LOCARNO, Switzerland — Brit Richard Billingham’s “Ray & Liz,” “A Family Tour,” from Chinese exile Ying Liang, Chilean Dominga Sotomayor’s “Too Late to Die Young” made some of the very early running in main competition at the 71st Locarno Festival, which saw a slew of negotiations kick off, and some deals go down, at its packed Industry Days which wrapped Monday.
The films world premiered at Europe’s biggest mid-summer film meet as Meg Ryan, Antoine Fuqua, Ethan Hawke and France’s Bruno Dumont rolled into town. Ryan talked of her new career as a director, producer, announcing a new project, half-hour comedy “The Obsolescents”: Fuqua, at Locarno for “The Equaliser 2,” talked intelligently about how to empower black filmmakers in Hollywood; Hawke, here to present “Blaze,” will receive the 2018 Excellence Award; Dumont, world premiering feature/series “Coincoin and the Extra Humans,” maybe the best received of Piazza Grande offerings to date, announced production and details of his newest movie, “Jeanne.”
“Ray & Liz,” an excruciating and desperate look-back to growing up in Thatcherite Britain, was reckoned “one of my favorite films of the year” by Variety’s Guy Lodge. Liang’s first film in five years, turning on the sense of displacement of mainland filmmaker living in Hong Kong, was judged by Variety’s Jay Weissberg his “most highly polished film to date,” Sotomayor’s “Too Late to Die Young,” set in a rural artists’ community in 1990 Chile, sees the director “back in form” of her debut “Thursday Through Sunday.”
It may or may not be coincidence that all three of these features, as well as other early Locarno titles which had fans – Philippe Lesage’s “Genesis,” reckoned a more commercial proposition than his 2015 critic-dazzling “The Demons”; Yona Rozenkier’s “The Dive,” which shared top honors at last week’s Jerusalem Film Festival – are all semi-autobiographical, as if, in such a confusing zeitgeist, the one verity which filmmakers can draw in with authenticity and sense of truth, is their personal experience.
Business at this year’s Locarno meanwhile cut at least three ways. First, Variety reported a near-dozen sales agents pickups in the run-up to Locarno this year, far more than at any time in the past five years.
Sales agents acquiring titles took in many of the world’s leading arthouse specialists: Luxbox (“Ray & Liz,” “Suburban Birds”), Stray Dogs (“Too Late to Die Young”), Be For Films (“With the Wind”), FiGa Films (“Temporada”), The Match Factory (“Wintermarchen”), Beta Cinema (“What Doesn’t Kill Us”), Films Boutique (“All Good”), Visit Films (“Diane,” “A Family Submerged,” “A Land Imagined”), Patra Spanou (“Trot”) and Intramovies (“Mennochio”).
More deals went down at Locarno:
*Italy-based The Open Reel acquired international rights to Vicente Alves do O’s “Sunburn,” presented at Locarno’s First Look pix-in-post showcase. Open Reel has a strong line in arthouse/LGBT movies, distributed Alves do O’s “Al Berto,” sales agent. Chronicling four friend’s weekend at a luxury rural chalet, “Sunburn” appreciates their toned buff bodies, records the emotional damage wreaked on them by David, a mutual friend and homme fatal who has had an affair with all of them.
*Likewise closed at Locarno, Germany’s Patra Spanou inked international sales on Emiliano Cunha’s “Lane 4,” about a 12-year-old swimming fanatic, produced by Brazil’s Ausgang, said Ausgang founder Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro.
*In a previously reported deal, Luxbox announced international sales representation on Bruno Dumont’s “Jeanne,” his follow-up to “Jeanette,” another musical, with songs from French ‘80s singer-composer Christoph.
*Also announced, Brussels and Paris-based Be For Films, part of the Playtime group, swooped on “Midnight Runner,” a true-life based social exposé come crime thriller, set to world premiere in San Sebastian’s New Directors competition next month.
Some deals, such as The Open Reel’s on “Sunburn,” may have been made with one eye on festival bookings, a business now representing a substantial part of revenues for some companies.
But Locarno is also a sales proposition, “followed closely by the press, allowing you to build a film’s reputation, and you have most festival programmers from different territories,” adds Jean-Christophe Simon, at Films Boutique.
“Locarno have been a very good edition for us as the press and audience reacted strongly and very positively to both our films,” said Hédi Zardi, at Luxbox.
