18 November, 2009

The New Home For International Cinema

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

With foreign-language films (with "dreaded" sub-titles) becoming more and more difficult to find theatrical distribution, the action has moved to the home screen for even films that have been major presences on the international film festival circuit. IFC Films, which still does do day-and-date simultaneous openings in theaters and on its on-demand television network, is increasingly showcasing films strictly on its IFC ON DEMAND service, available via cable and satellite television to millions of viewers. The argument here is that these films are exclusive television fare that could generate more viewers at home than they ever could at the cinema house. The theory is a good one and potentially more lucrative for everyone involved, but represents a further diminishing of the theatrical "window" for us Neanderthals who still like our films up on the big screen.

Oh least the films are getting out of the strictly film festival ghetto and getting a shot at wide exposure. And while I live in New York City, where luckly specialized cinema is still making a last (althought increasingly desperate) stand, there are millions of people scattered around the US who do not have an arthouse cinema near them and therefore would miss out on these wonderful films. You don't have to go far beyond the Manhattan island into the vast world of suburban multiplexes to realize how difficult it is to see a quality European, South American or Asian film.

This week, IFC ON DEMAND is launching a French film on its video-on-demand service that not too long ago could have been a modest theatrical hit. It illustrates the sorry state of theatrical distribution for films that dare not speak English. While European titles in general are finding scarce space at the multiplex, at least French films have been doing somewhat better. The recent hits LA VIE EN ROSE, SUMMER HOURS and COCO BEFORE CHANEL demonstrated that the American art crowd's love affair with Gallic cinema remains strong.

The actress/writer/director Josiane Balasko (TOO BEAUTIFUL FOR YOU, FRENCH TWIST) has had many of her previous films shown on the arthouse circuit, but her latest FRENCH GIGOLO (Cliente), is also bypassing a theatrical release and showing up on-demand on IFC. One would think that with "cougar culture" (an older woman who beds a younger man) so prominent now in America, that this film would have justified a full-on theatrical release.

But discriminating television audiences will delight in the wonderful actress Nathalie Bay who plays a 50-something television personality whose sexual needs are met by casual encounters with young male escorts she connects with online. She becomes particularly enamoured of a sexy 30-year-old (played with oodles of charm by Eric Caravaca) who is secretly married. The film, which premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival, is a very revealing comedy/drama about the confluence of sex, power and money.

If a French film about sex cannot be seen in movie theaters, the crisis may be worse that even I understand. But at least IFC Films, which has been picking up a good number of quality European films of late including VINCERE, CRACKS, HADEWIJCH, ANTICHRIST, FISH TANK, MAMMOTH, DEAD SNOW, GOMORRAH and HUNGER to name a few, is in the game. Look for the focus to move into online offerings in the months to come. But will the audience for these kinds of films remain very slim or will the availability create an added spark of interest (particularly among young people)? Not even the movie mavens have an answer for that one......

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