lot of cash. The move into production usually guarantees the right to sell, a wise business maneuver, but it also offers the potential for a hand in the creative process.

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