Brother (Takeshi Kitano)

For cinephiles, attending a film market is akin to an animal rights activist attending a slaughterhouse. This is mostly to do with the fact that at film markets, such as the recently held London Film Screenings and MIFED in Milan (Oct 23-Nov 2), movies are bought and sold like any other consumer product without too much consideration for their artistic value. The key basis of all discussion is, surprise-surprise, box-office. Does the film have the potential to make money? Will it find an audience? You will not hear any distributor or sales agent saying that the film deserves to get a release to enhance our local film culture. Culture? It’s a bit difficult to consider culture when they are screening Edward Yang’s brilliant Yi Yi directly after a soft-core porn flick, Cum to Live. No, the only culture you’ll find at these markets is in the over-priced yogurt.

But seriously, it was a pleasure to attend the recent film markets in London and Milan. These are two of the biggest film markets in the calendar year along with American Film Market (AFM) in Los Angeles in February and the Cannes Film Festival in May. What better way for a cinephile to work than watching 45 films in 9 days and to get paid for it? Although some films were of dubious quality, there were enough highlights for me to keep me satisfied, such as the magnificent The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, 2000), the under-rated Brother (Takeshi Kitano, 2000), the clever Croupier (Mike Hodges, 1998) and the terrific Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000). On my day off, I also managed to catch Wong Kar-Wai’s masterpiece, In The Mood For Love (2000), on its opening day of release in London and loved every minute of it. Incidentally, this film screened at the Cannes Film Festival but did not have an Australian distributor until its London release where it did tremendous box-office in its opening week thus propelling Australian distributors into action and to re-evaluate the film they obviously misunderstood at the Cannes screening.

Destination: London

The first destination on my hectic itinerary was London, for the London Film Screenings where distributors and sales companies from Australia to Zambia gather to watch films and negotiate complex deals to secure rights for them. The London Film Screenings are used more as a meeting place, especially by the major distribution companies to meet with their respective sales agents to update them on upcoming film projects or on the progress of films purchased in previous markets as well as finding out of any other future productions. Each distributor acquires the rights to distribute a film either in their own country or territory. These rights are usually for theatrical, television, video and all other ancillary markets such as airlines, hotels and so on. However, not all distributors seek the full spectrum of such rights since many films are for television and/or video release only. There are probably more television and video distributors at these markets than theatrical distributors such as ourselves. The distributor then meets with the sales company who holds the selling rights for a particular film and a deal is struck. Sales companies hold the international distribution rights to sell the film to overseas territories. The major studios like Miramax and Disney sell their own films but most production companies sell their films to sales companies who then sell the films on their behalf around the world. Sometimes a distributor will buy the rights to a film based solely on the script and then is updated at the next market on its progress. Most sales companies from around the world have deluxe suites at the Le Meridien on Regent Street where these meetings are held. Since most of the films screening in London get a screening in Milan the following week (although not all), many distributors see the films in Milan and instead concentrate on their meetings in London.

My first day consisted of no such high-powered meetings. Instead I was planning to watch five films and maybe catch a sixth somewhere between a late dinner and my first toilet break. The screenings are mainly held at public cinemas and private theatrettes located mainly in the West End, Soho and Covent Garden areas. The main aim of planning a screening itinerary at this market is to hopefully have as little distance as possible between cinema locations in order to get there by foot rather than hailing a taxi during peak hours. Trying to get across town during lunchtime in London can be a logistical nightmare and may mean missing, at least, the credits of your next film, something I find infuriating and do not cope well with. I cannot imagine walking ten minutes into Yi Yi and missing that splendid music score in the opening credits as the families gather around for a family wedding.

Being an avid film lover at these film markets can also be a hindrance to the main reason you are there in the first place and, that is, work. This may mean missing out on potentially great films in order to see a film with a broader commercial appeal and which is more likely to get a theatrical release. You need to remind yourself that you are there to acquire the rights to films for the local market and not to satisfy your cinematic obsession. However, there are times when you see a terrific film thought to have limited appeal but which you end up making an offer for because you can see its potential to break through with local art-house audiences.

