‘Drive My Car’ Success Is a Case Study That Should Wake Up the Arthouse Business (Column)

How did a three-hour Japanese movie become an arthouse blockbuster? The answer should inspire more innovation.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi, winner of the award for best screenplay for the film 'Drive My Car' poses for photographers during the awards ceremony at the 74th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Saturday, July 17, 2021. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)
Ryusuke Hamaguchi wins Best Screenplay at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival
Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP

When “Drive My Carreceived four Oscar nominations this week, it represented a triumph of arthouse cinema at a moment when it could really use the boost. The Academy might have wished that one of the 10 Best Picture slots went to James Bond or Spider-Man, but Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story has become a better case study for what it takes to keep the movie business alive.

Daring, non-English language cinema challenges even the bravest distributors. That was certainly the situation at Cannes last July, when more than one buyer told me they were having a hard time parsing the marketplace potential for several of the festival’s critical darlings. One of these was “Drive My Car,” which took 30 minutes to roll its opening credits and used a quiet, enigmatic approach to craft the world of a widowed theater director rediscovering his creative passion through a multilingual version of “Uncle Vanya.” Not an easy sell.

“Drive My Car”

Today, “Drive My Car” is crossing $1 million in 150 theaters thanks to several canny figures behind its meticulous U.S. distribution. In September, a release announced the film’s domestic acquisition by Janus Films (aka Criterion) alongside something called “Sideshow, a new theatrical label.” Rumors had veteran IFC Films executive Jonathan Sehring in charge, three years after he left his former employer, but he would not confirm it until this week. The story of Sideshow is a risk — a company launched exclusively to release one movie — but it’s an educated one that’s already paying off.

Janus has been in the arthouse business for decades. Among its last major prestige titles was Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning “The Great Beauty,” but the company wasn’t prepared to handle the complexities of a pandemic-era release on its own, especially from a lesser-known filmmaker.

Enter Sehring. The veteran IFC Films executive departed that company in 2018 after almost two decades, during which he engineered successful releases for risky arthouse titles ranging from “Y Tu Mama Tambien” to “Boyhood.” With “Drive My Car,” he and his peers saw the opportunity to launch a bespoke theatrical label with the ability to partner with larger entities.

“Sideshow came about between longtime collaborators who wanted to ensure that select films/new works in contemporary cinema that we loved were given the attention of a specialized theatrical release and did not risk getting lost,” Sehring told me via email this week. “The idea was to partner with our longtime friends at Janus Films and Criterion and give ‘Drive My Car’ the positioning of a release from the company that had released Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini as well as many contemporary works by filmmakers like Paolo Sorrentino and Aki Kaurismaki. ‘Drive My Car’ ticked all the boxes as the exact type of film we wanted to release and felt aligned with the vision.”

Even as the movie received lackluster offers from U.S. buyers at Cannes, it won three awards at the festival and garnered close to $300,000 in France a month later. Critics sang its praises across social media, from Twitter to Letterboxd, which pointed to crossover potential with a younger audience. Sideshow shaped its strategy around a digital footprint that could catalyze theatrical attendance.

As I wrote out a few weeks ago, “Drive My Car” is an ideal slow-burn theatrical phenomenon specifically because it’s a hard sell on VOD. I revisited the movie this weekend and marveled at the way its use of time and the intricacies of language embolden a portrait of emotional solitude. The last movie to do anything along those lines and generate a real commercial footprint was “Boyhood,” the movie Sehring invested in for 12 years and guided through its theatrical life. Another title that never would’ve worked on entirely on VOD.

Hamaguchi was adamant that his movie live in theaters, and for good reason. “We trusted the filmmaker’s vision,” Sehring said. He assembled a few additional partners (he declined to name them, since aspects of the company are not fully formed yet) and enlisted former Magnolia Pictures acquisitions executive Jason Hellerstein as Sideshow’s first hire, while exhibition veteran Dylan Marchetti handled bookings.

All of that was layered on top of Janus’ in-house resources, including theatrical head Emily Woodburne. “The universal truth that I refuse to believe has died is that a really good film is going to work,” said Marchetti, who found arthouse success with challenging national releases like “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin,” movies that also found their audiences in theaters over the course of many months. “The specifics of what that means is always in flux. A film this good has an audience and there’s no fighting that.”

