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Producer, writer and new Focus co-president James Schamus interviews Fortissimo Film Sales' Wouter Barendrecht on the role of independent film in a TV world.

Shortly before he took the reins at Universal’s new specialty distribution and production arm, Focus, James Schamus took time out from producing Ang Lee’s The Hulk to chat with Wouter Barendrecht, president of the Hong Kong—based Fortissimo Film Sales. Formerly the head of the Rotterdam CineMart, the red-headed and stylishly dressed Barendrecht has been a fixture at international festivals for years. Usually massaging worthy art films into competition lineups, he also, through Fortissimo, attempts to launch them into the often more treacherous waters of commercial theatrical and television distribution. And while Fortissimo is best known for selling Wong Kar-Wai’s films, the company has acted as a sales agent for such American indies as James Mangold’s Heavy and Jesse Peretz’s The Chateau, and as a co-financier of the recently lensed Macaulay Culkin—starrer Party Monster.


James Schamus: Wouter, you run one of the most interesting international sales and distribution companies. You have offices in Amsterdam and Hong Kong.

Wouter Barendrecht: And scouts in London, New York and Tokyo.

Schamus: You don’t distribute a lot of English-language movies with stars or ex-stars in them. Your slate is eclectic, from all over Europe and Asia.

Barendrecht: We have more English-language films than people sometimes realize.

Schamus: What percentage of your active sales slate is English-language?

Barendrecht: Ten-to-15 percent. That will grow, partly by market necessity, next year. Most sales agents, if they’ve been in the business for a while, naturally shift into executive producing because [they] are supposed to know what the market wants.

Schamus: Given the very small percentage of English-language features you actually represent, one big question which people from the States would have is, "How do you survive? Is yours a [viable] business?"

Barendrecht: The United States is not our main territory. We handle about 12 to 15 films a year. About 90 percent I can sell to Japan, and a lot of those films are major films for the Japanese territory. The weird thing about the Fortissimo lineup is that some of our films are very big in certain parts of the world and very small in others. [Wong Kar-Wai’s] In the Mood for Love, a Chinese-language film, did 1.2 million admissions in France alone – that’s a real commercial film!

Schamus: In dollars, that would equal a $7- to $8-million gross, which proportionally, if you were going to run numbers, as they say at a studio, would mean you would have a $40- to 60-million equivalent gross in the United States.

Barendrecht: Exactly. But then again, a film like that is smaller in the U.S. or South Africa. Some of the other Asian films that we handle, like Love Letter, a Japanese film directed by Shunji Iwai, does almost $2-million in admissions in Korea only. But I can’t sell it to anyone in Europe, except for airlines, because they find it too Asian.

Schamus: Let’s talk about the change in Europe. Ten years ago, in selling a film like Love Letter, you probably would have gone to the market or festival at Cannes or Venice or Berlin. In the U.K., there would have been five or six distributors who would all pay very careful attention to what the buyer at Channel Four was going to pay as a license for the movie. And for a high quality, really interesting but still difficult non-English-language arthouse film, that television license would have run anywhere from $25,000 to $150,000. And then magically, five small U.K. distributors would show up and offer you a minimum guarantee of more or less exactly what the Channel Four film buyer was offering you.

Barendrecht: True. And then the [theatrical] prints & advertising was their own risk.

Schamus: So they risk their own P&A money, and yet could get some kind of profit off of the theatrical release and by selling the video and the other rights. What is the situation like today?