Watching so many films over a short period of time is a daunting task and then you have the job of weeding the good from the bad and hopefully there are a couple of films that stand out and display potential to perform well in Australian cinemas. Being an independent distributor, most of our films have a limited release so we are in a better position to take a risk with a film that may have limited appeal than a major distributor who release their films wide and need to cater for the widest possible audience to justify their increased marketing spend and is, therefore, constrained more by commercial considerations than what we are. However, it is quite evident the art-house market is becoming increasingly commercialized and this has resulted in mediocre films getting released and great films being ignored. There is also pressure on distributors from art-house exhibitors to acquire films with a broader commercial appeal as they are becoming less willing to take risks with more adventurous, cutting edge movies but, hopefully, this prevailing attitude will change in the near future.

As pleasurable as it is to watch films all day long, you need a respite from the darkened rooms of a cinema where your bloodshot eyes can re-adjust to natural light and your aching body can find some freedom of movement. This respite comes from the organized parties held by a few of the major production and sales companies such as Good Machine and Miramax where distributors from all around the world come together and talk about..well..films. By talking to a myriad of different international distributors from diverse countries, one gets the overwhelming feeling that Hollywood, indeed, dominates the world and, probably, more so than ever before.

Destination: Milan

Nearly all of the distributors and sales agents that were in London also attended the MIFED market in Milan so it came as no surprise when our flight out of London contained the who’s who of the international film industry. During the flight, I casually wondered what would happen to the film industry if this particular plane suddenly crashed into the heart of France or was suddenly shot down by a resentful distributor who missed out on acquiring the latest “sure-fire” hit. However, then I realized I would also be part of the wreckage and quickly dismissed the thought. Besides, I wanted to see Milan.

Any thoughts of quickly catching a few sights during my stay in Milan were, in hindsight, quite ambitious. MIFED is held in an exhibition-type building where all the offices of the sales companies and the screening rooms are held in virtually the same building spread over three floors. One wrong turn and you are suddenly thrust into the world of hardcore porn where sales agents merely go about selling their product as if lesbian gangbang sex is normal (well, it may be for some). The screening rooms in Milan are more like private theatrettes with their makeshift chairs assembled in about 10-12 rows with modest-sized screens. Rather than gallivanting around the streets like in London desperately trying to locate the next cinema, the screening rooms in Milan are mere paces apart. This is great for convenience as you merely hop from one screening room to the next. However, after a day or two watching six films a day, the building starts to resemble the asylum in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975) as you are transferred from ward to ward.

From all appearances, Milan is a great city with beautiful designer label boutiques and a culture that is more Italian than Rome, although I saw very little of it. Thankfully, the most important screenings were finished by 7pm so we had time to have a bite to eat at the Milan’s array of splendid little restaurants where the pasta is to die for. After dinner, most of the industry gathered at a hotel bar in one of the stylish hotels in Milan to socialize and converse as people without the mention of money, apart from when it is your turn to buy beers. Hint: Do not shout drinks for a large number of people at this particular venue as a Heineken cost A$14 and as for cocktails, well, let’s just say most people resorted to their credit cards and claimed it as a business expense. After all, we were still discussing films.

The Big Deal

To break the monotony of watching film after film, I also managed to squeeze in a few meetings in Milan with various sales agents from London, Paris, Spain, Los Angeles and New York. This is where sales agents try to convince you that their film is the next Blair Witch or Run Lola Run but then these high expectations are quickly eradicated once you see the film. However, if you’re lucky enough, you may see a terrific new film that excites you enough to make a bid for it. You can either bid for a film you have already seen or a film based solely on the script (if you have read it) or on the talent involved in the project or on mere hype alone. The sales agent meets with a range of distributors and sells the film’s international distribution rights to the highest bidder.

