The BRM’s Greatest Hits | Wither Grassroots (2005)

In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!

Today’s Greatest Hits post is a piece that I keep returning to in my thinking as a film programmer; the massive problem we have getting audiences connected with a wide array of foreign films. I think the argument has changed somewhat with the rise of VOD and the loss of a few other companies (Wellspring R.I.P.), but the problem remains some six years later.

The original date of publication was January 8, 2005.


Wither Grassroots (or How Commerce is Hurting Foreign Film in America)

The World

In a recent article, Anthony Kaufman, one of my favorite indieWIRE bloggers and writers, presented an optimistic assessment of the state of foreign film in America. The article focused almost exclusively on the distribution business, citing box office numbers as the ultimate gauge of success or failure in the broader culture. Of course, if any domestic film studio were to utilize the standard of ‘breaking the million dollar mark’ as a cause for celebration, there would be some executive’s head sent rolling down Sunset Blvd. Clearly, foreign film is being judged by a, shall we say, special set of standards. The article also presents a key quote from Ryan Werner of Wellspring, one that I find pretty chilling:

We didn’t expect these films to make huge amounts of money,” says Ryan Werner, head of distribution for Wellspring, which released both “Goodbye Dragon Inn” and “Notre Musique.” “But I think we’re going to have to be more careful about doing smaller films, like ‘Goodbye Dragon Inn’ in the future. It’s not like we can’t make them work, but I had to do everything in-house. Was it worth it at the end of the day? I guess it is.

Clearly a cause for celebration when a wonderful film like Goodbye Dragon Inn is a used as a cautionary tale. But the numbers are encouraging, and the domestic box office has, in fact, increased. Let’s say cautious optimism, shall we?

Taking a similarly celebratory approach to the state of the world is A.O. Scott’s recent N.Y. Times Magazine piece featuring Jia Zhangke’s The World as a central metaphor for the state of foreign film’s relationship to isolationism and personal alienation. I would recommend that everyone read this article (it is one of my favorite pieces of film writing this year) but to save time, I’ll quote the following, which pretty much sums up Scott’s argument:

“Movies may be universal, but they are universal in radically distinct ways. Some of them we regard as foreign, a word I use with some trepidation. Though my purpose here is to wave the flag for movies from around the world, it is a banner whose slogans make me cringe a little. The phrase ‘foreign film’ is, after all, freighted with connotations of preciousness and snobbery, and too often accompanied by dismissive modifiers like ‘difficult,’ ‘obscure’ and ‘depressing’ (all of which I happen to regard as virtues, but never mind). Our own commercial cinema is increasingly devoted to dispensing accessibility, comfort and familiarity, which can also be virtues. It is not necessary to rank, or to choose… In any case, I am most concerned with American audiences, and in particular with the parochialism that results from living in a country with a film industry so powerful and productive, so frank and cheerful in its imperial ambitions, that it threatens to overshadow everything else. It is not just the setting and content of a movie like ‘The World’ that may seem foreign but also its visual strategy and storytelling methods, and above all its unsentimental commitment to the depiction of ordinary life, to a kind of realism that is in some ways more alien to us than the reality it construes. Hollywood studios, as they try to protect their dominant position in the global entertainment market, are ever more heavily invested in fantasy, in conjuring counterfeit worlds rather than engaging the one that exists, and in the technological R&D required to expand the horizons of novelty and sensation. And while we, along with everybody else, often go to the movies to escape from the pressures and difficulties of the actual world, we also sometimes go to discover it.”

That is to say, if I may combine the two Tony’s arguments, that there is an audience for foreign film in America, that more people than ever are recognizing the commonality of real-life (or dramatic representations of real-life) experiences across cultures and are using foreign films as way to explore and understand one another. I certainly agree, and count myself among that audience as one who loves to examine the broadest scope of real life experience by consuming as diverse array of foreign films as I can.

However, there is a fundamental disconnect between the creative community, telling stories that bring the world a little closer together, and audiences, who enjoy the escapism of both fantasy and what I will call, because I can’t think of anything better, ‘exotic realism’ (or cinema as insight into another culture or lifestyle.) That disconnect is the international film business, and the nature of distribution in America, by both foreign and domestic companies. Putting Hollywood aside, and thereby putting aside 99% or so of all screen space in America (let’s be real), the argument I wish to make is not the Us vs. Them battle between the studios and foreign productions for the hearts, minds, and wallets of American filmgoers. I believe we can honestly admit that Los Angeles won that battle years ago. Instead, I am talking about the small group of domestic and foreign film distributors and sales agents who make agreements as to what will and will not be seen by American audiences.

First, some background. My perspective on this issue is not one of a businessperson who is trying to make money from the distribution of films. Without distributors dedicated to bringing foreign film to America, things would be much worse than they already are, and I salute them for their advocacy of foreign titles. Instead, my perspective is that of a film festival programmer, a person who is working in the non-profit world in order to find what I consider to be powerful, resonant, and diverse films and to share them with communities that might not otherwise be able to see them. I assume that most programmers are like me; they love film and they love being able to curate a program for their audiences that is challenging and gives voice to filmmakers, foreign and domestic, who otherwise would not be heard from in the marketplace. However, it is increasingly difficult to bring foreign titles to US festival audiences.

