This year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) was a resounding box-office success and Sandra Sdraulig and her team are to be commended for bringing film culture to the masses. It is heartening to see crowded foyers full of eager film enthusiasts lining up to see the latest Iranian masterpiece, a Claire Denis film or a three-and-a-half hour Japanese drama. It is also great to see foreign films on a large screen such as the magnificent Cinema One at Village Roadshow’s city theatre-complex.
Sure we can argue ad infinitum about the quality of the films screened and the quality films that were never shown. I’m not sure about you but I would rather have a successful and financially stable film festival rather than one that is struggling to make ends meet and its future uncertain. Not every film at MIFF was exactly my cup of tea but there were more than enough to whet my appetite. However, I must admit this year’s MIFF was not as inventive and daring in its selection of films as last year’s terrific selection.
Making my list of the best films (see the Festival Wrap-Up) at this year’s MIFF I was struck by the fact that only one of the seven films in my list is getting a theatrical release. Working for a film distribution company, I must bear some responsibility for this but I am also compelled to make some comments on why this is often the case and why it is just as frustrating for distributors than it is for cinema audiences.
Without a doubt, the best film I saw at the festival was Kiarostami’s latest film, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). I was also impressed with Aoyama’s Eureka (2000), Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) and Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999). What I liked about all these films is that they dared to defy cinematic convention and show us that there is still some inventiveness left in cinema, that there are areas still to be explored cinematically, and that the above filmmakers are leading the way. There are various reasons why these films may never get a theatrical release and as a distributor we have various criteria when selecting films for acquisition.
The most obvious reason is whether the film will find a reasonable sized audience and be commercially successful. I am not referring to the box office success of a blockbuster but a modest return to at least recoup the initial investment. This is critically important and while we may argue that enhancing film culture is just as important as ‘the bottom line’, achieving a reasonable box office is obviously crucial to the financial security of the distributor.
So how does one decide whether a film will be commercially successful? This is a much more difficult task that at first appears and is often fraught with danger. The main problem is that there are so many factors influencing the popularity of a film that it is almost nigh on impossible to make an accurate prediction. It is never just a case of the drawing power of the actors or the awards or critical acclaim the film may have received.
The art-house cinema audience has changed dramatically in the last decade in response to the commercialization of the art-house market and the rise of commercial films that screen at so-called art-house cinemas. The question is whether the audience has changed or distributors have altered their acquisitions policy or the films being produced have changed. The answer is yes to all of them and they have all had a domino effect on each other.
Art-house films are especially difficult because they often do not have the luxury of possessing immediate brand name recognition of a popular actor or director, especially foreign films. In our experience, it is has been a trend in recent years that films that are commercially successful are those that have received great critical kudos in newspapers and magazines that cater to a more discerning audience. For example, our most successful film Kundun (Martin Scorsese, 1998) was given a five-star review in The Age by Adrian Martin but yet received two-and-a-half stars in the Herald-Sun. I’m sure the review was not the sole reason for the film’s success as the film generated extra publicity due to China’s intervention in the film’s international release that featured prominently in the daily newspapers. However, we have recognised the increasing importance of critical acclaim for art-house films as an important form of advertisement an unknown film can receive.
At this stage, it is important to define what the term “art-house” means these days and how it has dramatically changed in recent years. There is no longer an easily definable distinction between art-house and mainstream. Ten or fifteen years ago, art-house films could be typically defined as independently produced films (as opposed to those produced by major studios). These typically included any foreign films and low budget films (under $5m) that usually dealt with difficult and complex issues and that were not easily defined in a one-sentence, high concept log line. Past art-house box office successes include Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot (1989), Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy (1993-94) and Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover (1989). However, recently we have seen films like American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), Man On The Moon (Milos Forman, 2000) and High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000) screening at traditionally art-house cinemas. Are these films “art-house” in the traditional sense of the word? I don’t think they are and the reason they are screening at the many specialized cinemas is mainly due to a saturation of screens in recent years and the need to fill those screens with as many films as possible which often includes the more mainstream ones that bring home the bacon and cover the overheads.
The Australian film industry is a fiercely competitive one with only a handful of companies competing against each other for that elusive box office hit. It has become increasingly difficult for independent distributors especially since the major local and overseas distributors began taking a slice of the art-house market and began buying worldwide rights for art-house films. They have more resources to make higher bids for the films, thereby cutting smaller independent distributors out of the bidding process.
