U.S. market offers film to achieve world visibility

NEW YORK — It’s the holy grail for Euro producers, directors and sales companies.

A U.S. distribution deal can mean a potential cash bonanza, access to the largest film-going market in the world, and, quite simply, prestige.

When Germany’s “Nowhere in Africa” began its successful U.S. run and won an Oscar for foreign-language film, a dwindling theatrical release back in Germany received a shot of adrenaline, leaping a whopping 1,217% in box office revenue after the award, and garnering an additional $2.3 million and 29 weeks of release.

“The U.S. market is extremely important, because it offers the best route for a film to achieve visibility in the rest of the world,” says Renate Rose, managing director of marketing org European Film Promotion. “But certainly it is not an easy market, with 13 distribution companies controlling more than 96% of the screens.”

Indeed, last year, the market share for European productions in the United States fell to around 4.6%, down from a banner year in 2001 (5.7%), according to the European Audiovisual Observatory. However, the numbers are skewed by the presence of U.S. co-producers. In 2002, for example, only three of the 10 top European films were solely Euro-financed and only two, “Amelie” and “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” were not in English. This year, box office for foreign-lingo Euro-fare is especially dismal.

However, there is a brighter side. British productions “28 Days Later” ($45 million) and “Bend it Like Beckham” ($32.5 million) prove that Fox Searchlight’s “Fully Monty” days were no fluke. And with boffo U.S. returns for those pics, U.K. filmmakers Danny Boyle and Gurinda Chadha, respectively, are hot properties, with Boyle’s “Millions” having stirred up bidding wars at MIFED and Chadha’s “Bride and Prejudice” already nabbed by Miramax.

According to U.S. distribs, acquisitions are up, with several companies vying for as many films as ever. Even small pics like France’s “Since Otar Left,” acquired by Zeitgeist, and Denmark’s “The Green Butchers,” acquired by Newmarket, generated competition among U.S. indie companies at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival. This past (and perhaps last) MIFED also showed promising word-of-mouth on a handful of Euro-productions, including Pathe pics “Enduring Love” and “Dear Frankie,” and Bavaria’s “The Miracle of Bern.”

While sales agents confess U.S. buyers are sometimes late to come onboard a project, when they do, it can give “a huge added push” to additional foreign sales, says Capitol Films’ Jane Barclay, “especially if it’s a high profile distributor who can really signal the potential of a film.” Barclay cites Miramax’s acquisition of “I’m Not Scared” at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival. “That was a very clear indicator,” she says, particularly because it was Miramax, “who were so aggressive in their acquisition of an Italian language picture whilst launching their own big budget pics at Berlin,” she adds.

“There are a lot of good European movies and very interesting filmmakers,” says Miramax’s acquisitions topper Agnes Mentre, who admits the company pushed hard for the acquisition of “I’m Not Scared, “even though it’s in a foreign language,” she says. “We’re not worried about that anymore, which is a huge difference from before.”

But Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard claims, “European films are not as sought after as they were in the past. Seven years ago, a guy like Alain Vannier at Roissy Films could make a phone call and say we’re unveiling our new picture, and every distributor would fly there and watch it, but that’s not happening anymore.”

Bernard blames both a specialized distribution model geared towards one-hit wonders (“They’re not looking for singles or doubles; they’re looking for one home run, like a studio mentality”) as well as larger European companies simply looking to feed their machines. “The generation of ’80s and ’90s sales agents were small shops that represented a handful of directors and producers,” explains Bernard. “Now what you’ve got are conglomerates like UGC and Canal Plus, which handle a huge slate of pictures, so it’s more like a supermarket, and it’s not about nurturing the product.”

Still, Palm Pictures’ head of distribution Ryan Werner — who has been at the forefront of a number of risky Euro-acquisitions (Michael Haneke’s “Time of the Wolf,” Christopher Boe’s “Reconstruction” and Dagur Kari’s “Noi Albino”) — notes that smaller, more-auteur driven outfits like Celluloid Dreams, Fortissimo Film Sales and Wild Bunch have a knack for knowing their product well and placing it with the appropriate U.S. companies. “The European sales agents really want to get their films out in the U.S.” he says. “They know a release helps the next film by that director.”

On the other side of the pond, Flach Pyramide’s Eric Lagesse says that there are just as many “young, energetic, small U.S. distributors you can sell films to if the big independent companies pass,” he notes, such as Palm, Zeitgeist, and Strand.

Adds Miramax’s Mentre, “Before sales agents wouldn’t focus on the U.S unless they got their asking price. Now there are so many smaller distribs that do a very good job, so there is room for smaller films. And if the movie works,” adds Mentre, “you can make a lot of money.”

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