For foreign filmmakers, the process of finding a US audience usually begins at the film festivals with large markets, Toronto, Berlin, and Cannes, followed by the AFM at the end of the year. Note that three of the largest film markets in the world are outside of the US. If a US distributor buys a foreign title at a market, the film comes into festival/theatrical play based upon its targeted release date. Of course, foreign titles with distribution in the US are pretty much treated by distributors as domestic titles, and each company has their own strategy, each of which I believe has valid reasoning behind it. Festivals also receive a smattering of foreign submissions, although in some cases, internationally focused festivals like Miami, LAIFF, etc., excel at finding international films that may not yet have distribution deals in the US. These festivals often work with foreign sales agents, and I am sure some of them pay upwards of $1600 a film in print rental fees (a different, and equally disturbing, point).

This is my greatest frustration as a programmer. While independent filmmakers long ago learned the value of the festival circuit as a launching pad in the quest for distribution, a place where they can find an audience for their films and try to gather momentum, attention, and press coverage for their films with the ultimate goal of securing a distribution deal, many foreign film companies seem to be focused exclusively on markets. This means that many great films are withheld from smaller, non-market festivals that may generate interest and buzz, instead playing only at markets (and thus primarily for buyers) and hoping for a sale.

As an example of this situation, I will confess that, in my recent programming efforts, I have contacted several foreign sales agents for titles and have been almost universally rejected. The reason always given? ‘We are hoping to secure distribution, so we don’t want to play anywhere else until we have finalized a deal.’ I have searched high and low for these titles at other festivals as well, festivals I assume are programmed by people who are also interested in broadening access to foreign titles, and the films are nowhere to be seen. How can it benefit a film to be silent in the marketplace? I can guarantee that almost none of the films I (and I assume others) have sought to feature at a domestic festival, some of which recently appeared on indieWIRE’s Top Fifteen Undistributed Films list– none will see the light of day in a commercial film theater in the United Sates. Anyone else wondering WHY these films aren’t getting distribution in the US? It’s simple. There is no campaign to build demand.

What really unnerves me about the ‘distribution only’ approach taken by most foreign companies is this bizarre (to my mind anyway) idea that by playing US festivals, the film’s chances of finding a deal are diminished. Maybe I am naïve film festival employee who doesn’t understand the cut-throat nature of the film business, but is there a distributor reading this article who, after expressing interest in the commercial potential of a foreign title, would call off a deal because of a series of festival screenings to build word of mouth? I sometimes receive the same argument from domestic distributors, people who cite a film festival play as cutting into the bottom line, a blowoff of potential ticket sales (and revenues). And of course, rarely if ever do the titles in question ever go on to explode in the marketplace. In fact, these films often never even make it to the town where they would have been programmed in the festival. Certainly, Hollywood’s absolute rejection of film festivals as a potential marketing tool and word of mouth builder is an example of the commercial mindset at its most overblown. And while I understand the desire to maximize profits for any business, for foreign films working in the slimmest margins of the American film business, I am dumbfounded as to how to explain this approach to film marketing.

Of course, maybe the argument is that film festivals don’t really have impact as a marketing tool anymore. As the independent film business has grown into a series of studio owned ‘mini-majors’ over the past few years, the importance of regional film launches at smaller festivals may have become passé. When companies can do a major launch at a festival like Sundance or Toronto, why even bother with the smaller cities and communities full of film fans glued to the internet, alternative newspapers, and national TV shows and magazines? Additionally, with the ever-increasing number of film festivals, the availability of films, premieres and talent from these companies must be reaching the saturation point. And so, putting festivals off to the side, how else can we maintain a film culture, preserve a grassroots network of festivals, film lovers, and professionals who I truly believe love and want to see the wider acceptance of foreign work? What other institutions are in place aside from the random smattering of art houses, museums, and festivals to provide a screen and audience for these works? I don’t think there are any.

I personally believe the ‘sales and profits only’ strategy to be fatally flawed, and I would argue that the relatively small business done by foreign titles, and their almost complete absence from the non-urban consciousness, can be partially blamed on the fact that it has become increasingly difficult for advocates to build interest in these films. Films like those listed in the indieWIRE undistributed list don’t remain undistributed because there is no interest in them, they are undistributed because they are being treated like rarified objects, goods only for sale. Without broader inclusion in film festivals, cinema clubs, film society screenings, and the like, there will never be any more screen space. From where will the demand grow if not these audiences? There are a million and one people out there who are willing to help create a market for films they love. How can we spread the good news from the international creative community without access to the projects?

The film community in the US needs to do a better job of presenting foreign titles, of fighting tooth and nail for every screen and every film in order to allow the foreign film market to grow. I believe American distributors of foreign film are, for the most part, trying their best to maximize distribution for their films. They are, after all, serving the bottom line. But I believe without a grass roots push, without building the same kind of momentum and community that was built around independent film in the 1990’s, foreign film will continue to be underrepresented on American screens. Foreign companies, domestic distributors, film festivals, and film lovers can all pull together to change things, but first, we need to examine the state of affairs, admit to our flaws, and start working together to bring about changes. Otherwise, A.O. Scott’s words may ring truer than he intended; The theme park in The World may indeed serve as the central metaphor for the foreign film market in the US– a desolate, under-utilized curiosity, representing the long, unbridgeable distance between people. Leave it to the dollar to make it so.

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