PARIS — Like the fragile bonsai trees that have grown so popular here, many Asian films require a softly, softly approach if they are to flourish. Few Western distribs have been as successful at the art of releasing Asian films as independent French distributors.
A case in point is James Velaise, managing director of Pretty Pictures, who recently acquired French distribution rights to the Chinese pic “The Sun Also Rises,” a film of overlapping stories starring and directed by Jiang Wen, often dubbed the Chinese Brando.
“The idea is to get the film seen in festivals: by exhibitors, by press; then slowly momentum will build,” Velaise says. “We still haven’t set a release date yet. It will probably be late summer or early autumn. By the time it’s released, hopefully some people will be looking forward to seeing it.”
For distributors like Velaise, releasing Asian films in France has become something akin to “a labor of love,” per Velaise. For every “Oldboy” (Park Chan-wook) or “Drunk on Women and Poetry” (Im Kwon-taek) that sells more than 150,000 tickets, there are several Asian pics that do hardly any business at all.
“We probably lose money on seven out of 10 Asian films,” Velaise says. “The three films that do make money perhaps leave us with a little plus at the end.”
Film festivals are most often the place where French distributors can be found shopping for their pics. “The Asian film festivals are often the place to find a rare pearl,” says Manuel Chiche, managing director of Wild Side Films. Others, like Pierre Rissient, who as a distributor and publicist during the 1960s and ’70s began introducing French audiences to modern Asian cinema with pics like King Hu’s “A Touch of Zen,” believes that there’s no substitute for Cannes.
“Without Cannes, there would have been a lot less French focus on Asian filmmakers,” Rissient says. “Two years ago, ‘Be With Me,’ a film by the Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo, opened (Directors’ Fortnight) and was a huge critical success. It was subsequently sold to about 30 countries. That’s the first time anything like that has happened to a film from Singapore.”
Rissient, who tips Khoo’s new pic “My Magic” to have a similar impact, believes France is still the country where Asian films stand the greatest chance in Europe. “At heart, many French distributors, journalists and festival organizers are cinephiles,” he says. “They like discovering and then sharing something a bit different.”
The difficulty for distributors is trying to get their Asian pics noticed in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
“There are 12 to 15 new films released every week in France. So we’re more and more careful these days about only wanting to distribute new films with an inbuilt marketing hook,” Velaise says. “That marketing hook can be either a known director, known actors, a topical subject matter or a very important prize at a big festival.”
Velaise created headlines earlier this year when he became the first distributor in the West to secure the release of North Korean pic “The Schoolgirl’s Diary,” directed by Jang In-hak. While the pic didn’t do great business in France, Velaise’s coup substantially raised his company’s profile.
Other distributors like Chiche believe the best way to grow business is by putting somebody on the ground: “For the last two years, we’ve had an employee in Hong Kong, Veronique Dan, who does a lot of scouting for us all over Asia.”
Indeed, the search for the next big thing is an all-consuming one for connoisseurs of Asian cinema.
It’s something Rissient expresses as well as anyone: “The first time an Asian film gets described as exceptional, then it’s an event; by about the 25th time, it better be something really special for it still to be an event.”