Inside the Release: How ‘Drive My Car’ Sped Into U.K. and Ireland Cinemas

DRIVE MY CAR, (aka DORAIBU MAI KA), Hidetoshi Nishijima, 2021. © Janus Films / courtesy Everett Collection
Courtesy Everett Collection

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Haruki Murakami adaptation “Drive My Car” has been a red hot awards season favorite ever since it debuted at Cannes and won three top prizes there. The film, besides collecting a clutch of awards around the world, is up for four Oscars and three BAFTAs. Eve Gabereau, a stalwart of the U.K./Ireland independent distribution scene, who co-founded and ran leading distribution company Soda Pictures for 15 years and founded Modern Films, shares the film’s journey with Variety.

I first saw “Drive My Car” in competition at Cannes in July 2021. I knew about it beforehand because I have worked closely with the sales agency The Match Factory over the years and follow all their films. I am also a Japanophile and an avid Murakami fan so this seemed a natural fit for Modern Films, even before I saw it. Even so, I was totally blown away by it and overwhelmed with emotion throughout and beyond. With some negotiation, we came to an agreement on a deal for all rights in the U.K. and Ireland.

The premiere was a sunny Sunday matinee at the Palais. The atmosphere was electric. The cast and key creatives were there: writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the three actresses Toko Miura, Reika Kirishima and Sonia Yuan, and producer Terahisu Yamamoto. Opening with the usual Carnaval des Animaux “Aquarium” music over floating red and glass steps and ending with an extended standing ovation, it was still light out afterwards and the crew had much work to do after the screening: press, reception, dinner, etc.

There was a life-changing road ahead in terms of adoration, admiration and adornment for the film and filmmakers. It placed first in the critics’ top picks of the festival, was hotly tipped for the Palme d’Or and went on to win the Fipresci and Best Screenplay awards. Released in France soon after on Aug. 18, it had a very successful theatrical run with 200,000 admissions nationwide.

To date “Drive My Car” for the U.K. was a question of timing, as always, except with a few additional factors to weigh in: Namely around continuing COVID restrictions at the time and changing audience viewing habits. We couldn’t have predicted omicron but we assumed there would be something. As for audiences and going to the cinema, we also assumed there would be hesitation in general — particularly around a three-hour, non-English language film. It would be up to us — and the campaign — to try to turn that around in our favor.

And thirdly, could we look to “Parasite,” which waited it out in the U.K. until February 2020, to ride the box office wave of awards season? Could we look to “Another Round” as a post-pandemic model, of a film that had its release postponed many times and landed on a date well after its awards success at the BAFTAs and Oscars? Or, do we think of this film in its own time and space?

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“Drive My Car” keychains were part of the marketing drive by Modern Films. Modern Films

Ultimately, we landed on thinking about what was right for the film and for us, and we teamed up with the U.S. for the release dates, campaigns and awards drives. It paid off in terms of exposure, visibility and acclaim. As the New York Times said: The film “takes your heart for a spin,” and it’s something critics and audiences responded to, and keep on responding to. It’s still playing in cinemas across the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Ireland — 15 weeks off-date! — and we think it will keep playing theatrically up until the end of March.

In terms of the campaign itself, we focused on three key points: 1) the awards and acclaim, 2) the Murakami adaptation and 3) the poignancy of the story, the relationship, love, loss and its deep-rooted look into the human psyche. We spread these messaging themes across press, marketing and exhibition.

For the press — including features and reviews in print, on radio and TV, online and podcasts — we worked with the agencies DDA and Margaret PR. DDA managed the topline features and reviews and events with talent participation, from the London Film Festival to Front Row, to a Vogue photoshoot. As we now know, it garnered rave reviews from all major publications, including five stars in The Guardian and The Telegraph and many Film of the Week stamps.

Margaret PR worked on a more granular level on grassroots marketing, promotional tie-ins and strategic partnerships, including Vintage/Penguin Books, the Japan National Tourist Office and the Damian Barr Literary Salon.

