THE COAT TAILS OF THE PENGUINS
In Europe, the domestic theatrical business is as perilous as it is in the States. After spending time with a number of foreign distributors while at the Cinemart in Rotterdam, I was struck by the topics of conversation: declining audiences, fewer young people going to the movies, the threat to conventional theatrical from DVD day-and-date, and worries over the impact of new distribution platforms, like first-run downloading of feature films direct to cell phones. (Apparently, this was tried with The Interpreter in Italy and theatrical bookers revolted, booting the film off a number of Italian screens during its first run in protest.) The conversations over here in Europe mirror the talks we are having in the States, and the question I was asked more than any other was, “How did Bubble work out?”
Another thing that became obvious is that, like the U.S., the specialty theatrical market needs an annual monster hit to keep itself afloat and cover all the red ink generated by money-losing releases. A few years ago, New Line gave a shot-in-the-arm to indie distributors by removing The Lord of the Rings trilogy from its output deals and doing pre-sales directly with independent distributors. Those who bid on the film got a three-picture windfall that lined their coffers and insured their fiscal health.
This year a similar thing happened with March of the Penguins. As in the States, the film was pretty much a gigantic hit everywhere, and distribs who bought the film from French sales agent the Wild Bunch are generally in stronger shape than much of their competition. But March of the Penguins offered something that few films can: the opportunity to retool the film to fit local tastes. It’s well known that in the States, Mark Gill and the team at WIP generated a “U.S. version” with new narration by Morgan Freeman. Around the world, some territories took the French version, some the U.S. (although I also heard a rumor that some territories were told they had to take the French version), and most accented their version with local stylings. For example, the Italian distributor hired a well-known local comic actor to do the French narration, including all the different voices, putting a naturally humorous spin on the more serious dialogue of the Gauls.