Many of the major distributors have output deals with the major Hollywood studios so they are merely seeing films that have already been paid for and included in the output deals. An output deal is when there is a contract between a production company or studio and a distributor, in which the distributor is bound to distribute the films, say for the Australian market. Of course, the distributor can refuse to distribute a particular film if they feel it won’t work in Australia. But then the studio can pressure the distributor by proposing that if they don’t distribute the film, they won’t give them the other more successful ones. For example, until recently, Roadshow had an output deal with Miramax where they get first option to acquire all their films. If not, then Miramax can option the film to other major and independent distributors but this is not common. As an independent distributor, our acquisitions policy is not constrained by an output deal with any production company. We merely acquire films from the respective sales agents who hold all international distribution rights.

After walking out of a screening in which a distributor wants the film for the Australian market, the first thing is to grab the mobile and immediately call the sales agent to see if Australia and New Zealand rights are still available. If so, you then arrange a meeting with the sales agent to make a bid for the film. Most films are sold with a minimum guarantee being provided by the distributor which can range from as little as US$10,000 to as much as US$500,000 depending on the overall production budget of the film and the talent involved. A minimum guarantee is the minimum amount agreed upon between the distributor and the sales company for the rights to the film. Regardless of box-office performance, this amount will be paid and then all other royalties are a percentage of the box-office and any other revenue the film may receive from television, video and other ancillary sales. The success of the bid hinges on the interest of other local distributors and then whoever make the highest minimum guarantee offer. Other key factors in the deal are the “back-end terms”, that is, the sales agent’s cut of the box-office as well as the revenue from television, video and all other ancillary markets. Of course, having said that, each deal is different and other factors may come into play such as the past relationship between the distributor and the sales company and whether it has been an amicable one.

The obvious key consideration when buying films is their box-office potential. Will it make enough money to make the purchase worthwhile? There is no use in continually acquiring films that don’t perform at the box-office. Of course, knowing what works and what doesn’t is a constant guessing game for distributors. Basing decisions on recent genre trends in the marketplace or on past performance of the director or actor’s films is not necessarily indicative of the film’s box-office potential. Perhaps the best option is to select quality films that are original or, at least, put a new and exciting spin on tired genres and hope the market responds favourably. Having briefly filled you in on the business side of the film markets and how they operate, let’s now turn our attention to the actual selling products: films.

The Best Films

(in alphabetical order)

Brother (Takeshi Kitano, 2000)

Admittedly, Brother may prove a difficult watch for some as most of the violence is bone chilling, not because of its explicit nature (in fact, a lot violence occurs off screen or is heavily stylized) but for the way Takeshi Kitano puts the fear of dread into the viewer. While many will lambast the film for its copious amount of grisly murders, at least Kitano depicts gangland violence in all its ugly forms and not as some sanitized entertainment to be consumed by the masses. In his usual austere and stylized manner, Kitano tells the story of a Yakuza gangster who migrates from Tokyo to Los Angeles and is forced to extreme measures in order to survive in the criminal underworld of LA.

What is most startling (and most disturbing) is not the amount of violence but the mere randomness of it. Violence erupts out of nowhere and the unpredictability of it never allows the viewer to relax, apart from the few comic relief moments as per usual Kitano style. Cleverly, Kitano avoids any graphic bloodshed in the film’s final confrontational shootout and ends the film beautifully in the desert with an obvious homage to American westerns. In fact, the whole film could be described as a Japanese/American urban western reflecting the film’s bonding relationship between a Japanese yakuza and a black American gangster. A few viewers have criticized the film’s final monologue scene given by Epps as an awkward and flawed finale to the film. However, given that one of the film’s main themes is cultural displacement then what better way to reflect this theme by having an African-American urban gangster driving through the austere American desert, a place where white American cowboys have traditionally conquered and ruled.