He added: ”We saw how Locarno can create a fantastic buzz that generates a strong interest from the industry. Distributors not attending Locarno follow at a distance and start a dialogue ASAP after they see great reactions. It’s a friendly and welcoming destination to launch a film.”
Building a film’s reputation has become essential as the number of movies made outside the U.S. has increased exponentially the last decade. European film production rose 49% from 1,422 feature films in 2007 to 2,123 in 2016, according to May’s Cannes Film Market Focus report. Locarno offers a chance to stand out in the crowd.
But business proved across the board at Locarno. Just three examples: Pyramide Intl. closed at Locarno Swiss distribution rights with Basel’s Cineworx on Piazza Grande player “Breath of Life,” starring Jeremy Renier as a medic powerless to prevent his own mother’s terminal decline; Estonia’s Alasti Kino and Poland’s Furia Film pacted to co-produce “Rain,” the feature debut of Estonian director Janno Jürgens, whose short film “Distance” premiered at the Locarno Festival in 2012.
At Locarno, Paris-based Wide Management signed two films, not selected for Locarno, but on its sales slate – Jamie Jones’ “Obey” and Rene Eller’s “We” – with Films Buro for Spain. “An unflinching portrait of youth gone adrift,” said Wide’s Danya Hannah, “We” has now sold the U.K., U.S., Australia, South Korea, Poland, Taiwan, Japan and Germany.
Licensed to the U.S, HBO Europe, China and France, “Obey,” a tragic love story set during the 2011 London riots, is now finalizing sales ideals to the U.K., Australia and Taiwan, Hannah added.
In a Q & A with Variety, Jerôme Paillard, head of the Cannes Film Market, recognized that it’s the traditional theatrical arthouse sales business that has been especially hard hit by the rise of OTT platforms.
Non mainstream sales agents from Wild Bunch downwards – its head of international sales, Eva Diederix attended Locarno – have to work much, much harder just to achieve the same results. Attending Locarno, frequented by European distributors who can still look to Media Program and often national subsidies to buy European movies, is part of gong that extra mile.
There’s a larger factor at work as well. “Producers already have a new role; that of curating content and projects to meet specific audiences,” Eurimages project manager Susan Newman-Baudais noted at Locarno StepIn think tank discussions, presenting the conclusions of the round-table on A New Era For Film Producers.
Under and before Carlo Chatrian, Locarno has carved out a market nice for more out there art films, often bordering experimental or art exhibition realms.
“I am proud of the industry work that we have carried out with Nadia Dresti and her team. When we premiere a successful film on the Piazza Grande or in International Competition, such as last year, ‘Good Manners,’ it can go on to be released in major territories.”
He added: “Also, we’re opening up new ways of distributing independent films. There’s an increasing interest, especially among U.S. distributors, to go for edgier titles. The market’s undergoing significant change. Sometimes an edgier film now has more chances than an average one.”
Attending Locarno is, for some sales agents and distributors, increasingly a voyage of discovery, a search for new, often young and slightly more often female talent in a vertiginously changing movie world where such creators are likely to have a larger say on its hits. Industry players need to follow the talent.
“I came to Locarno mostly to make new contacts and meet new producers for possible new co-productions,” said Raphael Berdugo, at Paris-based production-sales house Cité Films.
Two of the biggest industry news, however, came from Switzerland: The announcement of the new films by Ursula Meier, her English-language debut “Quiet Land,” and Lionel Baier, “South,” the flagship movie projects of new Swiss production house Bandita Films, a joint venture of Meier and Baier’s Bande à Part Films and “My Life as a Zucchini” producers Rita Productions; Bern and Zurich-based Contrast Film, producers of “Midnight Runner,” unveiled first details of “the biggest TV series ever produced by a Swiss production company,” in the words of producer Ivan Madeo.
Historically, Switzerland has packed a contradiction. Smaller than Portugal, with just 8.4 million inhabitants, whose GDP per capita doubles Germany, it is, after Europe’s big five and Turkey, the seventh biggest film producer by volume in Europe, making 118 features in 2017, more than Russia. Yet, historically, as a national cinema, it has struggled to make a large impact on Europe or be part of its film conversation. Scaling up in ambition, squarely targeting international markets, a young generation of directors and producers aim to change that, and are receiving some institutional backing to do so.