“Drive My Car”NEON

The distributors also trusted the foundation laid out by other curatorial forces: Everything from the American Cinematheque to MOMA and Metrograph helped introduce Hamaguchi to American audiences over the years. The film capitalized on existing prestige appeal with a fall release — and, despite the density of the season, it broke through. I was in the room when “Drive My Car” won Best Picture in the New York Film Critics Circle ahead of formidable contenders like “The Power of the Dog,” and it was remarkable to see the support accrue in real time. Critics weren’t voting for the movie to protest the popular favorite; “Drive My Car” was positioned as a major fall movie, and the group took the opportunity to recognize it in those terms.

That established expectations for other parts of the country. Marchetti beamed about the performance of “Drive My Car” beyond the bubble of New York and Los Angeles, arguing that even the $2,000 the movie grossed last week in Sioux Falls, South Dakota contributed to the bigger picture.

“My instinct is that this movie wouldn’t have made as much noise if it went to streaming after three weeks,” he said. “Before, you had to choose the platform; now you have to choose the content. If you position a three-hour foreign language film as content, it’s going to lose out a lot of the time.”

With so much cynicism about the future of cinema, it’s inspiring to talk to people like Sehring and Marchetti, who grasp the delicacy of serving an arthouse audience beyond the bubble of aging boomers. Most major streamers won’t allocate resources to support movies like “Drive My Car” — not when they’re looking for easier wins for home audiences with finicky attention spans. Could others launch a distribution venture to fit the needs of one movie at a time? Sideshow will soon work on additional titles, and seems to have plans for bigger partnerships around the corner, but has been entirely in the “Drive My Car” business for months.

The big takeaway here is the need for innovation that leans into every critical aspect of a movie’s lifespan. “We’ve all got to walk and chew gum here by thinking of multiple ecosystems,” Marchetti said. “It’s not that everything is better now because ‘Spider-Man’ made over $1 billion. Revenues have been slashed across the board. Producers are in trouble because returns aren’t coming back. What happens in this new age for films like ‘Drive My Car’? I’m happy to see that there is, maybe even more than before, an audience for them.”

Still, Sehring said he did not expect the movie to get this far. “No one ever thought the film would do what it has done,” he said. “However, this goes back to our initial desire to create something special and our belief in the filmmaker and championing important work.”

The resulting impact is global. European sales entity Match Factory, which represented “Drive My Car” at Cannes, said the U.S. success has catalyzed interest from other territories. “To see these very solid numbers out of the U.S. has been encouraging for everyone,” Match Factory head Michael Weber told me. “The U.S. release is usually icing on the cake, but the way Jonathan and the team built up this film was encouraging for everybody.”

As it happens, Match Factory was recently acquired by cinephile-friendly streamer Mubi for an undisclosed sum. Match Factory is known for daring auteur cinema, from Lucrecia Martel to Apichatpong Weerasethakul; the sale inspired speculation that streamer ownership might endanger the brand’s theatrical life. To me, it seems like an acknowledgement that one-size-fits-all distribution died along ago. Business alliances ensure that these movies can survive through diversification.

Mubi and Match Factory declined to discuss the deal terms, but for now, Match Factory continues to operate as a production and sales company representing titles out of the Berlin Film Festival. This is pure speculation at this point, but the Mubi ownership should ensure that Match Factory titles have a foundation of support, whether or not someone puts the films they produce in theaters.

As it happens, this year’s Berlin jury includes Hamaguchi; he was on a plane to the festival without wifi when the Oscar nominations were announced. During an opening press conference, the filmmaker joined jury president M. Night Shyamalan in pushing back on a question about the dichotomy between arthouse and commercial movies. “There is no gap,” he said. “There’s no distance between the two categories.”

That’s an extraordinary contention, but “Drive My Car” makes it a lot more palatable. Other struggling companies — or free agents contemplating their next moves — should look at these results and consider how they might take their own big swings. Start new labels, form alliances, think outside the box: The audiences are there, and they’re counting on you.

Distribution has such questionable ROI that it might seem glib to suggest anyone should think twice about a tough sell when keeping the lights on is hard enough. I welcome readers thinking through these problems to offer alternate routes, point out my blindspots… or just call me an idiot, as long as you can back it up: Eric@indiewire.com

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