Up until Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), foreign language films were mostly unmitigated commercial disasters and art-house distributors began to keep away from them and while it is comforting to see foreign films such as Life Is Beautiful, The Dinner Game (Francis Veber, 1998) and Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998) succeed in the marketplace, they are not as demanding on the viewer as The Wind Will Carry Us or Beau Travail and this is a crucial distinction that must be acknowledged by distributors.
Another hurdle to overcome by local distributors is that while we may acquire distribution rights to cinematic masterpieces such as Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, there is no guarantee that exhibitors will share our enthusiasm. It is vital that local exhibitors have a favourable response to our films because that will usually decide if they will support the film in terms of the number of available screens and marketing. If exhibitors cannot foresee any reasonable audience for our film then we face an uphill battle in convincing them otherwise. However, this is not to say that we will not acquire films that we consider worth screening. We will continue to purchase films that we consider to be of great artistic quality but this must also be weighed against its commercial prospects. This may often mean that despite the artistic merit of a film like The Wind Will Carry Us and our favourable responses to it, it may never get a theatrical release. The reasons? Mainly, the film’s slow meditated pace, its lack of clear (or conventional?) narrative development, apparent lack of character motivation and its complex philosophical themes. This film will mainly appeal to cinephiles such as the readers of this web site and that is just not a big enough audience. How many more people outside of a festival audience will flock to this film?
Don’t get me wrong. Nothing would give me as much pleasure for such a film to be a commercial success and if a distributor is daring enough to do it then it may prove to be the case. However, you need the support of a number of exhibitors to screen the film in enough screens to generate enough revenue to cover prints and advertising expenses. At the same time, you are also competing with more mainstream films such as American Beauty which exhibitors tend to favour over Kiarostami’s latest film. The best (and probably, only!) way to release such a film like The Wind Will Carry Us is to screen it at one or two specialised screens in Melbourne and Sydney and this can best be done by a small distributor who does not have the overheads and sizeable marketing budget of a larger distributor.
It must also be noted that distributors – independent and mainstream – both have made mistakes or misjudged films that do not perform well commercially and, while the reason for its box-office failure may sometimes be clear in hindsight, this often remains a mystery. With each commercial failure, distributors hope to learn and not repeat the same error in judgment. However, the film industry is especially tough to predict and while we may study past commercial failures, it is normal business practice to experience a few failures in between the hits. This is the usual experience of all businesses and the film industry is no exception.
Another key consideration when acquiring films is whether they will pass the censorship laws in this country. The current Federal Government has made it increasingly difficult for distributors to screen films that contain high-level violence or sex scenes despite the artistic merit of films such as Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999). There is a blinding ignorance and plain inability by the censors to distinguish between exploitation and exploration. The final half hour of Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) contains some excruciatingly graphic torture scenes that will hardly be accepted by the censors despite Miike’s cheeky playfulness jumping from reassuring dream sequence to painful reality and settling for an ambiguous conclusion. The film is a clever take on film noir and audience and narrative expectations, but I doubt whether the censors would see it that way.
In the end, there are some films that are best suited to film festivals rather than a general theatrical release. A three-and-a-half hour epic such as Aoyama’s Eureka will be hard pressed to find an exhibitor that is willing to use his/her screen for a film that will screen only twice per day rather than one that can screen five times a day. Despite dealing with an art form, the commercial realities of running a business are too difficult to ignore.
The only way (or the best way) I see the current state of art-house cinema changing is if we begin to educate young filmgoers to appreciate films as an art form rather than social entertainment. There is no doubt that film, like any art form, is a form of entertainment but it can also be an enriching experience. However, are cinema audiences willing to be enlightened or are they just after that quick fix of adrenalin rush and pedestrian humour without too much afterthought? It is interesting to note a recent article in The New York Times titled “Can Art Cinema Survive Cruder Times” by Stephen Holden and maybe he hit the nail on the head in his commentary on modern cinema audiences, stating that there’s “a mass cultural shift away from spiritual and psychological ground to purely physical.” (1)
I applaud Cinemedia’s pioneering ventures into championing screen literacy as a way of educating moviegoers about the artistic merit of films. However, some responsibility must also fall at the feet of local distributors and hopefully we can do our best to screen the best that cinema has to offer rather than always going for the easy option of chasing that fast buck. At the same time, hopefully in the near future, large audiences will eagerly embrace the next Kiarostami or Denis film as well as the next James Cameron blockbuster.