For two gweilos (Westerners) in the Asian film industry, Wouter Barendrecht and Michael J. Werner have come a very long way. But then Barendrecht has been known to describe himself as an egg: white on the outside and yellow in the middle.
Their Fortissimo Films is now the largest and most successful specialist sales house in the region and is courted by indies, studios and private equity funds alike.
Company was founded in Amsterdam in 1991 by Barendrecht and Helene Loveridge, who later left. Its operational seat soon shifted to Hong Kong, although it retains a major office in Amsterdam.
The arrival of Werner, who co-founded Summit Entertainment and is a consultant to 20th Century Fox in China, allowed Fortissimo to broaden into a global sales and production-finance operation.
Key to their success has been a commitment to good-quality arthouse cinema and a preference for sticking with directing talent. As such they have worked repeatedly with the likes of Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Wong Kar Wai, Tsai Ming-liang, Iwai Shunji and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
In the last few years the company’s Asian base has become proportionately smaller, but the number of Asian movies handled has scarcely dipped. Rather, the company has expanded through strong relations with the U.S. indie sector and into documentaries. Increasingly, the pair have found themselves partnering with Hollywood studios on the likes of “Reinas” with Warner in Spain and on Martin Scorsese on “Shine a Light” with Paramount.
More than most sellers in the region, Fortissimo has also emphasized the kinds of marketing skills that turn arthouse films into crossover titles. Despite the company’s often gimmicky press kits, it’s also painstaking with the details of festival strategies and unflinching when it comes to targeting the right buyers for films.