In house, we put together a full marketing campaign, in print advertising, social, outdoor and merchandise: media partnership with Little White Lies, younger audience promotions with Massive, 12-sheets in the London Underground (many of which are still up), a Picturehouse Central staircase takeover, Japan Centre screen displays in Piccadilly Circus and DIY food kit giveaways, multiple competitions, regional cinema outreach through their membership bases and communication channels, bright red keychains to highlight the Saab 900 Turbo, bespoke tote bags, and branded t-shirts for participating staff and prizes.

We also linked interest groups and underrepresented voices to the campaign, with book club group screenings to compare the short story turned three-hour film of a major literary giant by a rising film auteur, and we created Audio Description and Subtitled for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing access materials for all bookings.

On an exhibition level, we launched at the BFI London Film Festival as a Special Presentation, then went to eight venues nationwide as part of the LFF on Tour, and also screened at the Leeds, Brighton, Inverness and Cambridge Film Festivals in October and November, as well as a quintet of Irish sites for their Light House-led Japanese Film Festival.

We also programmed a number of sold-out previews including Picturehouse Fulham Road, Picturehouse Finsbury Park and BFI Southbank. As part of the campaign, we had two trailers, the main international version that we localized with U.K. details, and an alternative one that we adapted from the U.S., care of Janus Films, Criterion and Sideshow. Together, they have had 1.2 million views on YouTube.

“Drive My Car” opened in the U.K. and Ireland on Nov. 19 and in the U.S. and Canada one week later on Nov. 24. Due to quarantine rules in Japan, we were not able to bring Hamaguchi to the U.K. for a junket, but he did all the work he could from afar, by email or on Zoom, delivering pre-recorded messages for festivals, cinemas and social media.

We were also able to tap into some interviews and in-conversation events he did at the New York Film Festival, in Busan with Bong Joon Ho and in Tokyo with Isabelle Huppert, as well as some for the U.K. market for BAFTA and with Christopher Hampton (“The Father”), winner of the BAFTA and Oscar Best Adapted Screenplay awards in 2021.

We started on 27 sites, with the widest point of release at 50 screens. “Drive My Car” has so far played at over 100 sites in the U.K./Ireland, 245 sites in the U.S. and 70 in Canada. Now, as we approach 15 weeks on release, it is still playing widely — 25 sites weekly in the U.K./Ireland (with some new starts in key Curzon and Everyman cinemas) and 50-plus in North America.

The film’s combined gross box office in the U.K., Ireland, U.S. and Canada has now reached $2 million.

We played the film for a 31-day window, then opened it up on concurrent virtual cinema channels, including 17 Modern Films cinema partners who had also booked the film physically, eight third-party partners including Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player and other “at home” sites, and five cultural partners who supported the film on release, including Bookshop.org. Overall, there were a total of 30 additional ways to watch the film and support local box office activity and revenues. For first SVOD streaming, it will play on MUBI in the UK/Eire and on HBO Max in the U.S.

“Drive My Car” topped the IndieWire Critics Poll and the Screen Jury Grid at Cannes, and it was featured in most Best Films of 2021 lists, including Guy Lodge’s following his Variety review calling it “superb [and] an aching emotional epic,” and notably as one of Barack Obama’s favorite movies of the year. That actually made me cry.

It has made history with so many nominations and wins, starting with Cannes and straight through to the Golden Globes, Gotham Independent Film Awards, Asia Pacific Screen Awards, National Film Critics, Critics Circle Awards New York, Los Angeles and London, plus Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Toronto and Washington, among others. There have also been nominations for a Cesar, Independent Spirit Award, nine Japanese Academy Awards, three BAFTAs and four Oscars, including Best Picture — a first for a Japanese film. Let’s see what the next month brings.

Of all the hundreds of films I have acquired and released over the last 20 years, this has been my favorite and the one I am most humbled to have been a part of. Not only because of the film itself, but because of the dedication of the team and the warmth of the audience.

Minna san arigato gozaimashita.

Variety’sInside the Release” lifts the curtain on successful international film releases, with the key architects of a movie’s distribution detailing the strategy, campaign and execution that went into making their film generate buzz and land at the box office.