By Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
Don’t bother trying to contact American film professionals in their New York or Los Angeles offices this week… the bulk of them are cruising the Croisette at the Cannes Film Festival, looking for films that they can add to their theatrical slates. Distribution bigwigs are mixing with smaller specialty companies in a mad search for the next small European gem that could become a major box office champion. With many available titles vying for attention in the Official Competition, Un Certain Regard, Directors’ Fortnight and the International Critics Week, and hundreds of others available in the Cannes Film Market, distributors will need to cover all their bases to find the golden needle in a very crowded haystack.
While there certainly were some bright spots on the U.S. theatrical landscape for European films this past year (including La Vie en Rose, Atonement, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly and Persepolis), most were very small releases that never reached the $1 Million mark in their theatrical releases. To make matters worse, news was announced just days before the start of the Cannes Film Festival that rocked the insular world of specialty film distribution in the United States.
Two active companies that were specialty divisions of media giant Time Warner (Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse Entertainment) will cease operations in the next few weeks. Both companies have been extremely active in the successful releases of both American independent and international film titles in the United States and Canada, but senior management at Time Warner made the decision that it will now distribute more specialized films through studio giant Warner Brothers or through the veteran distributor New Line Cinema (a company that was bought by Time Warner almost a decade ago, and has been responsible for the release of many independent auteurs as well as the lucrative Lord of the Rings series).
Warner Independent Pictures, which began operations in 2004, successfully released such European films as and A Very Long Engagement (France, 2004), March of the Penguins (France, 2005) and Paradise Now (France/Israel/Palestine, 2005). Its fortunes were much more modest lately, including the release of the English language version of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which made a paltry $1.2 Million in its theatrical release.
Picturehouse Entertainment, which has only been in existence for three years, had a number of European film successes, including Tristram Shandy (UK, 2006), Pan’s Labyrinth (Spain/Mexico, 2006), Starter For Ten (UK, 2006) and The Orphanage (Spain, 2007). The company was praised for its handling of the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose (2007), which went on to win Oscars for Best Actress for Marion Cotillard and an award for makeup. However, despite its success d’estime, the film grossed less than $12 Million. When special-effects films and silly comedies make that in a single day, it was just a matter of time before the studio executives at Time Warner pulled the plug. However, the news that these two formidable divisions will no longer be in business has shaken the fragile specialty distribution to the core. If these well financed divisions, supported by their parent companies deep pockets, couldn’t make it, what chance was there for other companies?
Well, that is not really the case. Other studio specialty divisions have been extremely well. Fox Searchlight Pictures, a division of Twentieth Century Fox, has become one of the most shingles in Hollywood, including successful distribution of such European titles as The Full Monty (UK, 1997), Waking Ned Devine (UK, 1998), Sexy Beast (UK, 2001), Bend It Like Beckham (UK, 2002), L’Auberge Espanole (France, 2003), 28 Days Later (UK, 2003), The Dreamers (UK/Monte Carlo, 2004), Nightwatch (Russia, 2005), Notes On A Scandal (UK, 2006), The Last King of Scotland (UK, 2006) and last year’s Once (Ireland).
Sony Pictures Classics, the most successful of the arthouse divisions with a long history of supporting European films, is one of the major companies looking at new European titles at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Their past successes have included such landmark films as The City of the Lost Children (France, 1995), Ma Vie En Rose (Belgium, 1997), Run Lola Run (Germany, 1999), All About My Mother (Spain, 1999), Talk To Her (Spain, 2002), Goodbye Lenin! (Germany, 2004), The Triplettes of Belleville (France, 2004), Layercake (UK, 2005), Volver (Spain, 2006), The Lives of Others (Germany, 2007) and current hits The Counterfeiters (Austria), Persepolis (France) and Brick Lane (UK).
Focus Features, the specialty division of Universal Pictures, had a major success this past year with the film Atonement, which was nominated for 7 Oscars. The company not only distributes films but often produces and co-produces them, especially the films of its “in-house auteur” Ang Lee. Other important European films it has released over the past decade include: 8 Women (France, 2002), The Pianist (France/Austria, 2002), Swimming Pool (France, 2003), Brothers (Denmark, 2004), Vanity Fair (UK, 2004), Talk To Me (Spain, 2007) and In Bruges (UK/Ireland, 2008).
Other companies that will be competing for top European titles at Cannes include Miramax Films (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, The Queen), The Weinstein Company (Persepolis), ThinkFilm (My Brother Is An Only Child), IFC Films (4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days), Magnolia Pictures (Boarding Gate), Strand Releasing (The Edge of Heaven, Irina Palm), Roadside Attractions (Roman de Gare), Palm Pictures (13 Tzameti), Zeitgeist Films (Regular Lovers, Sophie Scholl) and a host of smaller companies with more irregular release patterns.
Big and small, high and mighty, well-financed and on-their-last-dollar, everyone is on the hunt for the film that can make their year, their career and their investors happy. Not easy, but hope springs eternal every May on the Cote d’Azur.