Barendrecht: Let’s go back to the origin of television in Europe. Every country only had free television, which was basically paid for by the government. It’s only in the last ten to 15 years that free television has had competition in Europe from pay TV. [Previously,] tax money was being used to acquire all kinds of different films for, let’s say, German TV. One day you would see an artistic Turkish film on German TV and the next day a very commercial studio film from the States. Because there are around two million Turks in Germany, there was a democratic, logical necessity to sometimes broadcasting a Turkish film. But when pay TV came into the market, all those state-driven TV stations lost their direction –they all started to compete for the same Jean Claude Van Damme or Schwarzeneg-ger films. Nowadays, because the public broadcasters are competing nonstop with pay TV, only the ratings count. So nobody buys a Turkish film anymore, because even if you have two million Turks watching, ten million Germans will watch a Schwarzenegger film. That’s also the problem with Channel Four, that’s the problem with the BBC – it’s a pan-European problem. And it means that the theatrical distributors are more conservative because they have to count on their TV sale. In the future, we might sell films to Germany the same way we sell them to the U.S. – by never counting on a TV deal. Maybe if a film is successful in the States, you’ll have a TV sale to Bravo or the Sundance Channel or IFC, but it’s still not enough money to justify a big [theatrical] P&A. We might have to get used to a situation where we sell certain kinds of films for $10,000 to the German market because we can’t count on German TV income.

Schamus: It seems as if the model for survival for a company like yours is a regional one. That is to say, out of Asia specifically as an example, you have films that perform exceedingly well in two or three or four markets within a region. They get very small but dedicated releases, usually associated with high-profile festival exposure. And that seems, oddly enough, where American independent cinema is going too. Also, American independents are losing a lot of their edge internationally.

Barendrecht: A lot of people have been disappointed in the last five or six years compared to maybe 10 or 15 years ago when there was more general critical and artistic excitement about American independent films – early Jarmusches, so to speak, Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki. Maybe because people are more used to seeing American independent films, their demands or expectations have changed. But it is also true that the whole market worldwide is much more star-driven than before, and that is again a TV problem. It is much more difficult to sell a no-star film by a young American independent director to any TV station in the world than it was ten years ago. Channel Four is again a good example. They would buy a Poison or a Swoon 10 years ago. Would they buy it today? Probably not.

Schamus: And of course the same goes for ZDF and WDR in Germany, and for Scandinavian television, and so on...

Barendrecht: Everybody. I think if Poison was released today, Todd Haynes’s career would be much, much different – in a negative way, unfortunately.

Schamus: So, people reading between the lines here will understand that the international film business has been and perhaps unfortunately will always be essentially a television business.

Barendrecht: Yes. That’s our biggest frustration, because [television buyers] are our biggest enemy but we need and depend on them completely. We speak in different languages – they talk about product and minutes and we speak about cinema and film. And yet we are completely dependent on them in most of the territories. Also, on a more philosophical level, previously people who bought films for European TV were really passionate about cinema. They could differentiate an Antonioni from whomever. Nowadays, [buyers] have studied communications in the universities, and they don’t know anything about cinema. [You and I] sound like two retarded old guys, but it is really shocking sometimes when you speak to some of these TV people. They say, "Send me your product!" I don’t sell product, I sell movies!

Schamus: On the other hand, it may well mean that we’re just kidding ourselves that anything is still viable in "the cinema."

Barendrecht: What a lot of people in our industry have been saying for the last couple of years is true: that the only way of surviving is [by making] either very low-budget films or extremely big-budget films.

Schamus: This is interesting. Again, from the American perspective, what we’ve seen happen with the growth of the specialty-film divisions at the studios has been the rise of this "tweener" phenomenon. There are a lot of $10-, $20-, $30-million so-called "specialty" films that have stars who aren’t working for their full salaries but are still making a few measly million dollars to be in your movie. The economics of that [business] seems very, very tenuous at best, and yet the studio system still seems invested in these films for various reasons, among them, prestige and legitimacy.

Barendrecht: Every studio needs that prestige. A lot of actors need that prestige to show that they are not just a soap star, that they also are willing to do something more risky or more artistically intriguing. Every distributor in the world needs a sort of [prestige picture] between all the mediocre films they release every year. And that need allows, partly, our survival.

Schamus: Another marketplace change is that at international television markets you used to be able to sell [independent] films with stars that could be sold as "television product" but were fundamentally less expensive than what was being offered by the studios in their packages. That seems to be changing too with the fall of the Kirch television empire in Germany and the changes at Canal Plus in France, as examples.

