New niche diggers target foreign fare

Indie films aim for cross-culture consumers

As the film industry recovers from its financial crisis, so does a breed of indies that struggled even during the boom years: foreign-language film distributors. Veterans are resurfacing and new ventures are taking the biggest gambles, all hoping they can reverse a decades-long decline of foreign films’ box office take in the U.S. while challenging established distribs with fuller pockets and stronger ancillary muscle.

The newcomers are betting that underserved audiences (from Latinos and Chinese-Americans to gaming fanboys) will seek out foreign-language titles in greater numbers, while established distribs with large libraries return seeking a piece of the indie box office rebound.

Indomina Releasing is among a group of newcomers that includes Pantelion Films, Cohen Media Group and China Lion. Founded by Jasbinder Singh Mann in 2008, Indomina has quietly purchased 11 genre features from various countries, most of them non-English language.

“Our core audience is the cross-culture, ‘trans-media’ consumer interested in fashion, gaming, music, social media and everything from an Asian action film to a Gus Van Sant-style teen drama that’s visually innovative,” says Mann.

About half of Indomina’s annual slate will be foreign-language features, including five to six theatrical releases plus four to five ancillary-only titles. Its first release, slated for May, is the Chinese-language martial arts actioner “True Legend.”

The online marketing push includes fanboys blogging with talent and designing a promotion, all indicative of consumer collaboration Mann hopes will shape the company’s direction. Indomina plans to release some of its theatrical films day-and-date on VOD, and Mann says there have been talks with Asian partners to fight piracy through simultaneous worldwide theatrical releases.

Other distributors are partnering with exhibitors — and across borders — for foreign-language fare. Lionsgate and Mexico’s Televisa will release eight to 10 commercial theatrical titles a year (around half in Spanish) under their shingle Pantelion Films. AMC Entertainment will provide non-exclusive support.

“They said ‘We recognize we need to serve our communities, so we’d like to dedicate some screens (to the Latino audience), but we’re looking to you guys to make sure we’ve got the flow of product,’ ” says Pantelion chairman Jim McNamara.

His first release was last month’s English-language romantic comedy “From Prada to Nada,” which has earned $2.6 million to date. In October, AMC also launched an exclusive partnership with China Lion Film Distribution to release up to 15 Chinese-language films a year, scoring a small $430,000 hit with its third film, “If You Are the One 2.” 

Real estate magnate Charles S. Cohen’s new outfit Cohen Media Group hopes to release five to six of its productions and acquisitions a year, about half of them foreign language, spending in the low-to mid-six figures on acquisitions.

CMG rolled the dice on its debut, the Algerian drama “Outside the Law,” by booking a month at New York’s Paris Theater and other venues, and opened to healthy B.O.

These new ventures arrive amid some serious competition, like juggernaut Sony Pictures Classics, day-and-date distribs IFC Films and Magnolia Pictures, which have sister cable channels (and, in Magnolia’s case, a sister theater chain) and VOD sales, and veterans like Cinema Guild, Kino Lorber, First Run and Strand, plus successful micro-distribs like Variance and Argot.

There’s also competition from relatively experienced upstarts such as Maya Entertainment, Film Movement, Oscilloscope, NeoClassics, Elephant Eye and Music Box. 

But Maya may be tacking in a different direction in order to court auds. It has reduced its non-English films from 70% to 30% since launching in 2007. While chairmen Moctesuma Esparza and Jeff Valdez say it’s to focus on second- and third-generation Latinos, that shift is mirrored by several indies reducing their foreign-language film acquisitions. The studio is also launching Maya at the Movies, a VOD channel.

A few battle-scarred vets are returning. Soumya Sriraman became CEO of Palisades Tartan North America and U.K. last spring after Palisades acquired the financially troubled Tartan. After a hiatus in 2010, they now plan six foreign-language theatrical releases among 18 ancillary and theatrical domestic titles a year.

Another company many are happy to see resurrected is 46-year-old New Yorker Films, which was placed with Technicolor after a 2009 loan default but brought back to life by Aladdin Distribution last year. The distrib is reviving its mostly foreign-language arthouse slate with more award-winning acquisitions and a new genre label, Metro.

Homevideo foreign-language distrib Olive Films dipped its toe into theatrical a handful of times over the past decade before launching a series of nine theatrical releases beginning in 2010. Though only a few have broken the five-figure mark, prexy Farhad Arshad says theatrical’s publicity and reviews have become “almost a necessity” to bolster ancillary revenue.

“The theatrical marketplace was too crowded before because of the easy availability of finance, so now seemed like the right time to enter it,” says Arshad. “It’s still an unpredictable situation.”

Sriraman is one of several execs to point out new challenges with ancillary and exhibitors.

“It was very eye-opening for me when, as we were negotiating for holdovers, the rollout pattern or marketing support in return for screens, every theater would say, ‘You need to spend everything you can because (the theater is) a loss leader anyway — you’re going to make all your money on DVD,’ ” she recalls. “We’ve been successful in telling them ‘Where is the ancillary market? Help me with these films.’ ”

She points out that Blockbuster isn’t buying 2,000 to 4,000 copies of each film anymore, and low-paying kiosks such as Redbox don’t even have a foreign film section.

While most distribs are similarly cautious, Music Box founder William Schopf boasts of spending “big MGs” and says, “Right now, we’re known as the distributor that is willing to spend the most time and money on a foreign film,” an assertion some other studios would likely challenge.

He has at least 10 releases planned this year — almost all non-English — and hopes to acquire foreign-language television for ancillary distribution.

“We’ve been working in the vacuum created by negativism, and we’ve had a lot of success,” he says.

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