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Boutique Distributor Manuel Chiche Offers a State of the Industry

LYON, France  — Manuel Chiche is riding high. Since June, his boutique distribution outlet The Jokers set admission records with Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” selling nearly 1.7 million tickets in France and still going strong as the film heads into its 19th week in theaters. Indeed, “Parasite” is now the second most successful Palme d’Or winner of the 21st century at the French box office – but don’t expect Chiche or any of his outfits to scale up as a result.

“We want to remains as artisans, in a business that doesn’t always allow for that,” says the French exec, who also runs reissue outfit La Rabbia. On the occasion of this year’s Lumière Festival, Variety sat down with Chiche for a kind state of the industry on the French reissue landscape.

Is there a particular time of year most amenable to reissues?

In France, it’s always in the summer. There are few releases other than big blockbusters, so people use that period to revisit old classics. Something like 60% of the year’s heritage releases come out within a period of three months – which can make for a crowded marketplace. You have to harmonize your release schedule with heritage distributors, and you have to build excitement around the film. It can be a lot of work for relatively little reward, but what can you do, it’s what we love.

In 2017, your company put out a new restoration of Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder” just a few months after his film “Okja” bowed in competition at Cannes. Was the idea to build on buzz, and does that point towards an effective model in the current marketplace? 

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I think so, yes. [With “Memories of Murder,”] the idea was to bring the film to a public that was too young to discover it upon initial release. Since 2003, Bong has become much better known among the younger public, so we were quite happy with the result of that re-release [which sold around 20,000 tickets].

We tried that strategy again with Park Chan-wook’s “Joint Security Area” [the following year], and that did very well too. That film never had an original release in France, so the filmgoers were delighted to discover the film on the big screen. Really, all models are possible so long as you can make the release something of an event. Today, repertory film’s biggest challenge is the fact that there are an overwhelming number of choices competing for the viewer’s time and attention. If you don’t make your release an event, you’ll flop.

And yet, you’ve expressed wariness regarding big title reissues.

I’m not crazy about what you could call ‘sure bets,’ retrospectives of the most famous directors and their best-known films. I’m more interested in promoting forgotten directors, or those who have fallen out of fashion. Of course, people will always respond to whatever films get the biggest publicity push, to whatever film becomes a must-see event, which is why I think the cornucopia of choices available has had an adverse effect on the public’s curiosity. Today, people are less likely to seek things out, and more likely to respond to what cuts through the noise. So it’s interesting challenge to try release titles that are a bit different.

And does that affect how La Rabbia puts together its slate?

That’s why I prefer to take more time to release fewer films. Putting things together takes time, and I like to give that to myself. We’re in a time of hyper-consumption and hyper-stimulation, and I thought, why not go the other direction, and see what that gives. Where everyone says more, I say less.

That’s what we try to do with The Jokers and with La Rabbia. We’re a team of four, so we can’t realistically put out twenty films year anyway, but we want to offer a lot of time and effort towards everything we put out.

How has the landscape evolved in recent years?

Older viewers, like people my own age, will often show up without much prompting. On the other hand, you have to reach out to younger viewers on social media and bring them in. [To do that,] you have to help them discover contemporary classics; films that are recent and modern, but that are already ten years old, so have become “heritage cinema.”

The notion of what is a “heritage film” has really changed in recent years. Is it something from 30-40 years ago, or can it be something that came out in the early 2000s?

Today I think you can succeed with modern classics. Take “Donnie Darko,” for example. Carlotta Films re-released it last year, and did very well with title, bringing it to a public that did not see it in 2002. Plus, series like “Stranger Things” have led to a revival in all things ‘80s and genre, so those titles are doing very well too.

What does La Rabbia’s slate look like for the near future?

This year we’re just doing one release: Lee Tamahori’s 1994 film “Once Were Warriors.” It’s a very rough film that stands in stark contrast to the very antiseptic cinema of today. The movie really goes for it, exploring tough subjects like domestic violence in very direct way. That’s still a hot button issue in France, so we’ll see how it does.

Next year we have one lined up as well: Shohei Imamura’s 1989 film “Black Rain.” That deals with atomic fears and consequences, and that’s still very relevant, plus it’s my favorite of his films. We re-released his [1983 Palme d’Or winner] “The Ballad of Narayama” last year, and it went very well, but that was already a well-known film. Releasing “Black Rain” will be complicated, and maybe more interesting too.

You’ve also worked with Nicolas Winding Refn to develop his own streaming site ‘byNWR.’ What was the idea behind that micro-platform?

Nic is a passionate cinephile. He has a real vision not only about how films get made, but also how they get distributed and how they might go into the world in the future. We worked together on the original byNWR.com platform and its subsequent iterations because we both believe that labels/brands can be just as powerful in the distribution landscape as they are in the fashion world.

Already such an established director  — and one who attracts both supporters and detractors in equal measure, which I think is fantastic – Nic wants to align a community around his name, his interests and his vision of the history of cinema. It’s the world of culture filtered through his personal vision, in so many words. That could also mean books, live events, or shorts from directors we believe in.

His brand is clear enough that it can encompass all that – and to a lesser degree that’s also true for us at The Jokers/La Rabbia. We’ve also developed a brand, and worked to position in within the public eye. It’s all about defining your set of beliefs, and then finding the public that shares them.

One last question – it seems Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter” is always playing somewhere in Paris. What makes that film such a powerhouse repertory item?

It’s a film about the fears of childhood. We’ve all felt those fears at one point. It’s a fairy tale that is, for me, perfectly made entirely, for all of its imperfections. There’s something magic about the film, it somehow sends you back to your childhood every time see it. That’s why it’s eternal.  As to why it’s always playing in Paris? Well, the film is part of the national educational curriculum for either middle school or high school. So I think that a lot of teachers take their classes to see it every single year – which I think they enjoy, because it’s a black and white fairy tale we all grew up with.

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