Barendrecht: But don’t forget, of course, when a huge company like a Vivendi buys something like a Canal Plus, who have all kinds of more boutique operations, like their sales company Wild Bunch or [their production arm Studiocanal], there’s always somebody at the huge corporation who says, "Why are we doing this? Why sell a four-hour black-and-white Japanese film called Eureka?" It’s the same as when Northwest buys whatever airline in Germany and says, "Why are we flying between Stuttgart and Dresden if nobody is on that flight?" There’s always a big risk with these mergers.

Schamus: But on the other hand, all these gigantic studios have each invested very heavily in their so-called independent divisions over the past five to 10 years – from Paramount Classics to Fox Searchlight. So there do seem to be two opposing forces at work within these large empires. On the one hand, there’s the need for total rationalization, but on the other hand, the need for a kind of specialization and the exploitation of smaller opportunities.

Barendrecht: I would never remain in this business if I wasn’t optimistic. I do think that there will be new ways of getting our movies to people. There will be new sources of revenue. I mean, the U.K. all of a sudden is much more competitive this year than it was two years ago.

Schamus: Admissions are way up in the U.K.

Barendrecht: Exactly. All those Bollywood films turned out to be big, big successes commercially in the U.K. So all of a sudden people are willing to buy more foreign-language films. I think what is needed mostly for arthouse cinema worldwide is a political movement where taxpayers say to their government, "How come on state TV we only see trash Hollywood films?!" Everywhere you go in the world, there’s about 10 percent of people who do not want to see Hollywood films, who do not want to eat McDonald’s. Those 10 percent are our audience. Sometimes they grow into 20, 25, 30 percent but it’s that 10 percent of the intellectuals or the higher educated people, people who are not afraid of subtitles, who are the people that we really cater to.

Schamus: One of the things that’s very dizzying for American independents is the list of thousands of film festivals to which one can be invited. And of course, you tend to have to pay your own way there. The shipping, the subtitling – it can be very expensive. What is the difference between a good small film festival and one that’s not worth going to?

Barendrecht: I sincerely think there are far too many film festivals in the world. Many are either run by the local tourist authority or are being organized to boost the ego of the festival director. Any producer or director who has a film needs somebody who knows festivals, like a sales agent or a publicist. My advice to filmmakers is to go to Web sites, to catalogs from film festivals, and find out what kind of publicists, sales agents or production companies represent the same kinds of films as yours.

Very often American independent films are offered to us, and the filmmaker says, "Oh, my film showed at blah, blah, blah film festival in California or Florida. Would you take a look at it?" Nine times out of 10 we will say "no" because every sales agent wants to be involved before a film is launched. We want to control the image, the campaign and the positioning of a film – because as soon as a film is launched, as soon as there’s some kind of verdict, it’s almost impossible to change that verdict. Once your film is [deemed] too long, everybody in the film business [beleves] it is too long. Once your film sucks, it sucks, and it’s almost impossible to get buyers to see your film. If your film is two-hours-and-20 minutes long and then you recut it to 90 minutes, almost nobody will come and see it again. Your first launch is utterly crucial. And while it is very attractive to be invited to Sundance, Venice, Cannes or Berlin, sometimes you have to decide against that.

Every festival has a different image. In Sundance you are stressing the fact that you are an American independent, basically. In Cannes, you might be stressing the fact that you are very arty. In Berlin or Venice, you might also have a bit more commercial appeal. Every festival has a different political connotation and potential influence on the career of your film or on you as a filmmaker or producer.

A very good example is a film of ours called Shower, a Chinese film which was invited to Venice. And my intuition said we should not go to Venice because the European critics will not like the film. It’s too much of an audience feel-good film, and European critics can be very snotty. So I convinced the producer and director to go to Toronto instead, which is a much more audience-driven festival. We also didn’t allow Toronto to have an industry or press screening, so we forced the buyers and the critics to see the film with real people.

Schamus: So you are a salesman after all!

Barendrecht: Yes, of course!


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