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Fortissimo Films Goes Bankrupt: 3 Reasons the Respected Arthouse Distributor Lost Its Groove

The sales agent's financial struggles underscore the problems plaguing the marketplace for niche art films.

“In the Mood for Love”

USA Films

Sales agent Fortissimo Films’ bankruptcy last week represented a major loss for members of the independent film industry that had worked with the company, based in Amsterdam and Hong Kong, for 25 years. A pioneer in the Asian and art house movie world, Fortissimo represented narrative films from acclaimed directors like Wong Kar-wai (“In the Mood for Love”), Tsui Hark (“Seven Swords”) and Jim Jarmusch (“Mystery Train”). It also handled sales for documentaries like Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing The Friedmans,” Robert Kenner’s “Food Inc.,” Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” and Martin Scorsese’s “Shine a Light.”

Fortissimo was known for its impeccable taste that shunned mainstream titles, landing recent award-winners like writer-director Yi’nan Diao’s 2014 crime-drama “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” which won Berlin’s Golden Bear award, and Naji Abu Nowar’s adventure-drama “Theeb,” which earned Nowar the Best Director award at the 2014 Venice Film Festival. Though awards are not synonymous with box office success, Fortissimo’s bankruptcy came as a shock to members of the indie film community.

“It was a surprise,” said Nancy Gerstman, co-founder of independent distributor Zeitgeist films. “They had hung in there for a really long time.” Founded by producers Wouter Barendrecht and Helen Loveridge, the company found new leadership under chairman Michael Werner after Loveridge left the company and Barendrecht died in 2009. Whether the company manages to find new financing or a buyer is up to an administrator based in The Netherlands.

Here are three lessons from Fortissimo’s bankruptcy.

1. Younger audiences aren’t seeking out art house titles.

Expanded home entertainment options from Neflix, Hulu and Amazon have clearly taken a bite out of the theatrical market, but interest from millennials in the kinds of films Fortissimo handles is thought to be down compared to previous generations. “It used to be that college kids would be very enthusiastic to see the new [Emir] Kusturica film,” said Marcus Hu, co-founder of independent distributor Strand Releasing. “There isn’t that kind of dialogue with youth culture today with film. There’s just a lack of interest.”

2. The Chinese film boom isn’t trickling down to smaller Asian movies.

China is expected to eclipse North America to become the number one market in the world for movies in 2017. While the country’s growing film market has helped attract interest from studios like Warner Bros., which launched a film fund to finance Chinese-language films earlier this year with Brett Ratner’s RatPac Entertainment, such investments aren’t likely to benefit smaller movies. Instead, big-budget productions like Joe and Anthony Russo’s (“Captain America: Civil War”) planned Chinese-language superhero movie will look to replicate the Marvel model in China. The Russos established Beijing-based studio Anthem & Song for such productions earlier this year.

3. Independent distributors face the same systemic challenges as Fortissimo.

The same day that Fortissimo entered into bankruptcy, British independent distributor Metrodome also filed for bankruptcy protection. The company is known for distributing foreign language and art house titles. “Territories aren’t buying those kinds of movies anymore because they aren’t working,” said Hu. “Who are [sales agents] going to sell these movies to if there’s no one buying them?” Metrodome was set to distribute Brady Corbet’s debut “The Childhood of a Leader” in the U.K., which was quickly moved to London’s Soda Pictures in time for its August 19 release. The company is also set to release Olivier Assayas’s “Personal Shopper,” starring Kristen Stewart, in October.

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