Croupier (Mike Hodges, 1998)

This smart, sassy and witty film has been in hibernation for a couple of years as the film’s initial UK release was not successful but then the film was released in the US and made US$6.5m thus prompting the UK distributor to re-release the film in the new year. Clive Owens gives a wonderfully droll performance as Jack Manfred, an aspiring writer encouraged to return to work as a croupier by his father to make ends meet and finds himself enmeshed in an ingenious heist plan that forms his next novel. Veteran director of the original Get Carter (1971), Mike Hodges’ direction is inspired and, with the help of an excellent script by Rick Mayersberg, Croupier is quite possibly his best film yet. It is refreshing to find an intelligent crime film coming from the UK that doesn’t resort to pedestrian humour, outlandish characters and contrived plots.

The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, 2000)

I caught this film on my first day of the London Film Screenings and the film resonated in me throughout the entire two weeks. This adaptation of Edith Wharton’s classic novel about the pitfalls of luxury is, by far, Terence Davies’ best film. The obvious comparison to The Age of Innocence (Scorsese, 1993) is inevitable and will be a major staple in most film reviews. However, rather than judging which film is best, Terence Davies’ film is the perfect companion piece to Scorsese’s masterpiece. Here are two directors who opted out of their usual genre-specific identification films and adapted a story of repressed emotions and unbearable social constraints of the elite in turn-of-the-century New York.

Whereas Scorsese adopted a more subjective mise en scène and used an array of expressionistic cinematic techniques to convey a subjective vision of the characters’ inner turmoil, Terence Davies opted for a more subdued direction. There is no orchestrated score, slick camera pans or any adoration of the lavish opulence of the characters. Instead, Davies decided on a more literal adaptation with long dialogue scenes, masterful use of silence and natural sounds and minimal motion from both the actors and the camera. Of course, a major factor in the film’s austere production values may have more to do with its modest budget rather than any deliberate stylistic choice by Davies.

Being in virtually every frame, Gillian Anderson, gives a wonderful performance as a young socialite, Lily Bart, whose overwhelming desire to be socially accepted by her wealthy peers and the social pressures of being a woman in early 1900s in New York leads to her spiritual and physical descent. Despite any preconceptions of Anderson’s real-life prima donna façade, her performance here commands respect and she should be aptly rewarded with an Oscar nomination. Any subconscious reminder of her X-Files persona is immediately thwarted as soon as she appears from a billow of steam at a railway station as if walking straight out of Edith Wharton’s novel without as much as a hint or trace of either Scully or Mulder.

In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)

While this film did not officially screen as part of the film markets, I managed to see it at a screening in London since it was released during my stay there. In The Mood For Love is a beautifully realized film by Wong Kar-Wai about a man and a woman who are neighbours but become friends due to their respective spouses constantly being away on business. The couple then realize their spouses are having an affair with each other. In yet another great film about repressed emotions and unrealized love, Wong Kar-Wai uses a great deal of expressionism in conveying the couple’s intense love for each other and their frustration at not being able to consummate their passion. Kar-Wai resorts to slow motion, burning the screen with a red hue and ingeniously using ’50s style ballads from classic crooners such as Nat King Cole. Most of the film is shot in the couple’s cramped apartments but the effect is never stifling or boring due to Kar-Wai’s ingenious use of space, time and colour that invigorates and consumes the screen.

Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)

The 180 minute running time of this leisurely-paced film is demanding on the viewer but for those willing to stick with it they are rewarded with a film of stunning originality, complexity and beauty. Edward Yang effortlessly explores the lives of various people within a Taipei family with such clarity and honesty as it deals with complex themes of human intervention, fate and second chances in life. One of the film’s many colourful characters is a camera-yielding boy who photographs the back of people’s heads and whose simple philosophy of life reflects the maturity of an adult much to the frustration of his parents. Yang’s subtle direction and ingenious compositions of scenes enhances the emotional power of the film as he shoots most of the film through windows and mirrors reflecting the urban isolation and duality of his complex characters.